Why "Fifty Shades Of Grey" Is A Merchandiser's Dream
A novel about sex and bondage has spawned the kind of merchandising fervor usually reserved for family classics like Harry Potter. Here's why.
Fifty Shades of Grey won't be just a book trilogy for much longer. Soon it will also be a brand that could include fragrances, furniture and other products. It's already inspired many unofficial homages, like hexagonal frosted cookies that say "what is the safe word?" This is a rare thing for a book— even for a blockbuster title — and certainly for a novel about non-mainstream sexual practices. But Fifty Shades is so ripe for tie-ins precisely because of its treatment of sex — and because products based on the book may even be able to hook men along with droves of women.
CopCorp, the licensing agency representing the book in the US, has big plans. President Carole Postal told BuzzFeed Shift her firm was already fielding inquiries about Fifty Shades-branded "accessories (which could include anything from jewelry, key fobs, mugs, and shoes to adult toys/novelties)" and "apparel (including everything from message t-shirts and men’s silk ties to high-end lingerie)." And licensing may go beyond products. Postal said CopCorp was also interested in "extending the brand to appropriate services." She hasn't yet provided specifics, and it's not quite clear what an "appropriate" Fifty Shades service would be. But at least one restaurant is already reenacting scenes from the books for diners with $100 to spare.
Postal had a simple explanation for the books' merchandising appeal: they're super-popular. She said, the triology "is not only a best-selling book series but a cultural phenomenon" that even people who haven't read it are widely aware of. And she said the sexual nature of the books wouldn't be a problem from a licensing perspective since the agency is positioning Fifty Shades as a brand for adults only — they won't be licensing ball-gag Happy Meal toys or kids' t-shirts.
Paco Underhill, psychologist and author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, told BuzzFeed Shift that the sexual content of the books offers a "little bit of raciness" that could actually help sell products. He pointed out that the majority of the book's fans aren't people who actually practice BDSM, but people who "read about other people doing it." He added that Fifty Shades has crossed over from romance to the mainstream, much as Harry Potter crossed over from children's books or fantasy. And "the typical romance reader doesn't lead a wild and crazy life, except in one corner of her brain." So buying a Fifty Shades t-shirt doesn't mean you actually like getting tied up, it just means you might think about it sometimes — a message some consumers may not mind sending.
In fact, association with the book could be a way to class up already sexually-charged products. Judy Bartkowiak, coauthor of Secrets of Success in Brand Licensing, says the book is a natural fit for tie-ins with lingerie and beauty products. And being associated with a novel, even an erotic one, could lend such a product "an air of sophistication that it might not otherwise have."
Fifty Shades may also contain a merchandising goldmine in the form of billionaire playboy love interest Christian Grey. Though the book's most vocal fans have been women, Underhill said Mr. Grey could be a vehicle for selling to men. He explained, "the larger male fashion market is generally uninformed — they don't know the difference between a $500 and a $5000 suit." So, he says, "a literary protagonist who knows how to consume higher up the food chain is attractive" to merchandisers — maybe the book will convince men to shell out for higher-quality clothes in order to emulate Christian Grey's buying habits. (Besides, looking like a fictional billionaire may be a better idea than looking like a real one — "have you seen Larry Ellison lately?" Underhill asked of the 67-year-old tech CEO. "He looks like a shriveled turtle.")
Retailers view the upcoming Fifty Shades onslaught with varying levels of interest. A spokesman from Target told BuzzFeed Shift that while the stores sold the books, they had no plans as yet to sell other products. Claire Cavanah, co-founder of sex-toy store chain Babeland, wasn't aware of the upcoming availability of Fifty Shades products, but said, "we’ll definitely look into it!" She added that "our customers have been really excited by these books" and that "we’ve seen sales of restraints, blindfolds, floggers, crops and Ben Wa Ball-type products skyrocket in the past few months."
Customers at a sex-toy store presumably won't be bothered by the risque image of Fifty Shades. But asked whether products based on the books would be a hit with customers, Cavanah wasn't sure: "There aren’t many book or movie-branded products that cross over into sex toy stores so it’s hard to tell." Whether it's selling racy t-shirts in department stores, or book-branded ball gags at Babeland, the Fifty Shades of Grey merchandising team will be navigating uncharted waters.