29-year-old Nina Seth (name changed), a Pune-based advertising professional, recently made her first adult toy purchase after discovering an Instagram Reel about how liberating self-pleasure is. She spent two hours browsing and reading about products on the e-store before purchasing a vibrator. Because it was her first time, she wanted to get it right.
Seth is part of a growing tribe of women who are exploring the sexual wellness category and seeking quality content and safe spaces online to talk about sex.
According to leading marketers, recent consumer trends show that women are becoming more open and vocal about their sexual needs and preferences with and without partners.
“Women are increasingly playing an active part in the bedroom rather than playing the supporting role,” says Dilen Gandhi, Regional Marketing Director, South Asia – Health and Nutrition, Reckitt. Gandhi tells Storyboard18, “There is a focus on sex which is real, emotional, and physically stimulating. Feminine sexuality has become a personal statement.”
Orgasms, the starting point
In 2019, through several consumer conversations, Reckitt, the makers of Durex, discovered that more than 70 percent of women do not orgasm every time they have sex.
“This was the starting point for us to introduce a product for not only him but her as well in the form of Mutual Climax condoms,” says Gandhi. The brand’s campaigns #ComeTogether and #OrgasmInequality were amplified by influencers like stand-up comedian Kaneez Surka and actress Swara Bhasker, among others. Gandhi says the need to bring in innovation in the category started thereafter.
Homegrown major Mankind Pharma is set to launch female condoms soon. Joy Chatterjee, General Manager, Sales and Marketing at Mankind Pharma, says the brand has always tried to address stigmas around sexual wellness and pleasure when it comes to women and men. “We will expand the sexual wellness segment gradually, as per the requirements of society, to make the experience exciting for both partners,” he adds.
Enter, the disruptors
Over the past couple of years, a lot of the action in the space has come from startups and direct-to-consumer brands as well.
Personal hygiene and wellness company Pee Safe took only six months to develop its female condom under a sub-brand called Domina. Products under brand Domina also include “full body massager” and kegel balls.
Domina has a 12-member marketing team that works on creating engaging yet informative social media content, and manages the community webpage: The Pleasure Playbook. Its Instagram Reels are mainly around how to use products and educational content like ‘how to flush a condom’ or ‘myths about sex’. The Pleasure Playbook further breaks down topics around safe sex, self-pleasure, etc.
The brand plans to work on both online and offline campaigns with a focus on “normalising” pleasure. Social media influencers such as physician and embryologist Dr Tanaya Narendra, popularly known as Dr Cuterus on Instagram, and Leeza Mangaldas, help the brand intensify conversations around sexual wellness and pleasure.
Vikas Bagaria, founder, Pee Safe, tells Storyboard18 that before the launch of Domina, the team conducted an extensive consumer survey, which found that while 82 percent of respondents were aware of female/internal condoms, only 6.5 percent had actually used one, and 4.5 percent preferred female/internal condoms over male/external condoms. Only 10 percent of the respondents indulged in self-pleasure products, mainly because of lack of awareness and awkwardness talking about it openly. But that’s slowly changing.
While products such as female condoms and pleasure devices were launched in January 2020, Bagaria says there couldn’t have been a better time for the company to get into the category.
India's sexual wellness market is largely dominated by condoms, which are projected to reach a market size of $180 million by 2022, according to market research firm Research and Markets. Other product categories, including vaginal care products, self-pleasure devices, and other related products, are still at a nascent stage and yet to take up a significant market share, brands that Storyboard18 spoke to indicated.
The category boosters
Besides ecommerce, which has made the purchase of products easier and free of judgemental looks, the Covid pandemic, too, has given the category a major thrust. Cooking and gardening weren't the only popular activities in lockdown situations. People have been exploring, openly talking and purchasing more products in the sexual wellness category through the pandemic.
That Sassy Thing is a lockdown-born sexual wellness brand founded by Sachee Malhotra. It sells products such as natural lubes, pubic hair oil, vegan condoms and underwear detergent.
Malhotra says That Sassy Thing “is a purpose-driven brand. While we’re talking about sex and pleasure, our larger vision is to educate people to take ownership of their bodies and sexuality. In our communications, we focus on different types of bodies and also people with body hair as that’s the message we want to send out to people, to society,” she explains.
Asking people, about their sex lives and pleasure, “isn’t easy and a lot of brands like ours have to create a product, an experience, or a piece of communication to see how people react,” she admits.
Eleven months into this business, Malhotra says the most critical takeaway is that women want more representation. “They want brands to talk to them in a real and human way — minus the judgment and shame. They don’t want brands to tell them what to do; rather, give them credible information that can help them make decisions that are right for them and help them take ownership of their bodies and sexuality.”
Rise of sex-positive content creators
Leeza Mangaldas is not your regular social media influencer. Mangaldas creates content that busts myths about first-time sex, the hymen and the idea of ‘virginity’.
As a sex-positive content creator, her aim is to create a judgment-free space and build an inclusive community to talk about sex. Mangaldas has been approached by various brands from vaginal whitening and tightening gels to pubic hair removal products. She turned a bunch of them down. Here’s why.
“A few of these products feed into a very regressive and misogynistic attitude or idea that the vagina is ugly in its natural state, that it needs to be lightened and made hairless and made to smell like strawberries or roses before it can be seen as desirable.”
Instead, 31-year-old Mangaldas works closely with brands that create “respectful, fun, inclusive, and educational” content. Her latest work was with TTK Healthcare's sexual wellness brand, Skore, to provide knowledge about the clitoris, its role in orgasms and tips for men to do a good job.
She hopes brands understand and address the needs of women and queer people — “not just in a tokenist way on Women’s Day or during Pride Month for brownie points, and not in a way where they are pink-washing or rainbow-washing products,” she adds.
UK-based mythologist and storyteller, Seema Anand has studied the Kama Shastras for 20 years now. Through social media, Anand goes deeper into the concepts of pleasure and sensuality, which are often perceived as ‘sinful’. Much like Mangaldas, Anand is also selective about the brands she collaborates with.
Recently, she worked with dating app Bumble to talk about self-pleasure for everyone. Her advice to brands is, “it’s a closed door that we are opening. Go slow. We cannot be creating content that is graphic and intimidating and will scare women further into hiding. In order to change the narrative, a lot of care needs to be taken.”
It’s not easy for women like Mangaldas and Anand either. The Internet is an awful and toxic place for women. It’s even worse for women who dare to speak openly on topics like sex. They are often victims of online abuse, trolling, and slut-shaming. But “dick pics” in their DMs can’t and won’t stop them.
“Sex isn't shameful; and we’d all stand to benefit from being able to talk about it with compassion, respect, and open-mindedness,” says Mangaldas.
The marketing challenge
In December 2017, the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry banned the broadcast of condom advertisements between 6 AM and 10 PM. The decision came on the back of Mankind Pharma’s advertisement released during Navratri that year.
The ad featured Sunny Leone with the tagline “This Navratri, play, but with love". The company had to take down over 500 billboards across Gujarat, where the ad sparked a controversy. Over the years, with limited air time on television, sexual wellness brands slowly moved online.
However, online advertising, too, comes with restrictions. Brands cannot use “explicit” images, the definition of which is still unclear. Companies also cannot use the word “sex” in ads on YouTube. However, there are no major restrictions for brands from the category to advertise on online video-streaming platforms.
Digital agencies are always prepared to see ads getting flagged. Therefore, these days, a regular process is to get campaigns pre-approved by the Google and Facebook ad policy teams so that there are no interruptions, says Shradha Agarwal, COO and strategy head, Grapes, an integrated marketing agency.
Interestingly, unlike offline marketing communication, which still focuses largely on male consumers, “online marketing is more focussed on women consumers since they are buying products for themselves and their partners,” says Agarwal.
Sexual wellness boom and growth opportunity
Harsha Razdan, partner and head, consumer markets and internet business, KPMG in India, points out that the convenience of purchasing online is a huge factor in the metamorphosis of the category and consumer. He points at how various new D2C models today are allowing businesses to deeply understand what customers are looking for exactly and communicate directly.
“This is helping brands in providing personalised products and services to consumers, thus creating the potential for newer categories. While the female wellness category has tremendous growth potential, going forward, it will be scale that will matter the most to these brands. If they are able to acquire new consumers month-on-month and ensure stickiness of old consumers, then that may seem to be a roadmap for a sustainable future,” he concludes.Several factors have led to the heightened interest from brands and consumers in sexual wellness over the past few years. Access to products and content online has opened up a brave new world for women, men, and brands to explore. But discreetly. While the category is opening up, consumers still want discreet packaging, for instance. But the convenience of ordering a Domina “full-body massager” at the click of a button makes it much easier for Indian women who still have to deal with sanitary pads being treated like contraband.