This is not your father’s condom brand

From the C-Suite newsletter: How two women entrepreneurs are tackling hypermasculinity with upstart Jems.

JEMSproductBy Will Novosedlik

The condom category is a study in both taboo avoidance and hypermasculinity.

Take their names, for instance. Trojan, which is meant to make a man feel like mythological warriors Achilles and Hector, uses the bronze helmets favoured by the ancient Greeks as its logo and in its TV spots. Ramses, the Egyptian pharaoh and ancient symbol of great temporal power, is also a condom brand, which once did a product placement deal with the Mel Gibson movie Lethal Weapon. Keeping to the theme, there was also Sheik, which had a silhouette of an Arab warrior on horseback as its logo. There’s even one called Iron Grip, with packaging that emulates embossed stainless steel complete with rivets up and down the sides of the package.

The fact that this category seems to be stuck in the hyper-masculine middle of the last century was noticed by designers Whitney Geller and Yasemin Emory, co-founders of ten-year-old Toronto-based design firm Whitman Emorson. “When we were both between pregnancies and we were looking for birth control products, we found ourselves in the condom aisle,” Geller tells strategy.”It looked like it hadn’t changed in 50 years. There were names like Trojan and Magnum, and it was all black silk sheets and nude male torsos.”

As conscious consumers, they also noted that there was no indication of product ingredients. It seemed crazy to them that for something that was wrapped around reproductive organs and going into bodies, there was no disclosure of ingredients. A little more digging revealed that this lack of transparency was the norm.

Realizing that this was a branding and communications problem crying out to be solved, they asked themselves, what if we could flip this whole thing on its head? Enter Jems —condoms made for a multiplicity of sex and gender expressions.” In the process of product development and communications design, Geller and Emory discovered how much of a taboo condoms still are in the culture and in commerce.

“You have a product in a package that really doesn’t look like anything else in a young person’s life,” says Geller. “It’s traditionally sold in an embarrassing aisle and an embarrassing box. You want to store it away in your drawer unseen. So [for Jems] we’ve created these really beautiful point-of-purchase displays for bars and coffee shops and hotels. We’re doing partnerships with college campuses, all to normalize the idea of carrying condoms and making it something that you’re proud to have out instead of hidden away.

“There’s a shocking amount of censorship with condoms. We can’t boost any ads on social media. We were denied a loan from a major financial institution because we were a condom company,” she adds. “We were doing ads on a dating site and even there we were being heavily restricted to just showing the product itself. But even that is deemed to be offensive by a lot of companies and organizations that we want to advertise on. And for a product with such serious health implications, condoms are treated like porn.”

It seems that condoms find themselves at the unfortunate intersection of a lingering association with the AIDS epidemic, a resurgence of anti-birth control sentiment in many parts of America, and the ubiquity of pornography, which can dangerously distort young men’s sexual expectations. Aside from the heavy reliance on hypermasculine tropes, condoms also use the “it’s like it’s not even there’” message as a key value proposition. It’s all about reassuring the male customer that he will reach climax even though he’s wearing a condom.

Whitman Emorson has been careful to avoid these pitfalls by positioning Jems as part of the growing trend of sexual wellness, with a focus on safe sex. Brand imagery certainly has the feel of a wellness product made with all-natural ingredients, relying (for instance) on the colour green for both packaging and product photography.

JEMS_how_to_use
The brand’s website also functions as a learning platform. It’s not afraid to openly address the taboos that other condom brands don’t have the courage to acknowledge. There are articles on topics like STIs, contraception, anal sex, a safer sex checklist and the all-important issue of consent. To get beyond the “all male” focus of other condom brands, Jems sports taglines like “Jems for all” and “Come one, come all.”

The brand, only one-year-old, has attracted media attention from publications like Toronto Life, the Toronto Star and Print Magazine, and can be found on alternative health and wellness websites like Well.ca, Selvrituel.com and Onatahgeneral.com. You can also find them in stores like Urban Outfitters, Healthy Planet and The Big Carrot.

To anchor the brand’s position as a champion of safer sex, its next push is to embark on a public service campaign to promote condom use. “Fundamentally we want Jems to be a platform for good,” says Geller. “We’re encouraging safer sex for everyone, but especially the young and vulnerable Gen Z demographic, as well as for marginalized individuals, who are at even more of a health risk. We very much want this condom to speak to everyone.”