Last month a commercial set to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On started showing up on Facebook (FB) and other social media sites. The Durex Performax Intense condom, the ad vows, “speeds her up” and “slows him down.” (A special lubricant delays a man’s climax.) It’s not the kind of spot you’re likely to see on network TV. The world’s two leading condom makers have turned to social media and non-network broadcast venues to wage war in the U.S. market, where sales now top $430 million annually, according to researcher SymphonyIRI Group.
Determined to steal sales from Trojan—long Americans’ go-to condom brand—Britain’s Reckitt Benckiser Group (RB/:LN) is doing everything from sponsoring online contests to hosting parties for influential bloggers and sexy celebrity couples (including Ice-T and Coco) to draw buzz for its Durex brand. Although “Durex” has become a generic term for condom in much of Europe, the brand has only a 15 percent share of the U.S. market. Church & Dwight’s (CHD) Trojan dominates with 69 percent of sales. At $33.6 million, Trojan’s U.S. advertising budget was about 26 times as big as Durex’s last year, according to Nielsen (NLSN). “They’re up against the dominant leader,” says Jack Trout, president of brand consultant Trout & Partners. “That’s a big problem.”
Evidence of condom use dates back to 1220 B.C. in Egypt, according to Durex. Today the condom is morphing beyond its utilitarian functions—protecting against pregnancy and disease—into a kind of entertainment product, setting the stage for growth. Condom sales gained 8.1 percent in the 52 weeks through June 10, according to SymphonyIRI. (Its figures don’t include sales at Wal-Mart Stores (WMT).) Reckitt Benckiser bought Durex parent SSL International in 2010 for about £2.5 billion ($3.9 billion). “We have aggressive expansion plans for the Durex brand here in the U.S.,” says Kevin Harshaw, a Reckitt Benckiser executive.
Durex’s marketing is determinedly cheeky in the U.K.—fornicating rubber balloons, people swooning over vibrating power drills—and Reckitt Benckiser is betting that similar ads will play well with Americans. A Durex Facebook campaign this year, for instance, urged participants to nominate their state’s official sex position. The brand has sponsored 5,000 “Durex Girl Talk” house parties, where attendees score samples and coupons. The company is tripling its U.S. marketing budget to $15 million and targeting what Harshaw says is a forgotten group, people aged 25 to 39 who are in relationships. The brand is also seeking growth in a market it calls “sexual well-being,” which includes such sex toys as Durex’s new “Play Ring of Bliss Vibrating Ring.”
Trojan isn’t taking this incursion lying down. The brand is pushing its own Trojan Vibrations line of aids, introduced in 2010, using an online video that promises a vibrator “so good, it will blow your hair back.” “We are always looking for new ways to engage with our fans through a number of channels,” says Nyla Saleh, a spokeswoman for Church & Dwight.
Getting Americans to switch brands won’t be easy. People in the U.S. do not tend to spend a lot of time comparison-shopping condoms, says Jiri Kulik, a former U.S. marketing chief who now heads Reckitt Benckiser’s Latin America unit. “They take whatever they see,” he says, “and then run away.”