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Brand Insight
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Taking on the Big Boys: How Innovation, Aspiration and Charlie Sheen Changed the Condom Conversation

LBB Editorial, 2 months, 2 weeks ago

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with the team at A Little Bird about their incredible journey for challenger brand LELO HEX

Taking on the Big Boys: How Innovation, Aspiration and Charlie Sheen Changed the Condom Conversation

Launching a new product is never easy – but what do you do when the category leaders eat up a whopping 73% of the market share?

The answer is: make sure you have bravery and smarts. In spades.

Thankfully, when integrated agency A Little Bird was tasked with launching an innovative, premium line of condoms from LELO, makers of high end sex toys (they prefer ‘intimate lifestyle objects'), a lack of boldness and ingenuity wasn’t an issue.


LELO HEX claims to be the first major innovation in condom design for 70 years, using a hexagonal molecular structure and graphene, to make a condom that’s thinner, stronger and more comfortable than any other on the market. The decision to create the condom comes from LELO founders background in pharmaceuticals, combined with their experience innovating for pleasure – driven by their unbridled fury that condom usage is down and that diseases that could easily be eradicated still persist in the human population.


Which is all very good, but when condoms are a product whose purchase is shrouded in awkwardness and embarrassment, what do you do?

Upon winning the account back in December 2015, the team at A Little Bird clearly had their work to do when it came to research and insight work.

“The single biggest insight was that condoms aren’t even a reluctant purchase, they’re an automatic purchase,” says Kerryn Beeching, Head of Client Services at A Little Bird, who says that people’s tendency to just grab them off the shelf without lingering too long means there’s little thought given to quality or brand. “They don’t, at the moment, express who you are as a person. They’re an embarrassment… they’re in the supermarket next to the verruca cream.”

The original brief from the LELO HEX team was that they wanted to take on Durex. Upon investigating the market and the barriers facing them, A Little Bird figured that a more targeted approach might prove more effective than trying to swallow everything at once (ahem). The fabled ‘YUCCIES’ (young urban creative) seemed the ideal place to start – people who are just older than millennials, who are willing to spend more on better products, who are influential and who are likely to be somewhat braver when it comes to buying johnnies.

Once the influential YUCCIES buy into the brand and the proposition, a more mainstream roll out among a mass audience becomes easier to achieve.

And that idea of leveraging influencers also fed into the LELO HEX launch – and the central influencer in this case was none other than the notorious Charlie Sheen. In the launch video, he shares his experience of discovering that he was HIV Positive and wryly notes that if there’s one thing he wish he would change, it’s using a condom. At A Little Bird, the prospect of using Charlie Sheen came up early in the conversation, but they ruled him out as a risk too far – before the client at LELO HEX pulled him back into the mix. Appearing at both launch events in London and in New York, Charlie’s involvement has generated a lot of headlines and a lot of controversy.


“When you settle into it and think it through, you see that there’s a redemption story,” says Managing Partner Tim Solano. “There will always be people who disagree with the decision to use Charlie Sheen, for very obvious reasons, but in my mind the impact he has delivered is well worth the risk. It has raised a lot of questions, and he has a lot of personal questions to answer, but awareness around safe sex and STIs has gone up as a result of what we’ve done.”

The transatlantic launch events – which drew on A Little Bird's roots as an experiential agency though now they are a strategically-led integrated agency – featured playful experiences such as a latex wall, ice sculpture condom and testing lab, and was timed to coincide with the LELO HEX launch on Indiegogo. And the decision to get backers on Indiegogo, rather than go straight to retailers, is a growth-hacking move that feeds into that idea of targeting the suave and savvy before heading to the retailer. 

“The traditional approach for brands is to go straight to retailers, start small and go from there. What Filip (Sedic, one of the co-founders) understood that going from A to B to C to D to E is a slow process. His passion meant that he wanted to go from A to E as quickly as possible,” says Tim, noting that within 48 hours they had reached 1500% of their target in 48 hours – which gives the brand a stronger argument for working with the major retailers.

At the time of writing, they’ve reached 2759% of their goal ($331,057 raised of a $12,000 target) in pre-orders, with 13,878 backers – so the decision to go big and go bold was an effective one.

Aside from the headline-grabbing launch, A Little Bird has also been doing extremely detailed work, helping build the brand architecture, the tonality, the language and the phased campaign. For one thing, they want to move the LELO HEX condom out of the traditional medical approach and elevate it as an aspirational lifestyle brand. The innovative product design means that the product does cost more – and it will take some clever brand work to persuade consumers to think twice and give it a go.

“One thing that we tackled very early on is the messaging that brands put out,” says Tim. "Durex is moving away from it but it’s still so negative. It’s all about protection, stopping something, big scary words like that. Nobody was bringing a message of betterness. Early on, we looked at how we could build on the tonality of ‘better pleasures’ and ‘helping facilitate better experiences through innovation’.”

The hope is that they’ll shake up a rather staid category which has traditionally been dominated by Durex in the UK and Trojan in the US, says A Little Bird CEO Ed Wood. Even if it means goading rivals into raising their game, the ultimate win is to make sure more people use protection. “They’ve been rightly bolshy with the above-the-line stuff they’re doing, antagonising the big players, saying, ‘look we’re small but we’re here to shake the market up and innovate. Or join us, innovate as well... but let’s put a focus on people actually using condoms’.”

Part of the challenge, too, is to normalise condoms as a topic for conversation. It’s a process the whole team at A Little Bird underwent themselves from the moment they started working on the pitch. “It’s very normal that if you bring someone into a project that’s all about sex that, initially, there might be some awkwardness. But we found that, within days, that disappears and the focus starts to be on a more comfortable conversation,” says Tim.

Ed agrees, saying that before taking on the client they made sure to have an open conversation with the whole team to make sure that everyone really was up for the challenge.

Having said that, when it comes to dealing with consumers who have varying degrees of comfort or embarrassment, that they would have to be sensitive to that. Normalisation would be a slow process, and one that would have to be driven by insight and strategy. “They’re [LELO] so far into that normalised space that it’s now very difficult for them to have the perspective of the general Joe on the street. From a strategic partner perspective they needed someone who’s not afraid to say, ‘actually, that’s a little much’!” says Kerryn.

A Little Bird's Ed Wood (middle) and Tim Solano (right) joined by new colleague Rob Tammaro of The Brandsphere (left)

The journey that A Little Bird and LELO HEX have been on together is set to continue. There’s the retail launch, which is expected to take place around September, and then the roll out across the United States and Europe, which will be driven by A Little Bird’s Los Angeles and London offices.

The project has been a huge one for the agency, which has had a lot to shout about recently. This week they announced the acquisition of The Brandsphere, they’ve been building their US presence through their LA base and their independent, entrepreneurial mind set puts the six-year-old agency in a prime position to surf the shifting industry landscape.
And their motto? It’s ‘We Create Advantage Through Bravery’. And with LELO HEX, they’ve certainly done that.

Category: Condoms , Pharmacy

Genre: Activation , Luxury , Strategy/Insight