Prudish Brits may always be reserved when it comes to “unmentionable” products such as condoms but that has not stopped Mates from using a risqué marketing strategy in a bid to build its share of the UK market.
Over recent years, it has attempted to use shock tactics such as a 2006 viral ad set in a fetish hotel, which promoted Mates Intensify stimulating gel, and it launched a guerilla campaign in 2003 to support its online forum ishaggedhere.com, where people could swap stories about their sexual antics and download stickers. The latter fell foul of city councils and poster contractors for illegal flyposting.
But despite various humorous but ultimately low-profile campaigns, the brand has failed to challenge the dominance of market leader Durex. According to a 2006 Mintel report, Durex has an 80% share of value sales compared with Mates’ 11% share.
Mates, which is now owned by Ansell Healthcare but was launched by Richard Branson in the mid-Eighties, is planning to ramp up its mainstream advertising in a bid to steal some share. It has appointed agency WARL (MW last week) to handle its account and it is understood the agency has already started work on a campaign that will differentiate Mates from its rival.
Mates already positions itself as a younger brand than Durex or Trojan, which is in third place in terms of market share, and Pasante, which is the brand supplied by the NHS. But Michael Tully, an independent trends analyst, believes that Durex is “generic” and Mates could benefit from taking a similar approach to Trojan’s “pretty simple” branding in the US.
He adds that Mates could also draw a lesson from Unilever-owned deodorant brand Lynx, which has successfully targeted the young male market, and look to work in partnership with media such as weekly lads’ mags Nuts and Zoo. “It could easily be a real competitor to Durex. It’s just a matter of targeting,” he says. “Nuts and Zoo have cornered a tone and have a reach in that market.”
The need to look for innovative ways to target its market will be key to the success of Mates, says one industry insider. He explains: “Mates needs to separate itself as fun and young. It should also be looking at commercial opportunities – newsagents, cornershops, universities and schools. It shouldn’t spend money on advertising; it should spend it on sponsorship. It needs to be seen in the right environment.”
While the retail value of the condom market has been dented by price promotions, there has been a shift to “premiumisation” with consumers opting for flavoured or ribbed products that are sold for a higher price.
There have also been some moves to diversify into sex toys over the past two years to add value to the market and move into an area previously dominated by high street sex shop chain Ann Summers. Durex-owner SSL has been launching sex toys under its Play sub-brand for three years, and Mates followed suit in 2006.
Cliff Stubbs, sales and marketing director at SSL, says Durex invests a “considerable amount of money” into marketing its condoms and Durex Play products at the 16to 24-year-old market.
The Durex Play range, he explains, was launched in response to the brand’s consumer insight and was a “natural brand extension”. Meanwhile, its lubricant range is also the market leader. Stubbs believes that Durex’s ability to innovate helps it remain dominant in the market, with at least one new launch each year.
Despite its move into lubricant gels, industry observers believe that new product development is an area where Mates has missed a trick. The source says: “If you go back ten years, it had more of a chance. You didn’t care what brand it was. I think what it has failed to capitalise on is interesting product development.”
But perhaps a key differentiator is that despite condoms remaining Durex’s core business, it aims to be “a brand associated with a person’s overall sexual wellbeing”. Stubbs says its marketing has developed away from “product propositions” to more “consumer-focused” initiatives to reflect this. This has meant campaigns with MTV, Radio 1 and with celebrities such as DJ Tim Westwood promoting the brand.
While Mates is planning a move back into mainstream advertising, observers point out that it also needs to develop its online presence if it is going to succeed with the younger market. At present, the brand is part of the overall Mates Healthcare website, which Tully believes makes it seem “clinical”.
However, he also points to deeper problems with its advertising strapline: “Just don’t forget to invite your mates”. The industry insider agrees with Tully: “There’s a problem with the name. Your mates are people you go to the pub with.”
Mates will need to ramp up its new product development if it is going to become a significant challenger to Durex, but there are also many significant opportunities such as digital marketing and branded content for Mates to talk directly to its core audience. This will be crucial if it is to push Durex aside as the safe but boring option and reposition itself as the condom of choice for the trendy teens.
Facts and figures: Mates
1885 First rubber condoms were produced. By 1920 latex condoms were made, with polyurethane condoms introduced in 1994
1987 The year after the first British Aids awareness campaign, condom sales in the UK increased by 20%. Sales continued to rise every year up to 1994, when media coverage of Aids and HIV began to subside
1988 Mates was launched by Virgin Group founder and chairman Richard Branson and was bought by Ansell Healthcare, which then spent £10m relaunching the brand
2006 Durex accounts for over 80% of value sales of condoms in the UK. Mates is the second-largest retail brand in the market, with about 11% of sales.