It’s easy to get excited about the financial opportunities of the sex tech industry. But marketing agency Healthy Pleasure Collective wants to put the pleasure back into the sex tech business. By acknowledging individual sexuality and prioritising customers’ sexual fulfillment, the agency believes brands can not only advance faster, but have a positive social impact too.
The sexual wellness market accounted for $39 billion in 2017 and has been estimated to be growing at a 30% annual rate. With the industry predicted to be worth $122 billion by 2026 investing in sex tech looks like a good move.
At Healthy Pleasure Collective, fundraising and development are about more than making money. Founded by business and brand architect Dominnique Karetsos and Dr. Maria Fernana Peraza Godoy, a urologist, andrologist and sexual medicine expert, HCP is a full service agency dedicated to sex tech. The team offers consulting, fundraising, branding, product development, digital marketing, communications, press and business development for entrepreneurs in the field of sexual health and wellness technology. HCP seeks to innovate, advance and build sexual health and technology brands while holding onto the key factor motivating all our interactions with them: pleasure.
The pursuit of pleasure is inherently human, say the founders. When we leave it out, we not only ignore a crucial part of the user experience, we neglect to recognise a vital part of our humanity. By tapping back into this, they say, products and solutions can thrive in the market while also having a positive impact on sexual health and wellness.
I caught up with Dominnique Karetsos to find out how brands can go about mixing pleasure with business.
Franki Cookney: What prompted you to set up an agency dedicated to sextech startups?
Dominnique Karetsos: I have been an entrepreneur and consumer brand architect for almost 20 years, but eight years ago I was a co-host on BBC Radio London, and it was that experience, combined with becoming a mum of a daughter, that led me to personally and socially understand the intrinsic value of sexuality in living a healthy, fulfilling life.
Dr. Mafe Godoy (we call her Mafe) supported me while I architected sex toy brands, repositioning them as healthy, even after people slammed phones on me and others threw me out of meeting rooms. We joined forces and curated a collective of experts in a space dedicated to this industry.
Cookney: What specific needs does the sex tech industry have when it comes to marketing and brand development?
Karetsos: The one that screams help is language. We need digital marketing channels and platforms, namely Google, Facebook, Apple, and Instagram, to educate, engage with and enhance experiences with our marketing messages. But they chip away at our strategies with ignorant and inflexible algorithms, shadow-banning us and shutting us off. Brands entering in this space who invest in an app run a high risk of being shut down. So the strategy for digital marketing has to be a well thought-out process. It has to be tested, tested and tested again, and the language has to be adapted but not diluted. Brand tones must be authentic but still steer clear of being stereotyped by an algorithm.
Cookney: What specific challenges does the sex tech industry face?
Karetsos: Our industry may be robust in value but we are finite in people. Attracting skills is a tough feat. There is no sex tech chapter at university or college or at school level economics, and there is certainly no “101: How to Market Sex Toys” in advertising class. We are seeing a slow but positive upturn but not fast enough to meet the growth at which sex tech start-ups are scaling.
Cookney: What has changed in the way sexual wellness products get marketed?
Karetsos: Before sex tech, we started with “adult”—the sex toys and movies we bought down a dark alley in a brown paper bag. And anything sexual in daylight was and still is largely polarised as either porn or family planning.
It is fair to say we have migrated from “adult” to sexual health awareness. We have dating apps for all sexual identities, fertility apps, long-distance vibrating toys, AI dolls being used in mental health treatment. But it is still very apparent that our industry is like an uncomfortable teenager struggling with what to call ourselves, and not knowing if its more socially digestible to say “sex tech” or “sexual wellness.”
Cookney: Why is it so important to you to integrate sex tech and sexual wellness with health?
Karetsos: Sex is a health issue. Through sex tech we make room for the importance of sexuality and its inherent value in our lives. The World Health Organization defines sexual health as “a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality.” It says that “it requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” But to date we have not incorporated sexuality as part of our social understanding of global health.
Cookney: How does this message impact a company’s marketing strategy?
Karetsos: In the traditional sense of marketing, knowing who your target audience is to curate your message is vital to your communication strategy. But in sex tech, every human who is of age to associate with a sexual identity is potentially your audience. But they will not all become your customer. Emily Nagoski said it best when she said: “There are as many sexualites as there are humans.” No one sexuality is the same, so a marketing strategy that throws paint at the wall and hope it sticks will not bring sustainable longevity in brand share.
We must care enough to educate and nurture sexualities, developing the tools that enable people to explore in safe spaces, judgement free. Be it a fertility tracking software or an educational video on how to masturbate, brands should consider who and how to market, and not just provide labels that society insists upon.
Cookney: What have you learnt about the sex tech sector since founding HCP?
Karetsos: The sector is still largely polarised. On one side you type “vulva” or illustrate a nipple and social channels can close an account in an instant. While in other mediums we trivialise sex—we use it sell everything. But within this polarised market lie pockets of radical innovation. For example, we have an all-out warfare on porn (rightly or wrongly). But most of us watch it at some point so instead let us change the scripts to illustrate consensual, ethical, real life experiences. Cue the rise of female audio porn start-ups.
Sex tech’s potential to change the biomedical industry, and enhance research in a field as overlooked as female sexual health, is another learning we have had. It’s not just about developing devices, but also the development of knowledge from big data that many apps are already collecting. This data will lead to the development of new treatments in female sexual functioning, including diagnostic and therapeutic devices.
Cookney: What challenges do you think the sector faces in the future and how can these be met successfully?
Karetsos: A megawatt spotlight needs to be shone on regulation. We are not a regulated industry so brands have the freedom to promise anything and not be held accountable. Only now ISO regulations are coming into action ensuring that medical grade silicone, used for menstrual cups and toys, are of healthy compliance.
However, despite the challenges, we honestly only see positive change and impact. Maybe it is not as fast or forward moving as we would like but six months ago, sexual wellness was not listed as an independent category in Boots pharmacy or even included in trend emersion beauty reports.
The sex tech industry is responsible for amplifying our beliefs and habits that consensual pleasure is healthy, good and invaluable to our lives as individuals and couples.