Sephora recently sent out an email encouraging customers to buy the usual mascaras, blush compacts and face masks. But tucked among those products was a promotion for “intimate care,” encouraging shoppers to try two brands that were new to the retailer — Maude and Dame Products.
A click on a link led to dozens of artistically designed vibrators, lubricants oils for sensitive body parts, and candles that are able to burn down into massage oils.
Sephora is the latest major retailer to embrace a category known as “sexual wellness,” following Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, which started carrying such products last year. Products like vibrators, lubricants, and other products have been made more appealing to women-oriented retailers by careful branding, word choice, and packaging. It’s a significant evolution in the public acceptance of such products, helped in part by celebrity endorsements, and it comes amid a broader focus on wellness and self-care spurred by the pandemic.
“People are spending more time, energy and disposable income on their own wellness, so it was natural that this expanded to sexual wellness,” said Elizabeth Miller, a vice president who oversees cosmetics at Bloomingdale’s. “It’s evolved so much from what it used to be maybe 10 or 15 years ago to be much more approachable.”
Bloomingdale’s — which recently promoted “the ultimate sexual wellness picks” alongside bathrobes and David Yurman jewelry in a Valentine’s Day marketing email — introduced sexual wellness products in May 2021, after an employee in its executive development program pitched the idea. Ms. Miller said that some of the retailer’s comfort with the strategy could be traced to the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, whose Goop brand introduced a vibrator last year.
“Seeing Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop take the lead in this category made it feel brand right for us, so I give her a lot of credit,” Ms. Miller said, noting that the products are seen as a draw for Generation Z and millennial shoppers. “Obviously, we reviewed it internally with management to make sure everyone felt comfortable, but the performance has been very strong.”
Being promoted alongside other luxury and beauty products lends credibility to start-ups that sell adult-oriented goods, which can often have difficulties following advertising guidelines.
“Sephora and these other big beauty retailers are saying, it’s just like everything else, you can buy it together,” said Éva Goicochea, founder and chief executive of Maude, which is carried at Bloomingdale’s and Sephora. “It’s impactful in this subtle way.”
Or as Alexandra Fine, co-founder and chief executive of Dame, put it: “Each time somebody puts us in their store, especially a major player like Sephora, it makes it easier for other people to put in their store, easier for investors to invest in us and easier for customers to buy us.”
Dame and Maude have many things in common. Both start-ups are headquartered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They both were founded and lead by women. Maude, which started selling products in 2018, raised more than $10M in funding. Dame, which was founded in 2014, raised more than $5M.
Vibrators have been associated with adult shops for years. They are often seen as seedy and male-oriented, or in the fluorescent aisles at Walmart or drugstores. Dame and Maude aimed to improve the retail experience through more approachable language and better design. Celebrities have also been involved: Dakota Johnson, an actress, works with Maude as a co-creative director and investor. Demi Lovato (singer) has released sex toys in collaboration with other big brands.
Lisa Finn, a brand manager and sex educator for Babeland, the decades-old feminist adult products emporium with stores in Seattle and New York, said that conversations about sex toys became more “normalized” during the pandemic as people were suddenly isolated either alone or with their partners. She has increasingly seen them referred to as “pleasure products” or “sexual wellness tools.”
“This takes some of this idea that sex toys are dirty or kinky,” she said. “And though they absolutely can be, for a lot of folks, these are tools.” That shift “does allow for them to exist in the mainstream,” she said.
Tyler Aldridge, director of product at Maude, said that the brand was “trying to blend this idea of beauty, wellness and sexual wellness.” Retailers have liked those terms, along with phrases like “sexual health” or “intimate care,” Ms. Goicochea said, adding that Maude was more about “intimacy and romance than explicit sex.” These terms have the benefit of both sounding healthy but stopping short of making any kind of medical claim.
Maude sells vibrators priced at $49 in muted colours, but it also sells amber hued bottles containing $25 aloe and water-based moisturizers, $35 unscented massaging oil, and $18 minerals bath salts. The products’ minimalist design and limited color palette are perhaps no surprise given that Ms. Goicochea previously worked at Everlane, the clothing brand that prioritizes a similar design aesthetic. Maude’s office in Williamsburg similarly boasts plenty of natural light, soaring ceilings, light wooden shelves and desks, as well as lots of clean white text on dark backgrounds. Clean lines abound.
While Dame is more focused on devices, it also carries a $30 “arousal serum,” an $18 aloe-based lubricant and a $95 adult-oriented pillow called, much in keeping with start-up parlance, “Pillo.”
The companies tend to emphasize their products’ clean and natural ingredients. Descriptions like “aloe-infused” and “contains jojoba oil” are common.
Some retailers have been taken by surprise at the products’ styling. For example, Mr. Aldridge explained that Madewell, a clothing store, initially rejected the idea of carrying Maude products online. But then a buyer actually saw the items on a colleague’s desk, marveled that they “looked like a beauty brand,” and decided it was worth adding them to the company’s online marketplace.
Cristina Nuñez, the co-founder of True Beauty Ventures, a venture firm that invested in Maude, said that the products were crafted with an eye to the “shelfie,” meaning that people can feel proud and comfortable displaying the items in a photograph on social media.
“We would joke around that the vibe was something that you could leave out on your night stand and not be embarrassed that you had a vibrator on your night stand,” she said. “There wouldn’t be that stigma around it because it wasn’t crass.”
It’s difficult to estimate the size of the sexual wellness industry, particularly because increasingly it can cross over into beauty products. Many of the key players in the industry are private companies. Dame as well as Maude refused to disclose their sales figures. But Ms. Nuñez, who studied seven or eight similar brands before investing in Maude, said that many of the companies her firm looked at made in the “low single-digit millions” of dollars in revenue. She expressed optimism about the path to tens or millions of dollars in revenues and beyond.
“The opening of retail to these brands will help them get there,” Ms. Nuñez said, “because historically, they really were only able to get to that point through direct-to-consumer, and now they’ve got multiple outlets, from mass, to prestige to luxury department store channels.”
Showing up in a major retailer’s emails also helps the brands with their advertising issues, which do still come up. Dame, for instance, recently settled a lawsuit with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which had rejected an ad campaign because it was a “sexually oriented business.” The M.T.A.’s move had raised an outcry, given other subway ads for things like erectile dysfunction medications and the Museum of Sex.
Instagram and Facebook have banned ads on social media that promote the sale of or use or promotion of adult products or service, especially those that are sexually explicit. That means brands have to get creative — and the notion of “sexual wellness” helps. While Maude may not be able to advertise its devices on these platforms, it can promote its “massage candle,” which melts into massage oil, and its condoms.
“The reality is we’ll still see flags, we’ll still get our warnings,” Ms. Finn of Babeland said, but Babeland’s products are less likely “to be targeted as such if we’re not talking about them as vibrators but rather as ‘tools’ or ‘massagers.’”
Ms. Fine said it was a hard battle. When she tried posting about Dame’s launch with Sephora on LinkedIn this month (“Somebody pinch me — after 5 years of pitching, we are in SEPHORA!”) her post was automatically removed multiple times for violating the professional site’s guidelines against “sexually explicit material or language.” That persisted even when she included a link to an article about the deal. Ms. Fine said that she had a similar experience last year when she posted about Dame’s being at Bloomingdale’s.
“It does feel personal in some way — it’s my voice and me as an entrepreneur, making me feel like I’m inherently unprofessional because of what I do,” she said. But she said that she hoped the partnership with Sephora and Bloomingdale’s would dull that perception.
Retailers are largely offering sexual wellness products online — Ms. Miller of Bloomingdale’s pointed out that many customers probably prefer the privacy — though Ms. Goicochea and her team are hoping that Maude will make it to Sephora stores in 2023. One of her colleagues noted that logistics can be tricky at traditional specialty and department stores — After all, is a vibrator to be used in conjunction with the hairstylers and beauty products?
Nordstrom sold the products in a few stores last year. The company also placed vibrators and other items at 10 self-love themed pop-up shops. While a company spokeswoman said that “the customer response was very strong,” the products have not become permanent fixtures. “Not all our customers are comfortable approaching the category openly and we want to be thoughtful and sensitive in our approach,” the spokeswoman said in an email.
Ms. Fine noted that she has been in talks for five years with Sephora and said that even the online presence is a big change from the reception she received back when she started her business. She applied for an accelerator program, which promised to help start ups grow. Two judges provided feedback on each pitch.
“One judge wrote, ‘Is this a joke?’ and that was his whole piece of feedback,” she said. “That is telling of what 2014 was like versus now.”