The Lovehoney Phenomenon

By on December 20, 2018
Rich Neal

Within 16 years Lovehoney has grown to become the UK’s largest manufacturer of sex toys, employing around 250 staff globally. In the British tax year 2017-2018 it boasted an annual turnover of around AUD $175 million; not bad for a company started by two male ex tech-journalists who each invested AUD $7800 in launching a female-friendly ecommerce business, complete with well-written, non-sleazy website copy. Proving that online customer services could be as reliable, and even better than – in-store customer care, Lovehoney soon excelled in selling sexy stock directly to women at home.

In 2016, 14 years to the day since they started selling sex toys online from Richard’s bedroom in Bath, UK, Lovehoney founders Neal Slateford and Richard Longhurst were awarded the ‘Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade for outstanding growth in overseas sales’. We all know sex sells or we wouldn’t be here, but it seems Lovehoney’s achievement has made the Adult Erotic industry acceptable and respectable – even to the Commonwealth’s reigning monarch. The award, described as ‘the highest accolade for business success’, allows Lovehoney to use The Queen’s Award emblem in advertising, marketing and on packaging for a period of five years as a symbol of quality and success.

Lovehoney also embraces partnerships of the more anti-establishment variety; from rebel rockers Motorhead and Motley Crue, to achingly on-trend, female-focused TV show American ‘Broad City’, and aspirational luxe brand Coco De Mer. Of course, it would be remiss to chart Lovehoney’s ascent without mentioning how intrinsically their success has been bolstered year on year by an exclusive relationship with E.L. James and her Fifty Shades, for which Lovehoney have the licensing rights to design, manufacture and sell the official products. This was an incredibly astute move by Longhurst and Slateford, who approached the publishers when the books were still a shock success but not yet a worldwide phenomena – let alone a Hollywood film franchise.

It wasn’t just forward thinking with regards the financial implications: just as non-readers who hadn’t picked up a book in years invested in the Fifty Shades trilogy, so Lovehoney’s accompanying Official Collection proved invaluable in opening the Sex Toy industry up to a whole new client base, rendering not only sex toys but BDSM increasingly acceptable, less intimidating and even appealing.

In April 2018 Lovehoney took full advantage of the British national diary and launched the irresistibly-named, silver Markle Sparkle Finger Ring and the gold Royal Wedding Love Ring to slip onto your Prince Charming’s, er, “Prince Charming”. It seems Novelty is far from a naughty word if it gains column inches and international exposure, all without the expense of traditional advertising.

Despite such savvy silliness, sex toys have become a serious game. Telemos Capital approved of Lovehoney’s canny business methods and predicted potential for growth, as just a couple of months later in June 2018, the Swiss investment firm acquired an undisclosed percentage of the Bath company; ostensibly to enable the Bath firm to invest in new technology and marketing as well as to fund expansion into new overseas markets.

Interestingly, it was back in 2012 that Lovehoney first made its appearance in the public consciousness, during a UK Channel 4 documentary entitled ‘More Sex Please, We’re British’. This included fly-on-the-wall footage of the personnel in the Returns department, rubber gloves at the ready, bravely honouring Lovehoney’s celebrated, ‘One Year Product Guarantee’ for faulty or unloved goods – ugh! Humorous maybe, profitable certainly. This one-hour documentary alone almost caused the company website to crash due to the amount of orders received immediately after broadcast. Indeed, even today the doc spikes sales every time it’s shown – on US Netflix too – and Lovehoney’s expanding warehouses in Atlanta exploit every opportunity to increase the company’s presence across North America.

Two UK TV documentary series ‘Frisky Business’ (2014, 6 episodes) and ‘The Joy of Sex Toys’ (2016, 4 episodes) followed, making much the same splash: endless repeats of salacious sex toy footage are clearly worth their weight in gold. In 2017 Lovehoney founders Longhurst and Slateford featured on the Ch4 UK TV series ‘How D’You Get So Rich?’ hosted by Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan, which only served to further cement Lovehoney’s success and emphasise its influence within the Adult arena.

But for all Lovehoney’s Best of British smut-style screen footage and tongue-in-cheek PR stunts there are also very serious technical advances going on in-house, as the company draws on its extensive experience in the industry to manufacture ever more effective ways to please its clientele.

At hand to help is the ever-present Lovehoney Community (originally named The Orgasm Army) that grew with the company as an increasing number of customers submitted an increasing number of product reviews. Very early in its history Lovehoney began to capitalize on this peer-PR resource, soon deciding to employ an in-house team of Community moderators for its dedicated Lovehoney forum. Thanks to their unrivalled 200,000 candid sex toy and lingerie reviews (and counting!), Lovehoney can rely on its Community to suggest improvements to a product and ensure that if a product tweak or few is needed then its prototype can be conveniently remedied in-house, before the final manufacturing process and the item’s ultimate release into the wider public arena.

A Visit To Lovehoney HQ

Being sex-tech geeks and avid fans of alternative entrepreneurship, when Synergy was invited to spend a day at Lovehoney’s company headquarters in the historic city of Bath we leaped at the chance. A UNESCO World Heritage Centre Bath may be, but not for us the Roman spa, stunning Georgian architecture or Jane Austen references, instead, we headed to an area of the city where a British company was making history in its own subversive way. There, a low-key residential road met a small industrial estate, with a pub oh-so conveniently situated in-between.

Our day started directly opposite the pub in Lovehoney’s main building. Comprising of a reception area, upstairs offices and the all-important warehouse, Product Director Bonny Hall talked us through Lovehoney’s own-brand items: from their first ever product, the Jessica Rabbit in 2002, to the newly updated happy rabbit® collection in 2018. Bonny described that during this time Lovehoney had narrowed down the essence of a marketable Rabbit vibrator to the essential requirements of being powerful, quiet, waterproof, silicone, rechargeable (yet holding onto power) and having a decent running-time.

Different trends collated from searches in the online store, such as ‘girthy’ and ‘realistic’ typed together with words like ‘vibrating dildo’ helped form each ensuing toy collection, as did the aforementioned online Lovehoney Community. Being an international forum, this exceptional resource was then collated to tailor the products to regional preferences across the globe, such as vibrator colour and girth. As Jade Bawa, Lovehoney Sales Executive for Europe and Australia later explained, “that’s where the Slimline comes in.”

The happy rabbit® Scientific Study

Bonny presented the results of a scientific study Lovehoney had commissioned in partnership with Dr. Nicole Prause, founder of the sexual biotechnology company Liberos, involving the recently updated happy rabbit®. Prause enlisted the help of nineteen women from varied backgrounds, over half being women of colour. Most of the nineteen subjects (with a median age of 31) considered themselves heterosexual, and all participants were sexually active – and comfortable enough in themselves to visit a laboratory for two monitored sessions of masturbation. There, amongst other tests, Dr. Prause was able to take a cross-section of measurements such as brainwave activity and anal contractions, as well as recording emotional states before and after masturbation.

The lab results showed that the women reached orgasm quicker using manual masturbation (6.5 minutes by hand versus 26.4 minutes with a happy rabbit®), but that during playtime with the happy rabbit® they experienced higher levels of excitement as well as longer-lasting orgasms; 23.3 seconds, as opposed to 19.9 seconds during manual masturbation. Bonny confirmed this data demonstrated, “We now have scientific proof that women enjoy longer and more pleasurable orgasms when using a vibrator.”

Lovehoney’s Manufacturing Process

Fine-tuning each own-brand Lovehoney product such as happy rabbit® was the work of our next speaker, Paul Jaques. Once product designer at Powertools, then GM at Lelo in Shanghai, two different industries with a surprising amount in common, Paul has been Quality and Technical Manager at Bath HQ for the past five years, and was perfectly placed to talk us through Lovehoney’s design process. He said that after an initial idea has been explored (this can even be a pencil drawing on a piece of paper), the blueprint for a product is drawn on a computer in 2D, before being transferred it a 3D-printer in order to produce its polylactide prototype – all in the space of around six hours, which is infinitely better than having to wait weeks for an old-fashioned clay mock-up. From this hollow model the team can get straight to work on where to fit which electronics (motor/s, circuit board, battery) to get the item functioning at its optimum. Sex-tech geekery satisfaction!

The prototype is then produced in China, and its first draft returns to rigorous quality control testing in the UK before being handed out to a select team of sex toy enthusiasts for testing. The products are then tweaked and optimised thanks to extensive feedback from user questionnaires and comments – a Community resource with which precious few manufacturing companies can compete. Having all this input and technology on tap means that it now takes only around eighteen months from concept to completion for the tried and tested product to hit the store: impressive!

Uprize

The latest Lovehoney phenomenon, the Uprize Remote Control Erecting Realistic Dildo was introduced to us by Paul. Paul explained how the mechanics were based on a little wooden giraffe on a thimble-shaped stand, where as you pressed the base the animal’s legs collapsed under it; the other modeled on a toy snake that could move, extend and compress, yet also retain its core size.

Combining similar elements of flexibility in an electronic adult toy was a real challenge: Uprize needed to be built around lightweight, segmented articulated sections that could either lock and stay firm, or unlock and be floppy – without a noisy transition in between. This led to Paul and his team developing Lovehoney’s very own, brand-new AutoErect patented technology, with the whole process – including various prototypes, 3D SLA modelling, reviewer trials plus repeated trips back to the drawing board, bedroom and beyond – taking around 20 months to get right. But hey, the investment was worth it: in pushing new boundaries Lovehoney made Uprize a genuinely unique product, creating a worldwide first (and no doubt plenty of less professional giggles!) in the process.

Lovehoney designs and sells well over 300 of its own products a year, so perhaps unsurprisingly considering its exceptional Community resources and growing international position in the market, the company shrewdly keeps much of its stock in-house, sharing carefully curated items with selected Distributors and Trade partners worldwide.

The Future of Sex Toys and Lovehoney Funnies

Then followed a discussion on the future of the adult industry. This was again chaired by Paul Jaques, who explored subjects as diverse as advances in materials and technology; Artificial Intelligence and silicone sex dolls, motion sensor toys and Teledildonics (sex toys for long-distance or virtual fun); non-gendered and non-anatomical sex toys; developments in battery lifespan and weight inspired by the electric car industry; and the manufacturing of more ecological biodegradable packaging and products in general.

Alongside Paul sat Lovehoney Channel presenters Jess and Sam to shed light on Lovehoney employees’ most frequently asked questions such as, “What’s it like working at a sex toy company?” Jess, ‘It’s eye (and all-orifice!)-opening: you become ‘dick blind’ very quickly. You think you’re open-minded and then you become ‘open-minded with crowbars’’. And ‘Which is the coolest sex toy Lovehoney has produced?’ The response being Coco de Mer’s Nell Pleasure Seed, a 18K gold-plated vibrator in the shape of the coco de mer seed, named after Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn and retailing at a cool AUD $21,000. Sam also spoke about sex education, and how alongside factual and practical STI and pregnancy avoidance, teaching about sex for pleasure was all-too overlooked, especially for women: ‘You know how to eat but you still need to be taught how to use a knife and fork’. Point taken (see what we did there?!).

LH HQ’s Bath Warehouse

After that shocker it was time to get things moving, so we were invited to explore Lovehoney’s backend (metaphorically speaking). It goes without saying that with multiple variations of any one product there were thousands of sex toys stored in the company’s cavernous two-story warehouse. And amongst them, utterly unfazed by truncated silicone body parts and medical fetish kits, the Bath staff confidently located orders, packing items into carefully sealed, unbranded and understated brown cardboard boxes – without a barbecue tool in sight.

Synergy was lucky to enjoy a personalised tour of Lovehoney Towers thanks to the company’s ever-hospitable PR & Communications Executive, Jacqueline Cameron. Jacqs explained that each item in the warehouse was stored under its own stock number on a shelf (or few), and that due to the sheer volume of new product releases every season.

After warehouse photo opportunities we left Lovehoney’s Reception building and crossed the road, passing the pub to continue towards Lovehoney’s second set of buildings. This was where the Customer Advisors were situated, headsets on, tapping away on LiveChat in multiple languages, ensuring that the company’s trademarked promise of ‘The Sexual Happiness People’ was fulfilled in a respectful and engaging manner (Sense of Humour being listed in the job description of each Customer Service Advisor as an essential requirement for each applicant).

Jade Bawa, Sales Executive for Europe and Australia

Popping into the office of the multilingual Lovehoney Trade team, Synergy immediately spotted an array of industry awards sparkling in the sun on the windowsill. We sat with Jade Bawa, Sales Executive for Europe and Australia, who talked us through her favourite Lovehoney Trade items – like the deliberately non-denominational Fifty Shades calendars.

Firstly, Jade talked us through the ‘Pleasure Overload: 10 Days Of Play’ Couple’s set, pitched as an excellent introduction to the brand. Here, ten mysterious doors hid sensual items such as rose-gold nipple clamps and silky purple bondage gear, cleverly packaged to be gifted at any time of year for events such as a wedding, honeymoon or birthday – or maybe just because.

We then had a leaf through its big sister, the utterly covetable Fifty Shades Of Grey calendar ‘There’s Only Sensation: 24 Days of Tease’, aimed at confident (and financially-blessed!) customers. The calendar helpfully contained instructions for each item, such as ‘use with water-based lube’ written on the back of the corresponding window. Hidden behind day 24 was Jade’s preferred toy the Fifty Shades Greedy Girl Rabbit vibrator, ‘one of the bestsellers around the world, so one of the big selling points of the calendar.’

Expounding on the happy rabbit® brand introduced to us earlier in the day by Product Director Bonny Hall, Jade showcased an updated variety of nine different Rabbits including Realistic, G–Spot, Slimline, Thrusting and Beaded, originally launched in 2012. For the latest happy rabbit® collection (launched in Australia in Autumn 2018), Jade confirmed that in true Lovehoney style, ‘We’ve put every website review back into our product development. So, if a customer says, “It would be more comfortable if these ears were a millimeter closer to the shaft,” or “If this had this motor in here…” that’s where the latest product development has come from. Because of our Community, we have every confidence that this is the product the customer is wanting at this price-point in the market.’

If America preferred realistic styles, which Rabbits did Australians favour? ‘In Australia the demand for the different styles does pretty much follow the same as Europe and the USA: Pink is always going to be popular, the G-spot is always going to be popular. And with the happy rabbit® range you’ve got over half-a-million sold with over 1,000 5-star reviews.’ So…it’s all popular!

Showing us a photograph of a storefront in Europe, complete with happy rabbit® branded window decals and hanging graphics, Jade mentioned that Lovehoney Trade are always sure to hand out happy rabbit® testers to in-store staff, ‘So they’re genuinely familiar with the product and have confidence in selling it. The pink G-Spot happy rabbit® is particularly popular with staff – and customers too’. Synergy was allowed a sneak preview of three upcoming happy rabbit® toys for couples, male and female, due to launch in early 2019, so we would suggest you watch this space – especially given the scientific success of the brand’s predecessors!

In Australia, Lovehoney’s profile has been raised by distributors Calvista, AAPD and M Distribution working to increase the UK company’s presence both online and in-store, promoting Lovehoney Trade brands in Adult outlets, lingerie retailers and big pharmacy or drugstore chains. Jade noted that these distributors offered something for every demographic, from Broad City which appealed to younger women, Blow-Yos for the males, and Tracey Cox and happy rabbit® across the board. And, of course, the unstoppable Fifty Shades juggernaut for couples and…everyone, it seemed!

Indeed, since Fifty Shades became a mainstream phenomenon, first-time toy users who might have previously felt intimidated walking into bricks-and-mortar sex stores have been boosting footfall and in-store sales worldwide. And if there’s enough diversity on offer in a collection – as there is with Lovehoney’s Fifty Shades – then, according to Jade, ‘If you’re a first-time buyer you could try out the Fifty Shades Weekend Collection Kegel Balls at a cheaper price-point. Then, have the confidence in the quality of the product to move up to the Original Collection Silver Balls, and then maybe go for a Remote Egg from the Freed Collection. So here, Lovehoney’s Fifty Shades products give the retailer assurance for brand development, as you have the flexibility for repeat business in terms of a customer upgrading each time they purchase – and still within the same brand. Which of course we’re still developing.’

The same potential for growth can be applied to Lovehoney’s collaboration with aspirational British brand Coco de Mer, sold through distributors in Australia and New Zealand since 2017. Jade emphasised that Coco de Mer, ‘Is doing really well: there’s a lot of marketing support behind the brand, such as beautiful wooden cabinets and floral wallpaper, plus the really appealing window skins… We also had really lovely Coco de Mer champagne and canapés launches in-store for customers of adultshop.com [in Perth and Tasmania].’ With regards the brand, Jade added that, ‘the Coco de Mer Emmeline Pleasure Wand was in the Fifty Shades Freed movie, so there was a lot of exposure for the product, giving it additional appeal.’ Meanwhile, the Coco de Mer Bondage leather items sell well at the more specialist Australian BDSM stores.

In terms of online versus physical stores, Jade was confident that Lovehoney offered, ‘a lot of tailored support for our brands, depending on whether the shop is online – where we supply banners, logos, social media assets – or in person. For our retail customers we supply POS graphics and displays in-store, and also branded gift bags and travel mugs.’

At some point every member of staff at Lovehoney UK – whether they’re working in the Bath warehouse, Accounts or HR, for example – has the opportunity to access a college course in Sexual Happiness, comprising ‘anatomy, lingerie, sexual health: all sorts of things across the board’, elaborated Jade, ‘with homework which gets marked – and coursework too!’ resulting in a nationally accredited UK qualification named The Lovehoney Sexual Happiness Award, currently available only to Lovehoney employees.

Onward Lovehoney

It may be a shame Lovehoney aren’t sharing their carefully crafted training schemes with the rest of us in the Erotic industry, but with the company’s comparatively long history and the sheer breadth of work ongoing behind the scenes, Lovehoney founders Neal Slateford and Richard Longhurst could be forgiven for keeping as much as possible in-house – recent investment from private Swiss firm Telemos Capital aside. But if you’re aiming to take over the world one sex toy at a time, well, even with Lovehoney’s annual AUD $175m+ turnover you’ll need extra funds to keep up the momentum. And in additional to international expansion, external investment becomes ever more essential if Lovehoney chooses to introduce an increasingly sexually scientific bent to its already-groundbreaking production development- that oft-quoted, incoming ‘science bit’? Readers, it costs mega-bucks.

So let’s not forget Lovehoney’s unique resource, its Community of product reviewers – people from all backgrounds, sexualities, sexes and genders. For, as the business of sex toys becomes as familiar and acceptable as the Fashion or Beauty industries, where diversity is chronically – unforgivably – overlooked, the Lovehoney team will have a unique opportunity to set an example and to spearhead essential change.

Of course, there’s infinite work to be done in the area of inclusivity, but if Lovehoney are aiming to conquer the world; Well, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. As is Lovehoney’s groundbreaking Uprize dildo, another perfect example of the beginnings of something truly wonderful – especially once technology allows the Uprize to become smaller, lighter and altogether more practical for everyday pack-and-play.

Proven Fact

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a sexual woman in possession of a large passion is in want of a vibe. As confirmed by Dr. Nicole Prause in the latest chapter of Lovehoney’s success story, Sales Exec Jade Bawa concludes, ‘in comparing masturbating without a toy to masturbating with a happy rabbit® there was around a 17% increase in the duration of orgasms’.

And Bam! Just like that, Lovehoney moves one step closer to world domination.

Author – Mia More

Images courtesy of Lovehoney, Visit Bath and Mia More
www.lovehoneytrade.com

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