These Sexual Health and Wellness Startups Excel at Discreet Customer Experiences
A wave of new brands is providing door-to-door delivery for wellbeing in the bedroom
A raft of early-stage startups is looking to disrupt traditional embarrassments like visiting a doctor to treat erectile dysfunction or acne and replace them with discreet, direct-to-consumer purchasing experiences that are hush-hush, seamless and personalized.
Perhaps the pioneering brand in this burgeoning category, Hims debuted in 2017 with a series of display ads on New York City subways featuring wan cactuses keeling over or standing upright as a visual metaphor for impotence.
“Hims has done such a great job of bringing humanity into the brand and value proposition,” said Deb Gabor, founder of Sol Marketing and author of Branding is Sex: Get Your Customer Laid. “It’s the convenience of not having to take time out of your day to go and sit in front of a doctor and have what could conceivably be an anxiety-ridden conversation with a clinical professional.”
According to founder Andrew Dudum, the brand grossed $1 million in revenue in its first week. Its more recent Times Square display ads for a line of hair loss-preventing shampoos features looping videos of elated men from the waist up, shampooing themselves in the shower with shaky footage filmed ostensibly from a cell phone.
It’s a strangely intimate montage to take in while walking to work in the morning, but this flavor of in-your-face yet earnest advertising represents a movement among up-and-coming sexual health and wellness brands to make self-care for men and women mainstream, destigmatized and accessible via subscriptions and door-to-door delivery.
In 2018, Hims added a product line targeting women offering birth control, skincare, and Addyi, the only FDA-approved prescription pill for female hypoactive sexual desire disorder – marketed with a banner ad that simply read: “Low sex drives now optional.”
It’s the new standard in Millennial advertising: Ethnically diverse models, bold serif lettering against an earth-toned minimalist backdrop and taglines that make you squirm, like: “Get hard. It’s easy.”
Convenience and a no-frills aesthetic are the biggest sell for brands like Maude, which produces “fuss-free sex essentials” like condoms, personal lubricant and vibrators in chic packaging that masks the item’s purpose.
The decidedly Safe For Work homepage makes Maude look like it innocently touts aromatherapy oils and candles – which it does – but the bottle of what looks like high-end hand soap next to it is actually Shine, a brand of personal lubricant.
Items can be bought piecemeal, but subscribers can have a complete vibrator, lube and condom kit shipped to their doors on a regular basis. While Maude is gender-neutral, fellow newcomers Unbound and Dame carry women-focused sex toys and lube.
It’s not that customers can’t get these items elsewhere; it’s simply a more comfortable experience than walking into a 7-Eleven to buy condoms only to pick up four other unnecessary items to hide it on the way to the checkout counter, or braving the visual assault of a blatantly pornographic sex shop.
On the business side of things, these brands represent a supply-chain disruption that cuts out intermediaries like pharmacies and doctors, the costs of which are typically borne by both the consumer and the business.
While many Millennial-branded, direct-to-consumer startups have sought to revive sleepy categories like electric toothbrushes, suitcases and even underwear with personalized, subscription-based business models, the discreet category offers a value proposition that’s as much psychological as it is practical.
“If I can access this from the privacy of my own home, at work or on the train it maintains my privacy and lowers a lot of the anxiety around it,” Gabor said. “It gives me more confidence that I can get my problem solved and it makes me see my problem as less of a problem and more just a milestone in my life.”
Not to be ignored is the convenience value proposition of a subscription service for crucial items like birth control, where you’re guaranteed to receive a refill before your previous supply runs out.
That was the key premise of Nurx, an on-demand birth control delivery platform founded in 2014 allowing women to order oral or barrier-based contraceptives via a mobile app without having to see a doctor.
Users create a profile, answer a few questions about their health needs and chat online with a licensed physician, who recommends the best contraceptive for your lifestyle, be it the Pill or alternatives like the Nuva Ring or the patch. Similarly, Roman, which offers similar products to Hims, offers on-call consultations with physicians for items that need prescriptions, the cost of which is included in the product.
“This is something that lowers the intensity around the entire experience, and that’s a huge value proposition that I believe customers are willing to pay more for,” said Gabor.
Being tastefully provocative is a survival mandate for brands selling items considered taboo; they have to grab your attention so that you’ll do you further research on the brand – in private, of course.
“When you are building a brand around something people don’t talk to each other about, I think you have to be very provocative and evocative in your brand message and personality in order to get that customer advocacy that you need,” Gabor continued.
The number one source consulted in most purchase decisions is another person, says Gabor, but the discreet category offers remedies for afflictions that aren’t typically part of the everyday exchanges between coworkers, casual acquaintances or even good friends.
What’s more, when advertising online, customers may be wary of clicking on a display ad for erectile dysfunction medication because of retargeting and search engine algorithms which all but guarantee that similar ads will pop up in future browsing sessions.
“I don’t know that guys want to be reminded that they have this problem,” said Gabor.
Humor is another key ploy brands use to destigmatize. One billboard for the Dollar Shave Club shows a gray-haired man peering down the waistband of his white briefs. Another shows a transgendered woman holding a razor to her thick, black leg hair while staring straight at the camera.
Conversely, when Pfizer hired former presidential candidate Bob Doyle to help promote Viagra through a TV campaign in 1998, its approach was too straitjacketed and serious. Doyle appeared in a series of solemn advertisements and speaking engagements designed to raise awareness about impotence where he discussed his battle with prostate cancer with an air of woe-is-me.
“It definitely didn’t reduce the intensity around something that’s just so intensely personal,” Gabor remarked.
Despite the best efforts by brands to vanquish taboos, the rise of telemedicine and virtual health assistants is giving consumers more outs from having to talk to a human about embarrassing afflictions. For one, sending your doctor a picture of your rash while video-conferencing with him remotely is much more convenient and discreet than having to take two hours off in the middle of a workday to go to a doctor’s office.
However, Gabor says that removing barriers to these services and providing self-service options makes people feel less ashamed about seeking help.
“The more brands are created around real acknowledged needs that people have, the more those needs get addressed...and that’s going to make it easier for people to talk about it.”