Co-founder John O’Keeffe on how Champ plans to get people excited about safe sex
At the end of July, a new brand entered America’s already booming sexual wellness market, with condom users squarely in its sights. Co-founded by John O’Keeffe, Allen Yau and Nico Barnes, Champ not only wants to do away with the awkwardness that comes with buying contraceptives, it hopes to reposition condoms as an aspirational health and wellness staple. Here, John explains how it’ll be done.
The problem in a nutshell is that not only do three out of four Americans dread the experience of buying condoms in store, but the conventional online options have many shortcomings as well. Millennial and Gen Z consumers, for example, often share Prime accounts, which basically prevents a discreet shopping experience. So you go on Amazon, and maybe you’re sharing Prime with your adult siblings or even with your parents, and you might be asked “hey, how was that lube you bought?”
Exactly. Additionally, oftentimes [when people buy condoms online], the product comes from third party resellers, not the brands themselves. This creates risks of tampered, expired, or in some instances even counterfeit goods, which matters especially in a category like this where efficacy is of utmost importance. We’re solving the problem by creating clean-label products, sent directly from Champ’s fulfilment centre to the consumer, in great packaging.
We work with a great creative agency called Madwell in Brooklyn, and we went through rounds and rounds of naming exercises. Champ was on the list, but they hadn’t told me about the backstory. [When I said I loved it], they said “well, it’s funny you should say that, because there was another brand around half a century ago that thought so as well.”
Thankfully not. Champ Prophylactics ceased operating half a century ago, and because of trademark abandonment we’re able to give new life to the brand. They made a really interesting statement in a taboo category when condom advertising was still illegal, back in the 1950s and 60s. They still have a cool cult following because they used illustrations of professional athletes on their packaging.
For us, the driving force to enter this category is the fact that STIs are on the rise in a troubling way. Condoms play a critical – and in many instances, the only – role in practising safe sex outside of abstinence, and this need is really not going to go away. I'm a Gen X person myself, and growing up in the 1990s, there was tremendous emphasis on safe sex practices. Over the last 30 years, public education around the importance of safe sex has dwindled.
Champ’s got some levity, and it’s fun, but is at its core it’s a consumer health brand, and health is really central to everything. We’re reacting to a really big health issue in the nation and we think entrepreneurship needs to play a role in helping effect this change. This might sound oversimplified, but what we take seriously is trying to make condoms cool again. Having [a product out there] that’s appealing, healthy, aspirational and energising will benefit the category as a whole and hopefully usage as well.
There's always nuance to different consumer categories, and it’s not as simple as cutting and pasting from one another. But having [previously worked] in marketing at Philips Sonicare, what’s been fascinating for me has been to identify these parallels that exist [between condoms and oral care]. One similarity is that they’re both not just a personal health chore – there’s an element of really taking pride in one’s health and feeling good about doing that. It’s motivating. And it’s not just about that action of the personal health routine, but it’s important which brand you choose to do it with. The oral care category has done such a cool job of offering products that really inspire and motivate. That's something that we want to offer with Champ, and our condoms and lubricants.
To me, the most interesting brands are like the most interesting people. They're multifaceted. And so you know, we are trying to both have some fun and be tongue in cheek while also taking seriously our obligation to get people to be healthy.