Uncursing the hex of a botched marketing campaign – the techno-condoms interview
I guess you have noticed by now how, as a sex educator, I definitely tend to favor uncommon (oh, ok… very uncommon) facets of sexuality as a topic for my posts over more mundane aspects. Sometimes however my interest is piqued by unassuming sex-related events – such as the recent launch of a new condom brand.
Learning about it didn’t exactly require much sleuthing: the news about sex toys giant Lelo entering a market dominated by even more giant brands like Durex on the sheer bet of an innovative product was all over the media. Which is not surprising, given that the lowly rubber didn’t really see a lot of innovation since the adoption of latex in the 1930s, replacing the lamb intestine sleeves mentioned in Greek allegories about birth control in the year 150 already.
These new condoms are all about technological progress all right, from their peculiar hexagon-textured surface to their crowdfunded launch campaign and the viral video showing a comparative puncture test. In fact, they tried especially hard to push the envelope on marketing too, with a series of decisions bordering on cheesy publicity stunts that drew very mixed results. While the mainstream media just swallowed and rehashed whatever was written on the official press releases unquestioningly as always, many sex experts were perplexed to say the least, if not downright incensed.
Some of them published their doubts, some preferred to joke about them in private for fear of angering a potential advertiser, but to my knowledge no-one did the obvious: ask the company the reasons behind its tone-deaf choices. I did, and below you can find the sometimes hilarious email exchange on the subject I had with Steve Thomson, chief marketing officer at Lelo. I am copying and pasting it whole and unedited both because I hated the hypocrisy of my colleagues who didn’t address the issues everyone talked about, and because the non-answers I received show a side of sex-related items production the customers are hardly ever exposed to – the way in certain contexts our most intimate and precious pleasures are seen as mere figures on a revenue spreadsheet, influencing the very shape of the toys and products that we share our bedrooms with.
Before we start it is just fair to clarify a couple of points. First, I see no particular evil in Lelo’s choices and behavior: they are legitimate company decisions in a capitalist environment, which are inherently no more graceful or inappropriate than the decisions made every day by their competitors; approving them or not is a matter of personal preferences. I sure would have appreciated a more reality-grounded approach in the answers to my questions (for example: considering that many other manufacturers have been introducing all sorts of innovations in the condom field, that of course every brand campaigns for fighting HIV through condom use or that the amount of research done by Lelo is the tiniest fraction of what their competition has been doing for decades), but as far as damage control goes they did the best they could.
Second, I did test drive the condoms in question and… they were ok. They didn’t feel especially different from other brands to me nor to one of my partners, while the other one reported she felt them «maybe a bit more stimulating». This is the classic case where your mileage may vary. By all means, give them a try if you stumble upon them, don’t expect any particularly technological fireworks show, and maybe let me know your impressions in the comments.
And now, on with the Q&A.
Q – Hex like in ‘hexagons’, I get it. Yet, ‘hex’ actually means ‘curse’ – which is not what people really expect from their condoms…
A – English is full of these little ambiguities. The primary (and only) meaning we sought with the name
HEX™ was in relation to hexagons, though there is something edgy and interesting about the potential double meaning. That appealed to us. It’s not a true pun and we’re not implying anything, but we welcome people having fun with the names of all LELO products. We have fun coming up with them, our customers should have fun with them too!
The limited breaking concept
Q – You pushed the way breakage remains confined to one hexagon as a selling point, but the way a regular condom shreds in case of structural failure is generally thought as preferable, for it allows to be aware of the damage and take countermeasures, while in your case the issue might go unnoticed. What is your stance about this?
A – In fact we don’t and haven’t ever claimed that damage is confined to a single hexagon, nor do we sell the product on that claim. In normal circumstances and with proper use, HEX™ condoms perform exactly as you might expect, perfectly in line with conventional condoms.
What the burst-test animation does is offer a visual representation of how HEX™ channels different stresses through its network of hexagonal cells. In our press release we say:
LELO HEX™ integrates 350 individual hexagons through its ultra-thin latex surface to help it perform differently from other condoms today.
Filip Sedic says: “There’s a reason why honeycombs are the shape they are, and why snake scales move the way they do. It’s because hexagons are strong, symmetrical, and tessellate perfectly. They’re one of nature’s go-to shapes for anything needing to be at once lightweight, and incredibly strong. That’s why the structure of Graphene – the thinnest, strongest material we know of today is … you guessed it, hexagonal.”
The LELO HEX™ design is unique in that it combines a 0.055mm hexagonal web with ultra-thin 0.045mm latex panels for thinness and strength combined. This allows HEX™ to flex and mold to the uniqueness of the wearer, while it channels unwanted stress through the structure itself.
Q – Many participants to your launch parties wrote that when they asked what ‘respect’ (as written on the base of the Hex) meant, the official answer was «respect the man who wears it» – which sounds pretty sexist or patriarchal at the least, and definitely oppressive. Can you elaborate?
A – In fact it was one journalist who reported that quote, and other writers simply re-quoted the journalist. So why does our condom say RESPECT? For LELO we interpret this as sex is about respect. Wearing a condom is a respectful thing to do, and respect begets respect.
Q – While using a HIV-positive testimonial may be a sensible media stunt, choosing someone who famously spent millions in order to cover up his status and who has been accused of being a pedophile and serial rapist looks very questionable. What was your reasoning behind choosing Charlie Sheen?
A – Charlie Sheen is certainly an unusual choice to be aligned with a condom brand. What drew us to Charlie was that he was well-placed to deliver an important message to a far bigger audience than would usually be exposed to such a campaign. That message was one of sexual health. Charlie Sheen can be said to have disregarded his sexual health and is taking the consequences. Who better than the world’s most famous HIV+ person to talk about consequences?
Charlie Sheen is aware of his history and the consequences, and wants people to be aware of the risks. It’s certainly no “stunt”. Did you know that after Charlie Sheen announced his HIV status the amount of searches made by the public in to HIV online soared? This has been dubbed as the Charlie Sheen effect and proves that he is influential and we harnessed this to bring the message of safe sex to as many people as possible. The vast majority of people who engaged with the campaign saw the positivity of what we are doing with this alignment. They understand: the message is bigger than the messenger.
Q – Everyone resorts to crowdfund new project these days. None of them however come from a very successful and wealthy company. Why did you go the Indiegogo way, especially considering your product has an above-average street price and is clearly marketed as a luxury item?
A – With condom use on the decline and STIs on the rise, there’s never been a more important time to focus on sexual health. Why then were the major, more established condom brands not doing anything to keep up? We recognized there had been no innovation or advance in condoms for decades. It seems reasonable to assume, then, that the lack of newness is driving people away from condoms. Let’s not forget, condoms are and always have been the most effective defense against STIs and unwanted pregnancy.
It would have been easy to just roll HEX™ into the shops to compete with established brands. That’s not we wanted though. We wanted the standard of condoms to improve, across the entire industry. To do that, we needed to prove there was a public demand for it. Crowdfunding is the perfect way to do that. It allowed us to gather together thousands of condom users and show them to the big condom brands and say «look, look at these people. They are ready and eager for innovation. It’s time to up your game.» And so far, it’s working.
Q – Offering your technology to your competitors was bold and fun; asking them to pay you for the privilege of using it (especially when the price and the offer were nowhere practical for anyone) appeared just arrogant and clueless. Would you explain the concept behind that stunt?
A – We have invested seven years of research into HEX™ condoms, and we want to offer our competitors what we’ve learned so they can improve too. That’s worth something.