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Most Embarrassing Products: Astroglide


Invented by accident, purchased under cover.

In 1977, Daniel Wray was a young chemist in what he calls the "bombs and rockets business" when an accidental discovery put him on on entirely different, much more risque, career path.

Wray, who worked at California's famous Edwards Air Force Base, was investigating a space shuttle's cooling system one day when, during an attempt to remove the oil from anhydrous ammonia, he inadvertently created a clear, slippery, water-based substance. He gave a pint of to a coworker as a gag gift. "When he came back for a refill, I knew I had a product", remarked Wray.

Astroglide was the apt name given to the odorless lubricant. Wray first licensed the nonsticky substance to a company in 1982, but the firm went under in 1991, so Wray bought the rights back and started his own firm, now based in Vista, California. His gel has been sending amorous humans over the moon ever since.

But even though millions of people may enjoy using a personal lube, buying or being seen to own the product has been a source of great embarrassment -- at least until recently. Suzanne Barris, head of sales and marketing for Astroglide, says that "with TV and radio commercials, as well as ads and social networking messages for lubricants and other sex related products, the practice of using a lube, whether for heightening pleasure or for medical reasons, is experiencing less and less consumer stigma."

To help this process along, Astroglide regularly advertises in mainstream magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Maxim, Us Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal, and rotates the product messaging depending on the time of year and the publication. They also use a different advertisement for each of their target demos: males age 18-plus, females age 18-plus, and females age 45-plus, who are dealing with menopausal issues. The company has gone for an overall theme of fun and humor; ad copy tries to normalize the product and win over consumers by explaining why a person should use a lubricant. They've also tried to address different preconceived ideas in each demographic, for example, one message aimed young men explains that they're not doing anything wrong if a partner chooses to use a lubricant.

Buttressing the old media channels, the company's social media usage has created brand awareness for a fraction of the cost of traditional media. Astroglide has regular personal interactions with followers and fans on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube etc. Interestingly, on Facebook they've noticed the number of fans they have is not an indicator of how many requests for samples they receive. The traffic from Facebook, shown via Google Analytics, also shows a high referral rate.

"We concluded that many Facebookers are connected to their family - specifically their parents - and therefore don't necessarily want it known that they're a fan. But they would like to try our product," remarks Barris.

Astroglide also uses social media outlets to address various types of sexual issues. Often the messages aren't directly related to lubricant but discuss reasons consumers might not buy, and help reduce the embarrassment of purchasing sexual items in general.

Astroglide get its message out through a variety of other methods, too. There's a free sample program where doctors hand samples to patients. They also use online display ads, rich media and flash ads on demographically targeted websites/topics. They make sure that Astroglide is represented at health, wellness, and beauty consumer shows and events. And they even boast a Sexual Health and Relationship Ambassador, Yvonne K. Fulbright, PhD, who writes for the Astroglide blog on reasons to love lubricant.

While Astroglide doesn't do direct catalog sales, companies such as Walmart and Walgreens have websites where they sell Astroglide. Other novelty sites sell the product online via Astroglide's adult industry distribution channels.

When it comes to packaging, Astroglide goes for a look that doesn't scream "I'm a lube!" but rather uses colors and a design that attracts both men and women. "That makes it easier at the store level for consumers to pick up the package", Barris explains. "There are competitors whose product lines are either strongly female-centric or male-centric and since our research shows we're almost 50/50, we try to ensure our packaging appeals to both."

The company has limited power to direct retailers how or where to display its product on their shelves, though, as each has their own 'planogram'. Most retailers place personal lubricants in the Family Planning Section next to condoms, but there's often a second shelf in the Feminine Hygiene section. Barris says that Astroglide ads a tag to its ads that say, "Buy Astroglide in the Family Planning and Feminine Hygiene section of your favorite retailer", so customers know exactly where to purchase the product - and don't have to ask store personnel.

The executive assistant manager at Walgreens on 23rd Street in Manhattan, Emiliana Chavez, says they put their lubes all the way in the back, and instruct staff to "just act normal at the checkout". (Interestingly, she notes the people most likely to steal the product are either young people, or those in their 50s and 60s).

Perhaps the most embarrassing incident in the company's history occurred in April 2007, when it emerged that the names and contact details of Astroglide's online customers dating back to 2003 had been published on the Internet. The problem surfaced when someone who had ordered a free sample from the Astroglide website discovered a record of this request in a Google search.Google worked with Astroglide to correct the issue and all records were removed from Google's index soon after.

Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) K-Y Jelly leads the overall personal lubricant category, now worth $150 million per year, with only 7% of total US households using a personal lubricant. But this figure only represents what's sold through retail chains -- the adult industry is responsible for its fair share of lube sales as well, and no company is yet tracking sales in that category.

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