By Mike Scott

Condoms are one of the key weapons in the fight against HIV and Aids, but marketing them has to confront factors as varied as religious objections to their use, the embarrassment of potential users in buying or using them and cost.

On the religious front, it seems as if a major barrier to their use will be removed after hints that the Vatican is set to relax its opposition to the use of condoms. Aids campaigners world-wide have pushed for the Vatican to end its ban on condoms, saying it has cost millions of lives. But religious sensibilities are just one factor that needs to be taken into account in the condom market. Because condoms prevent a multitude of diseases, as well as pregnancy, much of the marketing is about awareness and responsibility across a range of areas.

“The point of marketing is to drive home awareness and get young people to use condoms. There is a large awareness of the benefits but people are still prepared to have unprotected sex.” Peter Roach, head of social marketing for SSL, the company that makes Durex, says. “In our latest sex survey, 50 per cent of people said they had had unprotected sex with someone whose sexual history they did not know. The systematic use of condoms is vital.” Durex teams up with HIV/AIDS charities to help promote awareness, in a campaign that it says has to be ongoing. “Millions of people worldwide become sexually active every week. We need to take account of that with our social marketing programmes,” Mr Roach says. “People are crying out for more information – education has always been a key component of our marketing.”

The condom market saw a big increase in sales in the mid-1980s when awareness of AIDS began. Sales in the US, for example, rose from 240m annually in 1986 to 299m in 1988, and there was a similar increase in the UK, according to Mr Roach. “After the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign, there was a lot of panic, which led to a big increase in sales.” From 112m in 1986, UK sales rose to 160m in 1995. But Ralph Patmore, sales director for Confident Condoms, says that sales are fairly static now in the UK. “The market was worth £45m in 2001-2002 and it has not increased much,” he said.

Social marketing can provide a sound business platform for companies looking to break into the condom market. Sexual Health Group, owners of the Condomania brand, deals primarily with sexual health and family planning clinics. It was a deliberate strategy, to launch the brand in these sectors, says George Sutherland, founder and chief executive. “We decided to focus on the professional sector first and gain a significant market share there, making it more likely that we will be successful when we eventually come to launch into the retail market.”

Mr Patmore agrees. “Any new brand always goes for the NHS market. It’s much easier to break into than the retail market.”

Like many companies dealing with HIV, profit is not SHG’s only motive. “We are a public quoted company and our shareholders of course expect a return on their investment. But we are looking to go beyond delivering profits. If at the same time we can deliver a strong public benefit, then that has to be a good thing,” Mr Sutherland adds.

For condom companies, promoting their products ties in with the Government’s public health message. The Department of Health has just announced a £4m advertising campaign called “Condom Essential Wear” raising awareness of the increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to the public. The economics of public health make promotion of condoms a very cost-effective activity. With people now able to live with HIV for 20 years or more, the ongoing care can cost an average of £14,000 per year, per patient, according to the National Statistics Office. “When you consider the cost to the state of treating all STIs,” says Mr Sutherland, “and most condoms costing just a few pence each, you can understand the importance of ready condom availability in their role of prevention.”

International funding for AIDS prevention campaigns and, specifically, the expansion of social marketing programmes in all regions of the world, have made condoms more widely available and accessible. By 1996, social marketing campaigns were being conducted in 60 countries worldwide. These campaigns use commercial marketing techniques, including market research, message testing, advertising and consumer education, as well as better access to products and affordable pricing.

But these programmes are not enough. Globally, the NGO Population Action International estimates that 9.9bn condoms were needed to fight HIV infection in 2002, but that only 2.5bn were distributed by aid agencies, with prevention programmes reaching only one in five of the people who needed them, according to UNAIDS. By 2015, at least 18.6bn condoms will be needed, the organisation says, at a cost of $557m.

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