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It was unthinkable to find sex toys at mainstream retail stores. Smile Makers disrupted this notion and aims to normalise female sexuality.

Alice  |  SG
Published 2021-05-07 17:03:32
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When you want to buy sex toys, where do you usually go to? Seedy sex toy shops in the hidden alleys of Geylang? Or online sex stores offering an array of confusing products with expensive price tags that make you hesitant to purchase before trying?

Noting these concerns, Peder Wikstrom and Mattias Hulting from Sweden aim to break the taboo and stigma surrounding female sexuality products.

In the past, when Wikstrom tried to buy a vibrator for his then-girlfriend (now wife), he realised that the buying experience was very uncomfortable, intimidating and shameful. Even in Europe, female sex toys were not sold in mainstream retail outlets.

The two of them saw this gap and wanted to normalise the experience of buying sex toys in a way that is easy, spontaneous, and more accessible for everyone. Asian market became their initial focus because they felt that there is less competition in this sector.

They went on to raise funding of US$4.4 million from angel investors as well as venture capitals such as DSG Consumer Partners and Nouvago Capital to eventually launch a sex toy brand called Smile Makers.

Making the best sex toys in the world

smile makers sex toys
Image Credit: Smile Makers

Their mission is singularly clear: to normalise female sexuality and create the best sex toys in the world.

Since neither of them had any design or engineering background, they conducted focus groups and market research, working together with a strong product development team, as well as sexologist and gynaecologist experts to come up with their products.

They iterated their prototype, getting multiple trials and feedback to perfect the shape and design. They incorporated stories and personalities for each of their sex toy, inspired by common western and eastern female erotic fantasy.

sex toys at mainstream retail
Example of mainstream retail partners / Image Credit: Smile Makers

After perfecting user-friendly, cute and appealing vibrators at an affordable price point of S$70, they purposely targeted mainstream retail stores to sell their products.

They avoided stores that specialises in sex-related products, and approached pharmacies, grocery stores, fashion and cosmetic stores, as well as department stores.

Conquering mainstream retail stores

Launched in Singapore in 2013, the biggest challenge Smile Makers had to face in their early days was penetrating retail mainstream. Their approach was new and unprecedented, which made it difficult to convince clients and partners to jump onboard.

They kept getting rejections from mainstream outlets that felt that their products did not align with their business image. Up to 2015, they still faced difficulties in partnering with mainstream brands.

smile makers
Initial rejection from mainstream outlets / Image Credit: Smile Makers

Their breakthrough came from Watsons that finally supported their brand mission to normalise female sexuality — it was the first brand that came onboard.

Despite receiving positive reviews from satisfied and curious customers, barriers still existed. Initially, the products were not allowed to be showcased on the packaging, and there were limitations in usage guidelines featured inside. 

smile makers sex toys
Image Credit: Smile Makers

Today, Smile Makers has grown to become a global brand with presence in 4,000 retail stores across more than 25 markets, including Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Mongolia, South Africa and the United States.

They can be found in stores such as pharmacies Watsons and Guardian, department store Isetan, as well as fashion retailer Cotton On.

They are also promoting sex education

Besides persistent and relentless requests to mainstream retail outlets, Smile Makers were also pushing for universal sex education.

They have worked closely with governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to launch sex education campaigns and push for legalisation in conservative countries, because they hope to educate people on the importance of female pleasure for overall wellness. 

They launched Vulva Talks program, which is a pleasure-positive sex education program developed by Smile Makers with sexologists to answer questions about sex and all things vulva. They believe that besides developing top-notch sex toys, it is important for women to understand their bodies in order to experience sexual satisfaction.

smile makers sex toys
Image Credit: Smile Makers

In conservative markets such as Malaysia, they partnered with NGOs like Federation of Reproductive Health Association, Malaysia (FRHAM) to launch sexual education campaigns. FRHAM is the leading service-based non-profit NGO in Malaysia advocating and promoting Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH), including family planning, and reproductive rights of women, men, and young people.

Slowly but surely, all their efforts and determination started to bear fruits.

With the rise of the female technology (femtech) industry in 2016 and the viral spread of the #metoo movement in 2017, empowering women’s claim of their sexuality has become more mainstream. Beauty and fashion brands also started to push for women wellness and body positivity messages, including prioritising sexual wellness.

In late 2018, many mainstream media started to feature them and retailers finally started saying ‘yes’ to them.

In fact, the demand for their products has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. They have witnessed a high demand in the mainstream market, and their revenue increased 123 per cent from 2019 to 2020 in the US alone.

smile makers sex toys
Image Credit: Smile Makers

In October 2020, they conducted a feedback survey among their customers — gathering data from 7,000 women across seven markets — and found that more than half (56 per cent) prefer to buy vibrators from mainstream retail, while 63 per cent prefer to buy from beauty stores.

This is a testament that their push towards mainstream retail was the right move all along.

End goal is to legalise the sex toys industry

Smile Makers constantly improve on their product design and branding to make them more accessible, relatable and easy to use for ultimate female satisfaction.

They are set to relaunch its original collection of innovative vibrators, with a range of upgraded designs driven by user feedback. 

Smile Makers increased the overall product weight by 150 per cent for a more powerful vibration and heightened sensation. They have embedded the latest and best technology available to deliver stronger yet smoother vibrations, whilst the increase in size makes the products more comfortable to hold and allows for precise use.

Commenting on the product design, Cécile Gasnault, brand director at Smile Makers said that customers love the approachability of their designs, so they intend to keep that.

“Although we’ve increased the power of the motors and the size of the products, we have kept the approachable proportions and looks to cater to an audience of first-timers, just as originally intended,” added Ariel Chen, Asia Brand Manager at Smile Makers.

They developed simple, ergonomic designs with cute pastel colour palette that are very appealing. They branded and personalised each product with erotic fantasy personas – like The Firefighter (formerly the Fireman), The Billionaire (formerly The Millionaire), The Tennis Pro, and The French Lover.

smile makers sex toys
Image Credit: Smile Makers

The new packaging features body-positive artwork, while the product names have been updated to hip, entertaining, and relevant descriptors.

In an interview with Vulcan Post, Ariel said that moving forward, Smile Makers is still committed to pursue their original mission of normalising the perception of female sexuality all over the world.

Their ultimate goal is that Smile Makers can become ubiquitous, and their sexual education campaigns would help normalise perception and push for industry legalisation worldwide.

They want to reach as many countries as possible, even in countries where sex toys industry is made illegal, such as Arabic countries, Thailand and Vietnam.

Featured Image Credit: Smile Makers

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