Industry Leadership

Customer Experience Is the New Black.

An open letter to the sex products industry from our Founder, Ethan Imboden Published in AVN Magazine, August, 2010.

Until recently, the sexual products category was led by manufacturers and distributors pushing product to retailers and customers, rather than by customer demand and pull, as is more typical of developed consumer markets. Now, with significantly increased awareness and acceptance of our industry by mass media, retail and consumers, a new dynamic is beginning to take hold. This shift will have significant implications for all of us in the years to come – and properly managed, can mark the beginning of a new win/win dynamic between our industry and the public that is fueling our expansion. 

Admittedly, for those of us in the sex products industry, much of what follows may be considered Vibrator 101. Nevertheless, it's worthwhile to contemplate some basic factors in the evolution of our category – and to follow them to their logical conclusions.

Over the past several years, we've seen the rapid sales growth of many of the more approachable products in our category, as well as the frequent introduction of new models from both new and well-established manufacturers alike. (By "approachable", I mean products that through their appearance, functionality and presentation are less likely to cause those new to the category to blush – literally, or figuratively.)

At least part of the success of these products can be attributed to the fact that they're inherently more "discussable", and hence, both consumers and the press are more likely to reference them than their more explicit cousins. As an obvious example, vibrators with abstract designs now appear with some regularity in major publications like Marie Claire, Glamour and Cosmopolitan, whereas anatomically representational ones do not.

Inevitably, as the discussion around sexuality and its enhancement progresses, the public at large becomes more knowledgeable about both the products and the brands that offer them. With this increased knowledge, potential customers are better equipped to make informed purchasing decisions. Employing this new information, they begin to comparison shop – product vs. product, brand vs. brand, and retailer vs. retailer. Take a look at the packaging on products today vs. five years ago and you'll see just how many new specifications (read: bases for comparison) are now highlighted – material specifications, safety information, sound levels, battery life, warranty, third-party certifications, and more.

What these potential customers soon discover is that there are more flavors of vibrator than there are models of cars on the road. (A quick search for vibrators on Amazon will yield over 17,000 results.) Through these comparisons, new expectations emerge – "Is this vibrator phthalate-free?" "Does this one come with a warranty?" – and the standards required for success in the market are raised.

Now more than ever, customers are empowered to demand a closer correlation between their expectations and the actual performance of the goods they purchase. In our new, better informed and more open atmosphere, customers are also less likely to keep their opinions to themselves. Those who are pleased will multiply the sales of good products with positive reviews and personal referrals, whereas those who are dissatisfied will dissuade others from repeating their mistake. (Compounding this effect, conventional wisdom tells us that a customer who has a good experience will tell one person, whereas a customer who has a bad one will tell 10.)

The impact of the customer experience doesn't stop there. Through their experiences and conversations, customers begin to develop positive and negative associations with the brands that offered them. They develop loyalties to some, and become wary of others. Now more than ever, brands are being judged by their product offerings, retailers are being judged by their merchandise, and all are being judged for their responsiveness to customer feedback – particularly complaints. A new emphasis on accountability is emerging.

All of this adds up to a new market environment which, though it still feels familiar, is undergoing massive and irreversible change. Similar to global warming, the immediate effects may be less obvious, and in some cases difficult to measure. Fortunately, unlike the dire circumstances of our planet, our market is evolving in a direction that will directly benefit the most crucial part of our ecosystem – our customers.

For those looking to lead in the evolving Sexual Wellbeing market, here are a few important take-aways to factor into your strategic planning.

  • The customer is king (or queen). If you want to create a hit product or a competitive brand, you need to exceed your target customer's expectations at every turn. Their voice, more than any other, will determine the success of a product.
  • Innovation is oxygen. The vibrator market has already been restyled, and aesthetics won't offer a lasting competitive advantage. Innovate to deliver an exceptional experience, and your customers will handle your marketing for you.
  • Fewer is more. Any company, no matter how large, has finite resources. Reduce the number of development projects and you'll multiply your capacity to innovate and exceed expectations.
  • Top dollar demands top quality. Develop and price your products according to the segment of the market you want to address. There will always be audiences for low, mid, and premium price points, but now that they're becoming better informed and more vocal, customers will no longer pay for mediocre products sold at excessive mark ups.
  • Adult Novelty or Sexual Wellbeing – choose one. Decide which market you're in. Each has its advantages, but they require distinctly different approaches.