Jasmine to chocolate: In sex-shy India, flavoured condoms are way more popular than regular rubbers

The curious case of India’s fascination with flavoured condoms.
The curious case of India’s fascination with flavoured condoms.
Image: Reuters/Parth Sanyal
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In a country where talking about sex remains a taboo, and the act of buying contraception is often shrouded in secrecy, flavoured condoms are having a moment.

From chocolate and cherry to coffee and jasmine, condom makers are doing brisk business with an array of flavours. Brand managers that Quartz spoke to estimated that flavoured condoms account for anywhere between 50% and 70% of India’s Rs1,000 crore-Rs1,300 crore condom market.

And that’s an interesting twist for a business that has struggled with sluggish growth in a conservative and patriarchal environment.

Though there’s not a lot of detailed data on the subject, research by the National Family Health Survey shows that between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of Indians using condoms grew from a measly 5.2% to 5.6%; the most popular method of contraception is still female sterilisation.

And that has meant that condom makers have had to work extra hard to sell their products. Today, with a growing population of progressive young Indians, companies have realised that excitement sells, and that’s where flavoured condoms come in.

Experimental millennials

Condoms were first introduced to Indians in a big way in the 1960s, when the government decided to offer affordable rubbers under the Nirodh brand as a method of population control. At the time, India’s population was already at 470 million and was expected to double over the next three decades.

But since the 1990s, marketing experts have changed their approach to selling condoms, emphasising their pleasurable connotations rather than family planning, in keeping with the slowly evolving attitudes towards sex and relationships in India. At first, a bold commercial by advertising veteran Alyque Padamsee for condom brand Kamasutra (then sold as KS) stoked controversy by featuring the actress Pooja Bedi in the shower with a male model, presenting sex as something Indians could enjoy. But over the years, campaigns by brands such as Durex have taken things further, using inspiration from Bollywood songs, for instance, for more adventurous ads.

And recently, the presentation of condoms has evolved once again, this time to specifically target young, experimental consumers with more exciting options.

“This is the third phase of evolution, where condom makers want to be seen as ‘cool,’ as opposed to the 60s and 90s when they were meant for awareness and pleasure (respectively),” said Hari Desikan, Chennai branch head at advertising agency Rediffusion YR. The agency handles advertising mandate for Moods brand of condoms sold by HLL Lifecare.

The focus on flavoured versions is a key part of the strategy for Kolkata-based Mankind Pharma, maker of the Manforce brand of condoms, which started out with a chocolate flavoured option way back in 2007. The company essentially disrupted the market by launching a range of flavoured condoms to distinguish itself from other brands, which had till then branched out only with ribbed and dotted versions, hardly paying much attention to flavours.

“The market at that time was too competitive with existing brands, so we wanted to do something different,” said Joy Chatterjee, brand manager at Mankind. “Why will (consumers) take your brand if you don’t offer anything unique?”

In 2012, Mankind roped in Sunny Leone, the most searched for celebrity in India on Google, as its brand ambassador, launching a series of campaigns to promote its flavours.

And that really paid off: Manforce now controls nearly 30% of the market, mostly selling flavoured versions of ribbed, ultra-thin, and dotted condoms. The company offers everything from chocolate and green apple to butterscotch and black grape varieties. Chocolate is its largest-selling flavour, and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh its biggest market.

Meanwhile, Skore Condoms, the country’s third-largest condom brand that was launched in 2012 by Chennai-based TTK, now makes over 40% of its sales from pina colada, banana, and other flavoured products.

“Flavours weren’t big, say five-to-six years ago,” Vishal Vyas, the company’s general manager of marketing, explained. “Now, flavoured dominates the segment, so much so that 46-47% of all condoms sold in India are flavoured.”

For Vyas, the trend has a lot to do with India’s changing sexual landscape, and the influence of young shoppers who are seeking out exciting new options. “(India’s youth) are more assertive and they know what they want…it isn’t just about plain or ribbed anymore…now they are asking for flavoured condoms,” he added.

And that might have something to do with the increasing access to pornography in India.

Changing times

According to Rajan Bhonsle, a Mumbai-based sex counsellor and an expert on sexual medicine, the availability of smartphones in the country has increased the exposure to more sexually-explicit content. And the result is that oral sex, for instance, is becoming much more common.

“Instances of oral sex are increasing, especially for those who shy away from intercourse,” Bhonsle explained, attributing the popularity of flavoured condoms to this.

While there is little to data to prove Bhonsle’s claims, users of flavoured condoms Quartz spoke to suggest that chocolate and strawberry flavours are often part of their pleasure routine (read oral sex), at the behest of their male partner.

“I don’t feel much of a difference, except the taste and the smell which go away quickly, but my husband wanted to try it just out of curiosity while having oral sex so we started using it a few years ago,” Kanika, a 30-year-old communications professional, told Quartz, adding that Durex’s green apple variant was their preferred choice.

The brand, sold by Reckitt Benckiser (RB) India, has also noticed the popularity of flavoured condoms and has hinted that it will step up its launches in the category. Currently, even though flavoured condoms don’t account for too much in sales, Durex’s cherry flavoured variant sells the most, followed by the apple flavoured option. RB’s share in the condom market in India, where it sells brands such as Durex and Kohinoor, is around 8%.

Rohit Jindal, Reckitt Benckiser India’s chief marketing officer, hinted that there could be more Indianised flavours in the pipeline. “Consumers like flavours and scents that are local and familiar,” he explained, declining to reveal any further details about the company’s plans.

Manforce is one step ahead. It already has some local flavours in its portfolio, notably a jasmine flavoured condom that is helping the brand build a solid market in the south, where the flower is particularly popular, and known to boost sexual desire. Chatterjee, however, doesn’t believe there’s a correlation between oral sex and the use of flavoured condoms in India; he says it’s more about disguising the smell of latex.

But no matter what, experimental consumers aren’t the whole story. The popularity of flavoured variants also has a lot to do with the difficulty of selling contraceptives to shoppers who are often embarrassed to ask for what they want directly.

The condom economy

Unlike markets in the West where packs of condoms are easily available in grocery stores, such shops in India rarely stock rubbers. As a result, most brands rely heavily on pushing their products through pharmacies and local chemists, where consumers have to directly ask a salesperson for what they want.

“There is a kind of embarrassment, consumers want to minimise their time in transactions and want to get done with it as fast as possible. So the effort which you take to create brand awareness and brand recall is of no use, when the consumer comes to purchase,” Vyas said in an interview with exchange4media, a news portal, last year.

And that could offer another explanation for why flavoured options have become increasingly popular.

“So they prefer using the flavour instead of using the word condom while asking for it,” explains Mankind’s Chatterjee, adding that Indian consumers are more likely to ask for a chocolate flavour.

Either way, flavoured variants are helping the industry develop. But there’s a long way to go before the business becomes bigger in India.

“We still haven’t reached a level of maturity, as a country as well as for the category, where products such as flavoured condoms will actually help bring in the volumes,” ad veteran KV Sridhar said. “These are sheer marketing tactics employed by companies to keep the excitement going…”