Lube, once taboo, is undergoing a rapid shift. In this article we'll discuss:
The evolution of the personal lubricant space
The growth of venture backed pleasure
The factors contributing to the transformation
The key takeaways for the sex wellness domain
The history of personal lubricants is a long and colorful one. It goes as far back as 350 BC, when the sex-positive ancient Greeks and Romans used olive oil to aid anal penetration. In Asia, mashed yams and gelatinous seaweed extracts were used to provide slippery, smooth lubrication.
But the petroleum-based lubricant as we know it today first began to take form in the 1800s, thanks to American chemist Robert Chesebrough, who invented Vaseline. Although it was primarily intended as a skincare product, it soon became a popular lube. Silicone-based lubes followed shortly after in 1899, when English chemist Frederic Kipping discovered polymer silicone.
The first commercially manufactured lube, KY Jelly, was first developed several years later as a surgical lubricant. It soon became a bedside staple, although it was initially prescription-only. Only in 1917 was it finally available over the counter.
Yet the history of personal lubricants has always held a certain stigma to it. Because of its medical history, it was seen as something to aid sex, rather than something to enhance pleasure. The common sentiment? “I don’t need lube, my body does this naturally!”
Because of this perception, for a long time, lube was produced by major players as a side dish to other mainstream sexual health products like condoms—but never the main.
Evolution of the personal lubricant space
A whole new breed of sex wellness startups are aiming to change that perception and dispel the myth that you only need lube if there’s something wrong down there. Sex educators have been touting lube’s pleasure benefits, while companies like UberLube and Unbound have re-imagined lube, with beautiful packaging that would blend right in with other cosmetics. Lube has come out from hiding in the shadows, and is the cool new kid in town.
Many new players have entered the space, with a women-first approach to marketing. Historically, the dominant consumers of lubes were men. But as sexual wellness becomes more mainstream and less taboo, lubes started being marketed not just for partnered sex, but for solo pleasure as well. Safety and natural ingredients take center stage here, amid growing awareness of potentially harmful and non-hypoallergenic ingredients in mainstream lube options.
But as sexual wellness becomes more mainstream and less taboo, lubes started being marketed not just for partnered sex, but for solo pleasure as well.
These new brands are digital natives and are not afraid to market themselves boldly to a younger generation that is more open-minded and educated on sexual wellness. For these challengers, lube is often the main dish—complete with creative names, packaging, and ultra-luxe, high quality ingredients, including CBD.
Growth in venture-backed pleasure products
The growth potential of these new alternatives is not going unnoticed by venture capitalists either. Many of these new entrants are venture-backed companies, hungry for a slice of this high-growth industry that is projected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2026. This year alone, Maude announced a $5.8 million Series A round, bringing its total funding to over $10 million. LA-based brand Cake also closed a recent $6 million seed round and will soon be debuting their products in Walmart.
It’s also interesting to note who these investors are. True Beauty Ventures, who led the Series A round for Maude, have also invested in brands like Alba Botanica, Deva Curl, and Algenist. Fable Investments, the venture arm of personal care and cosmetic group Natura & Co, also participated in the round. Many of the wellness and supplement brands supported by these investors have already raised hundreds of millions in funding, with products sold everywhere in mainstream retailers like Sephora. These recent investments could be a cue as to where the future of the lube industry is headed.
Factors driving evolving trends in the personal lubricant market
Probably the biggest factor driving lube’s cool factor is changing social norms and consumer philosophy. Increased sex education and movements to reduce stigma and shame around experiencing pleasure have played a big role in driving this. For Gen Zs and Millennials, sex is not just something you experience with a partner. Artists from Hailee Steinfield to Nicki Minaj sing about “feeling good on my own” as something liberating and empowering.
For many, the extended pandemic also engendered greater awareness about health and well-being. As people stayed home and had limited options to date and meet people in person, personal sexual wellness became more important than ever. For today’s consumers, sexual wellness is deeply intertwined with physical and mental health, and pleasure products are part and parcel of a holistic lifestyle.
Then there’s the growing trend of natural, safe personal products—impacting everything from the beauty industry to the cosmetics industry. Veganism is also on the rise. Consumers today care more about the ingredients in their lube than ever before, and challenger brands are capitalizing on this. Lbdo’s vegan and cruelty-free lubricant and massage oils are made with Kakadu plum and quandong. And Figr’s water-based lubricant is made using finger lime, high in vitamins E and C, and strawberry gum from Byron Bay.
Another big trend driving innovation in the space is CBD as an ingredient in lube. The catalyst? Loosening regulations against CBD around the world. According to Tammy Nelson, PhD and certified sexologist: "CBD lube can lead to increased sensitivity for some, and most experience relaxation which creates more willingness to receive pleasurable touch which in turn may lead to better and stronger orgasms.” Some players which have already rolled out CBD-infused options include Foria, GoLove, Privy Peach, Quim, Danni Pepper, and Kush Queen.
A few other factors contributing to growth in the industry include the normalization of sexual wellness across the age spectrum, with women approaching menopause embracing lube as a remedy for vaginal dryness.
New research also finds that patients who have recovered from Covid-19 are more likely to experience ED as a post-Covid-19 symptom.
Three Tips for lube brands
Think like mainstream D2C industries—beauty, supplements, and wellness. Similar to the cosmetics industry, people buy personal care products like lube with their eyes. Packaging is everything. Rather than marketing lube as a product to be hidden away, think beautiful packaging, and empowering messages.
Brands that have tapped into this include Wet, which has rolled out a dessert line with delicious-sounding flavors such as Bananas Foster, Salted Caramel, Whipped Cream and Frosted Cupcake, along with another line, Elite Femme, specifically geared toward women and featuring elegant packaging. And Unbound markets its lube as the “nectar of the goddesses”.
Tap into the potential of repeat purchases. Sexual wellness, like any other form of health, is something people need to keep investing into. Brand building, loyalty, and stickiness are key here. As an example, drawing inspiration from personal care brand Dollar Shave Club: Even offering something as simple as a subscription service in a personalized way turns a ubiquitous product like razor blades into a billion dollar brand.
Caitlin Strandberg of Lerer Hippeau, the VC firm that invested in Cake, believes the time is ripe for sextech brands to go mainstream. “They’re consumer product businesses that are direct-to-consumer. They’re digitally native brands that are omnichannel, and it’s a suite of products that consumers search for, they enjoy, and they come back and replenish,” she said. As evidence of that, Cake has been reporting a 30% customer repeat rate, which is increasing month-over-month—even before its Walmart launch.
Think broader and consider under served segments. Growth potential will come from being inclusive. The industry has gone from marketed to men to marketed to women - but the spectrum is so much broader than that. Thinking about how different audience segments will consume the product should influence everything from product development, to design, packaging and marketing.
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