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All Lubed Up and
No Place to Go

To enhance its performance, K-Y Intrigue rubs customers the right way with in-home events that reach 135 percent of Johnson & Johnson Co.’s target audience via word of mouth.

K-Y Jelly’s hold on the personal lubricant market was slip-sliding away. For years, the moistening compound occupied the same enviable niche as Xerox, Kleenex, and other brands whose names became synonymous stand-ins for the products themselves. But with slick competitors like Astroglide, Juicy Lube, and Trojan entering the $120 million domestic lubricant market with a hipper vibe and cooler packaging, K-Y’s share had slipped 11.4 percent to less than 55 percent overall from 2004 to 2007.

When it was made available over the counter in 1980, K-Y’s initial selling points had been practical ones: The latex in condoms and the silicone in sex toys didn’t break down when exposed to the water-soluble K-Y like they did with its petroleum-based competitors. That made K-Y the failsafe choice for avoiding procreation and extending play. But even with 90-percent brand awareness, K-Y was still synonymous with doctors’ offices and the snap of a latex glove. Besides, it came in a boring white-and-blue tube about as sexy as Bengay. Meanwhile, Astroglide sported neon-purple labels and containers shaped like a pole dancer in mid-undulation, while Juicy Lube came in brightly colored bottles and happy-hour flavors like pińa colada. Next to them, K-Y was the missionary position to their reverse cowgirl.

In 2005, Johnson & Johnson started enhancing the K-Y line with new products in an attempt to regain its market share. With K-Y Intrigue, a new massage-oil-slash-lube ready to roll in early 2007, the company turned to Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and Ammo Marketing Inc. to spread the steamy gospel.

Sparking a conversation about the product, Ammo felt, would be the key strategy to Intrigue’s success.

“The trouble is, lubrication is something that people don’t exactly talk about on a regular basis.” says Kerry Lange, the vice president of operations and managing director of San Francisco-headquartered Ammo.

When it came to marketing, K-Y was no stranger to edge play — this is the same brand, after all, that produced the online “Are You British in Bed?” sex survey where, based on responses to its multiple-choice questions, participants discovered if they “Bang like a Brazilian or Ride like a Russian.” But K-Y’s research had shown that, for all the frat-boy appeal of the quiz, women were the backdoor conduits for a lubricant purchase. The guys may be the ones who go into Wal-Mart or Walgreen’s to pick up a tube, but it’s the women who likely decided whether it was going to be K-Y or a sexytime rival.

If women were the power behind this throne, Ammo believed the best way to leverage their clout in the boudoir was in-home events hosted by female “influencers” — the marketing version of the cool kids in high school everyone wanted to be like. Many women are still uncomfortable shopping for — or discussing — amorous accessories. But in-home events offered privacy as well as sympathetic friends instead of glaring strangers. They are also built on a known quantity — the iconic and in-home Tupperware parties, which are now as familiar a part of the American cultural landscape as Jell-O. “Companies such as Passion Parties and Slumber Parties have been hosting these kinds of Tupperware-like events for years where they sell everything from lingerie to lubricants,” says Lisa Horn, president of Irving, TX-based Media Métier Inc., a media-relations agency. “It’s a much more comfortable atmosphere.”

“Women are more comfortable talking about sex and sexuality with each other than men are,” Lange says. “If we could find influencers and create a context for them to talk about sensuality, they could help promote K-Y.”

To find these alpha females, Ammo posted notices on Craigslist in New York and San Francisco, two cities considered progressive. Aiming for women between the ages of 25 and 40 with an active sex life — a demographic Lange terms “the sweet spot” because it’s a sex-and-the-citified group most likely to buy lubricants — Ammo rounded up almost 500 candidates. After screening them with an online questionnaire and a 10-minute phone interview that vetted them for the influencer traits listed above, Ammo ended up with 52 finalists.

But instead of handing them a script with talking points to memorize and recite, Ammo invited the influencers for a prep session where they received samples of Intrigue so they could do more than pay lip service to it. To help make the in-home events worth attending, the company offered them five themes for which it would provide products and services, including: exotic-dance lessons, a cooking class, and a sex-toy party.

Ammo encouraged the hosts to invite 10 to 15 guests per event — easy, since many piggybacked the parties on standing social occasions, such as book clubs, mom’s-night-out soirees, and jewelry parties. Running three to four hours each, the hosts and guests cooked, sipped, danced — and not incidentally dished like Samantha and Carrie on sex. Guests went home with samples of Intrigue and coupons to spur further research.

Held over a six-week period, the events culminated in more traditional functions. Ammo invited the influencers, their guests, and both groups’ significant others to launch galas for the lubricant in both cities. The Manhattan fete was held in a gallery with celebrity hosts, specialty cocktails, and sensual performance art, while the San Francisco affair took place in a restaurant/night club where the patrons dined in beds and watched a lingerie fashion show.

Selling sex is always risky business, but K-Y’s results proved almost as slick as its product. Between the 52 Influencers, the 562 guests who attended the in-home events, and the subsequent launch parties, Ammo calculated that word of mouth on the product reached an estimated 16,744 people, about 135 percent of its original forecast. Additionally, when Ammo surveyed the influencers — who by their nature kept enthusing to others about Intrigue long after the parties were over — it found that 73 percent of them now viewed the K-Y products in the same light as luxury brands such as Godiva and Victoria’s Secret. With K-Y’s market share back up to a little over 55 percent by mid-2008, it was clear that, for K-Y, in-home events had started to salve the day.

The Hershey Co. Helps
Women Follow Their Bliss

The only thing sweeter than The Hershey Co.’s Bliss chocolates are the 10,200 in-home events that launched them, spreading the word of the new confections to 7 million people.

Chocolate can cure depression, lower your blood pressure, lessen pain, and biochemically duplicate falling in love. What the delicacy made from ground-roasted cacao beans can’t do, however, is market itself. So when The Hershey Co. wanted to promote its new line of Bliss chocolates in 2008, it didn’t want to be caught, as the Gingerbread Man said in “Shrek 2,” “up chocolate creek without a popsicle stick.”

The most effective strategy to avoid that, Hershey felt, was to launch a national rollout event that would somehow allow people the intimate experience of sampling the full line, and advertise it by word of mouth. Hershey’s solution was as radical-smart as mixing chocolate with peanut butter: hold a giant, in-home launch event.

Working with House Party Inc., an Irvington, NY, marketing-services firm, Hershey set the weekend of April 25 to 27, 2008, for a series of 10,200 house parties across the nation to coincide with the candy’s debut. “In-home events would allow Hershey to target exactly the demographic it wanted — women age 25 to 49 with families and jobs who would be most likely to spread the news about Bliss by word of mouth,” says Kitty Kolding, CEO of House Party.

House Party began what it terms “host aggregation” by e-mailing several thousand consumers in its database who had previously emceed (or had signed up on the Web site to be considered to emcee) events in their homes, while Hershey reached out through its consumer newsletter and searched blogs devoted to women and chocolate to locate candidates.

Once the efforts had recruited about 22,000 potential hosts, House Party filtered them through an online questionnaire that not only vetted them for the desired age range and how often they entertained and socialized, but also for how digitally adept they were, too, at such online activities as blogging, downloading music, and uploading photos. “Word of mouth online is now as important and authentic as word of mouth offline,” Kolding says. “We looked for people who could — and would — spread their influence both ways.”

After it assembled the necessary 10,000 hosts, House Party set each one up with a personal event-planning page on its Web site. Here, hosts could manage invitations, guest lists, and RSVPs, as well as access a Web page where they could track the overall number of parties and guests, blog about their experiences, and view photos and videos uploaded post-party. Clicking on an interactive party locator let hosts see what other hosts were preparing, a feature that allowed a cross-fertilization of ideas while subconsciously influencing standardized approaches.

House Party suggested the hosts invite 13 to 15 women and offer guests any of three activities — scrapbooking, wine-tasting, or trivia — that would help keep the three- to five-hour events loose and organic, so they wouldn’t come across like an infomercial. “It was important for authenticity that the parties feel individual, not mass-produced,” Kolding says.

With Hershey debuting several varieties of Bliss, it was also important to keep guests long enough to taste all of them. Which is why, besides supplying each event host with giveaways such as branded magnets, pens, grocery-list pads, coupons, and photo albums, House Party furnished 15 pounds of the candy — almost a pound per guest.

Of course, the proof of any event is in the pudding — or in this case, the chocolate. House Party’s Effectiveness Quotient (EQ) — its measurement of how well the events achieved the client’s goals — included a word-of-mouth measure. According to the company’s estimates, the events’ 129,000 guests created an informational ripple effect, ultimately spreading the news about the confections to approximately 7 million people — more than the combined populations of Vermont and Oregon. For Hershey, in-home events weren’t just sweet — they were pure Bliss.

Annie, Get Your
Stun Gun

Taser International Inc. doubles its consumer sales by hosting a series of in-home “Taser parties” where female guests demo the company’s stun-guns.

It’s hard to market a product whose very use has been condemned by one of the most respected organizations in history. But Scottsdale, AZ-based Taser International Inc. has stayed safely grounded with a well-aimed marketing strategy, despite high-voltage campaigns against it by Amnesty International.

Inspired by the 1911 children’s-adventure novel “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” the Taser was originally developed by NASA scientist Jack Cover in the 1970s. (“Taser” was his acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.”) The device immobilizes victims by delivering 1,200 volts of electricity from two barbed darts to trigger skeletal muscle spasms — and independent research has never linked it directly to any fatalities.

Taser tried a strategy of selling a consumer version of the non-lethal weapon through The Sharper Image to a demographic it estimated would consist 75 percent of female consumers. But myriad obstacles, including the fact that the units were underpowered and far too large to realistically fit into a purse, shot down that plan. “They were the wrong shape and color for consumers,” says Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle. “As most consumer electronics were becoming smaller and more fashionable with various colors, ours was a stark black or yellow device which was oversized and underpowered.”

Furthermore, the company’s products looked too much like actual guns, a design that put off female customers who didn’t want to carry something that looked so much like a weapon. As a result, sales were less than electrifying. “The American way is to keep making mistakes until you succeed,” Tuttle says. “We were the kings of that. Then we finally got smart.”

The company’s IQ started increasing back in September of 2006, when Dana Leigh Shafman contacted Taser International about becoming a dealer for the company. A construction consultant who lived alone in Scottsdale, AZ, Shafman had been asking her mother for a Taser for Christmas since 2003. “I placed a knife under my pillow at night just to feel safe,” she says. Shafman’s plan was to take the jolt out of the Taser’s $1,000 list price with the commissions she could make by selling them part time.

The idea of a female distributor — Shafman would be the company’s first for the new Taser C2 — who focused on female buyers appealed to the company. Until then, it had marketed consumer Tasers mostly through outlets such as gun shops and cell-phone stores, not exactly places with a nurturing vibe where women could have their concerns about weapons addressed at length. But by 2006, the company had given the Taser a consumer-friendly redesign to look more like an MP3 player than a Magnum, cut the price by about 65 percent, and offered them in shades with names more common to Sephora than a stun-gun maker: black pearl, titanium silver, metallic pink, and electric blue. Then the company and Shafman scored a lucky shot.

Shafman tried pre-selling the upcoming consumer model — called the Taser C2 Personal Protector — throughout most of 2007 by cold-calling real estate agents and woman-owned businesses where, she thought, employees might need a self-defense weapon. Despite the company’s claim thatTaser enjoyed a 96-percent brand recognition, everywhere Shafman went it was the same story: Recognition couldn’t penetrate emotional resistance as thick as a Kevlar vest, thanks to negatively charged publicity such as Amnesty International highlighting the more than 150 deaths it said involved Tasers. In nine months, she had sold a mere two units.

Then by chance, Shafman received an invitation for an in-home party where vendors brought various goods to sell in a Tupperware-style gathering. The idea hit her as if she’d stuck her finger in a light socket. “I wondered why I didn’t have an area set aside to sell the C2,” she says. So she went to work with Taser International and developed a female-friendly template for her own in-home events.

Inviting women 18 and older from a select pool of professional and social acquaintances and family, Shafman structured the events more as educational seminars than frothy parties. Scheduled for one to two hours on weeknights so they didn’t infringe on family time over the weekend, Shafman supplied non-alcoholic beverages along with finger foods to prevent any distracting thirst or hunger. She also invited a police officer with Taser experience to each event to handle attendees’ questions and allay their fears about stun guns.

In the relaxed safety of what Tuttle calls “an Oprah environment,” the events massaged the concerns of women who might be reluctant to talk about them in a retail setting. Shafman knew the biggest fears among them included being attacked in a parking garage, children discovering and using the weapon, and simply handling the Taser itself. Attendees pepper-sprayed the police officer with basic questions about the C2, including how long it keeps shocking, and whether it can cause a heart attack. With their fears addressed by the experienced officer, one or two guests test-shot at a stationary target.

Now, after approximately 40 events involving 400 attendees, Shafman’s company, Shieldher Inc., is partnering with Taser International to train others across the country to hold the so-called “Taser parties,” using a similar strategy: in-home events focused on a target market (women, although male attendance is increasing) at convenient times (weeknights) in a non-commercial setting, using impartial authority figures instead of company flacks, and allowing attendees to examine and even demonstrate the device. “When you’re selling something that can scare people, establishing trust is vital,” says Tuttle. “They trust Dana and the police because they’re independent and credible and they communicate their passion for the product.”

Shafman reports that Taser parties usually yield two orders per every 10 attendees on the spot, and an additional 10 to 20 percent of attendees typically order within a few days.

Overall, while 2007 C2 sales amounted to 4 percent of the company’s revenues (the rest are police and military products), in 2008 the C2 was accounting for 8 percent, doubling its share of sales. For Taser International, after years of aiming at but not quite hitting the consumer market, zappy days are here again. e

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