Neal Slateford, co-founder of sex toy firm Lovehoney, tells Billy Langsworthy why the sex toy sector is set to be an increasingly major player in the world of licensing, and what brands should involved.
How did the Fifty Shades deal come about?
We just asked basically. When the books started becoming popular in the spring of 2012, I said ‘someone’s going to come in and snap up the licence here, and it has to be us’.
We contacted Random House first and they put us onto Caroline Mickler and we sent her a pitch. Then we went to Eton and met the author E.L. James. They had pitches from quite a few people, mainly American companies, and I guess they liked our pitch the most.How successful has the Fifty Shades range for both Lovehoney and Coco de Mer?
We’ve done at least two million units on the pleasure collection.
Did the success of the range come as a surprise at all?
For various reasons it took a long time to actually sort the deal out, so by the time we actually signed it, the brand was huge. It was right at its peak. So we knew it would be massive by the time we launched because we were already doing incredible volumes of products used in the books. There is a flogger in the book and we were suddenly selling loads of floggers. We knew there would be an opportunity for us to sell officially licensed product.
We’ve tagged some mainstream retailers too. We’ve done lots of stuff based on the book but we’ve also done stuff that isn’t in the book but is related and perhaps softer. Things like massage oils, candles, bath oils, lubricants and condoms that we can pitch at more mainstream markets. We’ve got a lot of that stuff into places like Target in the US. It’s been really good for us.
Was this your first foray into the world of licensing?
No, we did our first licensing deal in 2005 with Tracey Cox. She is a TV sex expert and has written some very successful books. She’s the world’s best known ‘how to have better sex’ author.
My business partner and me were at a trade show in Las Vegas wondering how we could cross these products into the mainstream. We thought we could attach them to a more mainstream face and that was Tracey Cox. That was the first deal we’ve done and it’s still massively successful for us.
We’ve also done a deal with CMG to do products based around Bettie Page, the American pin-up who I’m told is the ninth highest earning dead celebrity. We’ve also done a couple of things with Global Merch for some pretty mainstream names that we'll be launching later this year.
Is sex toys an area that remains largely untouched by licensing?
Yes, and it amazes me. I’ve been hammering away at it for ages because to me, it’s one of the only areas still untapped by licensing.
I started going to the licensing shows in Vegas and London five or six years ago. I’d go up to people and say ‘hey, have you ever though about licensing your brand to sex toys?’ and 99 per cent of people would say ‘no, go away.’
Now, more and more people are open to the idea. We get people approaching us now so it’s definitely opening up.
Why do you think brands were saying no to sex toy partnerships?
Well, some of the things I thought would work really well; people just didn’t want to do it. Playboy, who you’d think would be a natural fit, didn’t want to do it. They were squeamish about it, which seemed very odd to me.
Another one I really wanted to do was the For Dummies brand, as in PCs For Dummies. I thought Sex Toys For Dummies would be perfect, with that really strong yellow branding on a range of toys for beginners. But they didn’t want to do and that surprised me. But more and more people are open to it.
It’s very interesting for us to be the leading company doing that in this industry. When I got into the business in 2002, the only licensed products you’d see would be replicas of porn stars’ vaginas.
I couldn’t see any reason why licensing wouldn’t come to our business because it’s in every other business and our business is becoming more and more mainstream. There are sex toys everywhere. They’re in every pharmacy and every supermarket so it seems like an obvious fit.
It’s an exciting time for us because there are all sorts of opportunities opening up, especially after Fifty Shades of Grey.
So you think more brands should get involved in the sex toy space?
I think they will, definitely. With some of the deals we’re doing and some of the names that are willing to consider it now, it’s really come on in the last three years.
Fifty Shades of Grey and Playboy are brands that seem a natural fit for sex toys. Is there scope for brands that aren’t necessarily ‘adult’ to get involved in sex toys?
The brands obviously have to have an adult connotation. You want to steer well clear of things like The Avengers. That’s not good. But there are lots of brands you could do it with that would be really fun, but they are all so boring that none of them would do it.
One of the ones I’ve always wanted to is Black & Decker. They stand for power and durability and a certain section of our audience is all about really powerful toys. So we ended up doing our own line of things that look like power tools called RockBox. I would’ve loved to do Black & Decker but they’ll never do it, why would they? But you could have a lot of fun.
Going back to Fifty Shades, how involved was E.L James in the development of the toys?
She was very involved. Nothing got released without her signing it off. We would have a meeting with her and say ‘here’s 50 products we think we could do’ and she would check out the mock-ups and prototypes and she would say things like ‘no, Christian would never use that.’
So then we would refine stuff and present it back to her, so she was very involved. She was lot more involved than in conventional licensing where you would just send it into the agency, follow the brand guidelines and they’ll say yes or no.
How has Fifty Shades impacted your wider business?
We’ve been going since 2002 and we’re now a £40m company. We’ve grown 40 to 50 per cent in the last year and we’ve grown every year. We have 150 employees with offices all over the place.
More and more people are open to the market in general and Fifty Shades of Grey gave permission to a whole new generation of people who had perhaps not explored this area before. It allowed them to think, ‘I’m going to have some fun with this.’
So Fifty Shades has definitely helped and its just part of a wider trend in western society where people are more open to this and more relaxed about it.
70 per cent of our customers class themselves as being in long-term relationships and the real truth about the people who use sex toys is the absolute inverse of what most people think it is.
A lot of people would say that if you’re using a vibrator, you’re on your own and using it by yourself because you can’t have sex with a real person but nothing could be further from the truth. The opposite is true. People who are using sex toys are in relationships and are using it to have better sex lives. It’s a real change in the traditional perception of what people think about sex toys.
An awful lot of people are having better sex than you are because they are using sex toys in their relationships… I don’t mean you personally!
Are there plans for more products in your Fifty Shades range?
We’ll keep adding to the range because the name now has transcended the books and the film. It’s a brand and in our business it’s the biggest brand there is.
We’re bringing out more products this summer and I’m sure they will make the other two films and we’ll hopefully be bringing out more stuff for the next three or four years.
And finally, what would you say to brand owners looking at entering the sex toy space?
I’d say get in touch. Let us show you how good this sector can be for your brand and your business.