INTERVIEW: Ukrainian Marketing Review, Brian Gray

The tables have been turned – temporarily! Lascivious Marketing Founder (and Chief Interviewer!) Brian Gray is in the hot seat, as Kiev-based marketer (and Co-Founder of Lovebox) Nataliya Vakhovskaya asks the questions for the Ukrainian online publication, Media Marketing Review.

Here is the full English version of the answers emailed back to Nataliya. Covering everything from marketing sex toys, noble crusades, industry associations, social media, and even heavy metal, there’s lots to read and ponder!

NATALIYA VAKHOVSKAYA: Tell your story please – how you decided to start a specialized agency?  How many agencies are on the market with the similar specialization as yours? For Ukraine it’s like nonsense to have a sex shop or an erotic accessories producer as a client for PR or marketing agency, nobody ready to invest in proper marketing and agency support.  What is the situation in UK?

BRIAN GRAY: Hello everyone. To begin with, every company needs effective marketing to not only thrive but just survive. And while other marketing agencies may be reluctant to seek or serve clients in the adult retailing sector, we’re here to help with plenty of enthusiasm and none of the reticence.

Before founding Lascivious Marketing I have had marketing research experience in the internet dating sector, and the UK’s Adult Industry Trade Association. Several years ago I also organised the London Gatherings that brought together industry professionals and attracted attendees from several European countries as well as from here in the UK.

To my knowledge there is no other agency in the UK offering a similar range of services (including marketing research and customer insight) to the adult retailing sector and with the amount of commercial marketing experience accrued in other industries to call upon.

In the UK, adult retailers and lingerie companies do use marketing agencies for a variety of services, but it is not widespread. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the sheer number of micro enterprises competing in this sector, who very often lack the money to spend on such expertise. There’s also a general lack of appreciation for marketing itself, I feel. So, it will not be an easy sell, but we’re really keen to see the sector as a whole do well, and see customer-focused, marketing-led companies flourish.

We realise that in all businesses there is the constant ‘time versus money’ dilemma when considering marketing services. We empathise with companies in this predicament, and are committed to providing as much tips and guidance as we can on the Lascivious Marketing website  If they are not time-starved they can see about doing the work in-house.

Alternatively, if their time is invaluable, they’ll look to appoint an outside agency. Through our visibility in the industry and content marketing efforts we sincerely hope this will stand us in good stead when that moment arrives. We aim to be the ‘go-to’ marketing consultancy for companies competing in the business of love, lust, and everything in between!

Today in Ukraine there are many mental restrictions from sex toys and frank discussions of sex relations between each other. People are ashamed to visit sex shops and tell about sex. Opinion leaders and bloggers refuse to cooperate with adult product brands. Sex needs to become a brand with a positive image. Where to start from? Can you recommend any first steps for promotion for sex toys market players? What is the situation in UK?
Very good question!  Within the UK alone there are a number of people proclaiming themselves to be ‘sex bloggers’, although the quality and consistency can vary hugely. There are also sex toy bloggers, reviewing sex toys and other adult pleasure products and posting these online. One erotic author even designed her own sex toy! Some of the more established ones – with the highest profile and largest social media following – will be sent sex toys and other products in return for a featured review. The more reputable ones will either be totally unbiased or they will have purchased the products themselves.

The UK itself is interesting regarding the marketing and selling of adult products. Retail outlets must apply to their local council for a license if they intend selling hard-core R18 pornography. Other conditions apply too. Window displays must adhere to certain criteria, and the proportion of sex toys on sale in comparison with other products also impacts upon whether a license is needed. Licenses varied in price across the UK and a few years ago Westminster City Council – which covers London’s SoHo district (known for its sex shops and prostitution) was ordered to repay more than £1 million for overcharging licensees.

There are still many ‘old school’ sex shops operating behind closed doors and are unappealing to visitors, especially women. But other retailers exist who are far more customer-focused and committed to delivering great customer service in an unintimidating shopping environment. There is still this traditional, conservative ‘British’ approach to sexuality that exists in parallel with a more open-minded and suggestive sexual culture. The media of course loves this dichotomy. They win either way, either criticising the blatant sexual nature of something while also revelling in the attention sex-related features create. There have been television shows featuring well known retailers such as Lovehoney and Ann Summers. In short, this long-held cliché of British people being ‘repressed’ is rather exhausted now.

There is also an established UK trade magazine for the erotic industry, who also run an industry awards competition.

The situation you describe in Ukraine is a sad one. Sex is a normal – and hopefully very enjoyable! –  part of everyday life. Surely an acceptable balance can be achieved whereby people who wish to learn more about sexuality and buy adult products can do so without shame or embarrassment. At the same time, this can be done respectfully so it does not offend other sections of society.

The situation you describe is almost like starting with a blank canvas. Change will not occur overnight; I suspect it will be more a case of incremental change, led by companies who have a long term commitment to the industry and a deep-seated personal desire to bring about change. It’s as much – if not more – to view this as a noble crusade, rather than merely operating a business. And generally, if overall category demand increases, then the opportunities for increasing individual profitability are better. But this comes with a big loud warning: this cannot be a crusade for just one company or individual – it has to be a group effort.

It’s important to find other like-minded people in the industry who share common aims. Start meeting regularly to discuss trends and initiatives you can work together or to increase awareness and understanding among consumers. Form a trade association that will work to advance the interests of customer-focused, forward thinking, and professional erotic retailers. Meet with journalists, give face-to-face interviews to establish personal connections and maximise ‘face time’ so that you will have created a bigger impression than if you had just been emailing with them.

For individual companies, as well as seeking out others in the sector to work with on joint initiatives that will help advance the sector as a whole, there are other things to consider. See if there are any business spaces available where different erotic retailers can come together and sell their products and meet customers in person to establish that personal connection. In the UK, the London Alternative Market (LAM) has been doing just that among the alternative and fetish community.

Commit yourself to content marketing, by having a clearly defined mission, choosing your methods wisely and ensuring they play to your strengths. Advertising and promotion in this type of market where the mainstream hasn’t accepted erotic products is probably going to be wasteful. If there has been some good PR achieved through industry initiatives or a monthly ‘erotic market’ event (like the LAM), then one has to assume that consumers most curious or keen to learn more will take it upon themselves to do so. And this is where great online content can really help out. Be there – and with an abundance of trustworthy, impactful content – when consumers reach that crucial stage of wanting to find out more and check out options.

Be so active with your content marketing that the media cannot ignore you any longer. Make them realise that there’s a professional industry committed to making people’s personal lives more fulfilling.

Today all sex shops in Ukraine look like these pictures. Nothing similar with pleasure, actually. Do you know success stories of retailers whose profit increase after rebranding or new layout of stores?

There’s a great adult retailer I recently interviewed, called SinSins Boutique of Love, based in South East England. The owner visited an ‘old school’ sex shop (probably quite similar to the images you’ve shown) years ago and was aghast at what he saw. He subsequently set out to be something completely different, while still selling erotic products.

From the outside it looks like a lovely gift shop – and it is! It’s just that the gifts are rather ‘spicier’ than in other shops. It looks so welcoming to anyone, regardless of age or gender.  They forged effective relations with the local council and have had a great ongoing relationship. Plus there is a thriving small business community there and they get involved in all manner of ways.

There are many young producers of sex toys and erotic lingerie appear on the international market (Dame, Rianne S, Bijoux Indiscrets, Crave etc). What are the main reasons of such changes and market growth?
Several factors play their part. The impact of technology – especially the internet – cannot be underestimated. With the advent of online marketplaces, anyone can create their own online store and start a company. Visit the Etsy website and you’ll see a plethora of small companies – often just a single person – making and selling everything from ornate wooden dildos to exquisite leather and latex fetish wear (and everything in between!). New designers and craftspeople now have a direct route to market using their own website or online marketplaces; very often both.

A further direct consequence of the internet is a bigger appreciation of the global nature of business now. A consumer in New Zealand and can see something she wants from an online seller based in a village in rural Spain and subsequently purchase an item. That cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to adult products.

There’s also the entrepreneurial culture of a county to consider. Britain has historically been called ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ so perhaps it is unsurprising that television shows such as ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Dragons Den‘ (I know two people who appeared on the show last year) are hits year after year. I’m sure there are some people who watch these types of shows and think, “Hey I’ve got a great idea, I’m going into business and I’ll be a millionaire by lunchtime!” I personally think these shows are just that: entertainment for the masses, and do not show the real blood, sweat and tears shed when running a business. That said, they must take some credit for making entrepreneurship ‘sexy’ in the first place.

What I have found amazing is the exposure young people are getting to entrepreneurship. A couple of years ago I got involved in an enterprise network run by the business school I attended for my Masters Degree in Marketing two decades earlier. I met twenty year olds still studying for their degree but already forming private limited companies and seeking funding and support for their fledgling enterprises. Furthermore, there’s a major Centre for Entrepreneurship there and many degrees either wholly or partly dedicated to entrepreneurship. It’s a brave new entrepreneurial world out there!

Lastly, I think there’s another potential factor accounting for the number of solopreneurs creating new websites or offering adult products. In the UK, there has been what economists are calling a ‘lost decade’ where wages have stagnated. Indeed the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2022 average wages will be the same as they were back in 2007. Another think tank calculates the UK is facing its worst decade of real wage growth since the Napoleonic Wars. This is sobering reading! I would not be surprised in the least if a significant amount of new entrants to adult retailing were people already working one full-time job and still need additional money coming in to help pay for essentials like rent, food, or utility bills. But just to clarify, I have no evidence of this – it’s purely my opinion.

Please name some great campaigns on the market that successfully promote adult brands or adult stores.
One of the most successful adult retailers is a British company called Lovehoney. They have generated a lot of PR over the years and the catalyst for that on many an occasion has been their very shrewd – and hugely successful – licensing deals. They were awarded the exclusive worldwide licensing deal for the Fifty Shades of Grey (FSOG) range of pleasure products. Before that they struck up a deal with UK relationship counsellor and ‘sexpert’ Tracey Cox (yes that IS her real surname!) and had her face and name on some of their products.

But while no one can deny the huge commercial impact of the FSOG deal, what has made me smile are their most recent licensing deals with heavy rock bands Motley Crue and Motorhead. I’ve been a heavy metal lover for decades (I used to present a rock radio show back in the 1990s) and when I saw that they were releasing a range of sex toys named after several of their most well-known songs I laughed and shouted ‘Yeah!’.

Lovehoney won an award from the Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association for their Motorhead collaboration, and I’m absolutely sure there will be more future licensing deals agreed, provided there is the right brand ‘fit’. This also has helped with their international expansion, and have been duly awarded a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade.

What are the main mistakes of adult market players?
I do not think adult market companies make mistakes that are unique to this industry. Rather they are probably guilty of the same types of mistakes other companies in other sectors make that lack a marketing mindset. Perhaps the most visible mistake – at least to me – is the ‘one way traffic’ approach to social media. I see numerous sex toy and lingerie sellers relentlessly tweeting their wares….but nobody is engaging with them. Tweet after tweet after tweet. Either I mute them or I unfollow, and I can’t imagine I’m the only person doing that. Social media is about being ‘social’!

The second thing I tend to notice is that there are a lot of sex toy retailer websites that are devoid of any meaningful brand identity that really differentiates itself from the next one. When the industry barriers to entry are now so low, it’s a waste of time to be competing if you’re not fully prepared to give it 100% effort. Shape up or ship out! Differentiate or die!

There’s also a lack of content marketing. Some of the bigger, more established companies are ahead in this regard: some have their own communities, review panels, and all sorts of means of engaging with their customers. And they’re to be rightfully applauded. But for a lot of sellers, content marketing just flies over their heads. As does a lot of practical marketing wisdom, it seems.

As there’s a risk this could become a very long answer, I’ll conclude with one more potential failing, which is my long-held perception that social media and web analytics are replacing marketing analytics and insight which is not only wrong, but could have serious consequences. There’s a tendency for companies to replace properly designed and conducted customer surveys with simply asking people on social media for their thoughts. They don’t seem to understand that this cannot in any way be considered representative. There are no checks on the authenticity and identity of those who post. There is no way of even knowing if they are actual customers! On a more practical note, there is no option for real analysis if solely relying on open comments.

Then there is the danger of relying on web statistics. While they can reveal a lot, they cannot tell site owners and marketers whether page view durations are active (purchase consideration) or passive (laptop left running while the user is lying in the bath or asleep on the bed or walking the dog). Neither can they reveal anything about whether the website is the first choice or simply the least bad out of a mediocre selection.

Web stats don’t indicate how frequently customers visit rival websites, let alone identify which ones. Nor do they reveal how much money customers spend elsewhere on comparable products. They offer no clues as to the company’s performance next to its rivals, nor how well it is perceived by web visitors or customers. And of course, there is absolutely no information gleaned on how satisfied customers are and whether they will return, and/or recommend the website to others.

Hopefully I’ve made my point now! Of course, web statistics in their own right can be immensely valuable to a company, especially one that sells online. But it cannot and will not replace solid marketing research.

There are many law restrictions on the market. Even Facebook do not allow the promotions of adult goods pages. What marketing instruments could you recommend? Please name some examples.
Facebook is not a social media channel for adult retailers, in my opinion. A big reason for online adult retailing is the anonymity it provides: it’s a secret between you and the retailer what the postman delivers to your door. Why would a retailer spend time, effort, and perhaps money posting on Facebook, knowing that the number of ‘likes’ they receive is limited to those who are so open-minded they don’t care who knows that they like an adult retailing page. Furthermore, ‘likes’ are no valid predictor of subsequent purchase. I could go onto Facebook right now and ‘like’ 200 brands, and have absolutely no intention of ever buying anything from those companies. It’s meaningless. And more importantly, a distraction for time-poor adult retailers. So, don’t worry about Facebook.

For adult retailers whose products are either visually impactful or take the time to produce good visual content, Instagram is worth considering, as is Pinterest. But by far the best option is developing great content that target buyers will happily share their email address with you for. Building your own subscriber database means you own the contact details of the people you’ve worked hard to impress. A large Facebook following or mass of YouTube subscribers can disappear overnight if the powers that be suddenly pull the plug on you. Offer something worthwhile: a newsletter full of curated and/or original content, or a podcast. There’s a good few options available.

How do you build customer dialogue to receive feedback? How to be polite and get the information needed from the customer? I mean, is it okay to call customers and ask about their experience? Or to ask to participate in a survey? Besides social media, what channels are best suited for customer dialogue?
Anonymous – and well designed – customer surveys are excellent opportunities in which to not only obtain the data you need for key marketing decision-making, but also to convey the fact you care about what your customers think. Management guru Peter Drucker famously said: “If it can be measured, it can be managed.” So satisfaction levels can be measured quantitatively along with a whole host of other things, depending on the overall research objectives. Towards the end of the survey, it’s absolutely fine to ask an open question or two regarding satisfaction or potential improvements to the service experience. Research findings also make for great content marketing material, and the open comments provided by respondents (unattributed of course!) can be highlighted.

What are the main obstacles for sex toys producers and retailers nowadays?
A few immediately spring to mind. Firstly, the barriers of entry into this sector have all but disappeared. Given the advent of not only online marketplaces such as Etsy, the attractiveness of drop-shipping, and various research reports claiming the sex toy market over the next few years to be increasing and you have one very competitive industry. Everybody wants a piece of the action. What does that mean? A lot of micro businesses competing against one another, and often with very little to differentiate themselves because they have not thought through their brand identity or devised a solid marketing plan.

Secondly, there is the nature of the products themselves. There’s a big difference between trying to sell sex toys rather than shampoo. You know this yourself in Ukraine, Nataliya! Nobody is going to stand in your way if you want to advertise shampoo on television, in the newspapers, or other ambient media. Try to do the same with sex toys and you may have broadcasting authorities, regulators, moralists and religious groups breathing down your neck before you know it either prohibiting it, or placing restrictions on it. Some of this I agree with: for instance, I don’t think there should be sex toy advertising on terrestrial tv channels until after 9pm.

Finally, another difference between sex toys and let’s say shampoo again: financing and payment. Many major banks will reject any applications for financing, even opening an account with adult-related companies. They often cite ‘reputational risk’. This I find highly ironic given the activities of several western banks when it comes to money laundering or mis-selling financial products to customers! Furthermore, some payment processors or credit card companies may be difficult to deal with when applying for a merchant account. This in itself has created a new sector of adult-friendly payment processors, but it is another hurdle that adult retailers often face. Nobody said adult retailing was easy – even if many people think it is!

If you’d like to be interviewed about your entrepreneurial journey and associated marketing issues that will be interesting to the Lascivious Marketing web fraternity, then get in touch!

Until next time!

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