Jimmyjane’s Sex Change Operation

(Originally posted on Core77)

Ethan Imboden worked as an industrial designer for firms like Ecco and frogdesign, cranking out designs for everyday products (i.e., staplers and monitors), but grew to feel that he had something more to contribute. After starting his own design firm, he went with a client to the Adult Novelty Expo and saw bad design everywhere. He founded Jimmyjane as a response to that, and set out to use form, color, materials and so on to create premium vibrators. Now he’s a visionary creative, with strong ideas about the Jimmyjane brand and how to embody those attributes across a range of products. Imboden fits the Be A Genius and Get It Right archetype we wrote about in interactions. At least, if they are doing as well as they indicated during our recent visit, then they are “getting it right.” But we couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t more that they could be doing.

In addition to vibrators, Jimmyjane sells other products intended to bring sex, sexy, and sexuality forward. They’ve got candles with a spout so you can pour out melted lotiony goo for a sexy massage, heating tray doodads for the same goo that double as massagers, feel-good and smell-good lotions, etc. etc. They’ve got a soft eye mask with an embroidered Z on one side and an embroidered heart on the other: wear the mask with the Z outside when you want to sleep; put the heart on the outside to announce your interest in blindfold panky.


Despite claims that the name Jimmyjane represents their intent to serve everyone, the product line leans heavily towards the feminine, and appears in retail at places like Sephora. Meanwhile, limited-edition vibrators laser-etched with work by named artists, or covered in diamonds or platinum obviously serve an extremely narrow range of customers.


Considering all this, Jimmyjane starts to emerge as a Victoria’s Secret-meets-Harley brand. They play around the edge of naughty: you can’t buy the vibrators at Whole Foods, but you can pick up some candles. The Jimmyjane retail display in Whole Foods lets shoppers have a private bit of shocked delight when we can connect a everday purchase in a grocery store to a risque activity – and needn’t ever engage in that risque activity ourselves to get that little buzz. We can buy a Harley leash for our dog, or a wallet, or cross-brand for our truck, and get a taste of the Harley feeling without engaging in the core activity: driving a Softtail. That public/private sauciness was a driver of Victoria’s Secret growth; here, instead of underwear, Imboden is offering the halo effect of vibrators.

We saw their Theory of Everything Venn diagram that tries to map candle scents to emotional attributes of attraction, thus creating a product line logic that is slightly arrogant in its delusions of grandeur. Being led by design instead of the customer need starts to isolate the vision from reality and from bolder and bigger possibilities. Imboden told us that they don’t want to be evangelists who try to convert people to use vibrators, etc. But we asked if they were trying to lower barriers and we were met with a puzzled stare.


But Jimmyjane (or someone else who sees the opporunity) has huge potential to do some more barrier lowering. They’ve already done a tremendous reframe of sex toys from dangerous, cheap, embarrassing crap, to high-end, well-designed chic. But they are toying with reframing sexuality as part of our culture, by bringing bits and pieces of it from the backstage to the frontstage.


To grow the market (and thus their business) by bringing more people into this realm means seeing the opportunity for barrier-lowering and then doing the hard work it will take to understand how all their customers (current and potential) are perceiving those barriers. But Jimmyjane has a limited customer feedback loop (consisting of input from retailers and Ask Jimmyjane on their website). We heard about the packaging for the Rabbit vibrator (a product Jimmyjane did not design, but is selling, or as they put it, curating): because they plan for customers to have a great out-of-box experience, all products are cleaned and stocked with batteries before shipping (and the batteries are separated by a small pull-tab so they don’t run down before purchase). But they heard that customers were taking the Rabbit out of its box and after seeing that it had batteries in it assumed that it was used. Yuck! They are now redesigning the packaging to display the batteries and give the purchaser the opportunity to load the batteries themselves: it’s add-an-egg for the new millennium.


That’s a simple usability failure and it’s easily fixed, once discovered. But it suggests potential mismatches between how Jimmyjane conceives of and produces products and how customers are buying and using products (and that’s just the ones who are buying). The opportunity for growth, by revisiting what sexuality means and how products can support it, is enormous, and the possibility of Sexual Revolution 2.0, a world where sex, sexuality, and sexiness might be experienced on both sides of the green door in a more fun and carefree manner, is well within reach for a firm that has already done so much.


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