Go Thin or Bust 

How Berkeley's Mayer Laboratories won the battle of the thin condoms.

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From his company's inception, Mayer sought out Japanese manufacturers. His reasoning was that Japan had higher quality standards and looser restrictions on condom thickness. Because Japan didn't legalize oral contraceptives until 1999, its market for other forms of birth control was quite advanced. Mayer said Kimono's reliance on more-advanced Japanese condom-making technology helped his company push up against the US Food and Drug Administration's .03 millimeter (or 30 micron) minimum-thickness limit. Mayer conceptualized his brand accordingly.

Even before Kimono began cultivating the super-thin market, competitors paid close attention to its products. In 1988 Mayer Laboratories introduced the Kimono Maxx, a special plus-sized condom with extra head room (2.34 inches in diameter) and an additional .2 inches of length. Roughly seven months later, Trojan unleashed the Magnum XL, an 8.5-inch "King of the Big Boys" that has become the gold standard for large-sized condoms (given that it's name-checked in rap songs and worthy of its own Wikipedia definition).

Not to be outdone, Kimono shifted its focus to thinness and delicacy. In 1992 it came out with the Kimono MicroThin, which the company claims is 20 percent thinner than the original Kimono. For sixteen years, Kimono has claimed that MicroThin is the thinnest condom sold in the United States. According to Mayer, regular Kimonos — at 55 microns of thickness — were already 20 percent thinner than most other brands. The new MicroThins measured 49 microns, Mayer said, "So now we really ahead of our competition offering that really thin, sheer experience for users."

The product was groundbreaking, according to one local retailer. "I do believe they were the first people to bring in ultra-thin condoms that were strong and comfortable, but offered the maximum sensation that allowed people to feel like they weren't wearing anything at all," said Coyote Days, senior buyer at the adult store Good Vibrations, which has carried Kimono for well over ten years. "They're a premium line; they have different contours and different sizes. A piece of their own marketing was that they were Japanese-made, and that stood for a high quality."

Before Kimono hit the market, Days said, there wasn't much incentive for big companies like Trojan (now 88 years old) or Durex (now 93 years old) to enlarge their brands or expand their customer base. But slowly that's changing. "It's 'the way we've always done it' versus 'the way we're gonna do it now,'" Days said. "Someone comes in with a new idea, a strong brand, and something you don't have, you're gonna feel a little threatened and you're gonna step up to the challenge."

And step up they did. Although Mayer says it took his competitors several years to acquire the ability to produce super-thin condoms (which they too accomplished by sourcing from Japan), they began appropriating his company's language right away — even for condoms whose thinness he claims is questionable.

"Now it's 'Sensi-Thin,'" said Mayer, referring to the new thin condom category from Durex, "but before that they had 'Ultra Sensitive,' 'Extra Sensitive.' Those would be the terms they would use, but it would more or less be the same condom. ... And then Trojan came out with a line called 'Ultra Thin.' They came out this year with 'Thintensity.' And then 'Magnum Thin.'"

In fact, there's no shortage of "thin," "sensitive," or Japanese-styled condoms on the market. Visit the popular web retailer RipnRoll.com and you'll find — in addition to the aforementioned Trojan and Durex products — Lifestyles Skyn condoms, Lifestyles Ultra Thin, Paradise Super Sensitive, Intellx spiral-shaped Inspiral, and Okamoto's Beyond Seven with aloe (another Japanese import).

Mayer recently began appending a bar graph to Kimono packages claiming that even its regular Kimono Thin condoms are as thin as Durex Extra Sensitive and thinner than Lifestyles Ultra Thins. And Kimono claims that its MicroThin beats everyone — including the super-stretchy Trojan Ultra Thin condoms — by several microns.

"We've been calling ourselves 'Microthin' since the beginning, and now one of our other competitors, Trojan, they came out and started using the 'Microthin' for their condoms," said Mayer. "Now we're having to look at, do we need to take them to task?" Mayer says Trojan appropriated the "Microthin" label last year, right around the time its "Thintensity" condom line hit drugstore shelves. The company also took Kimono's tack of manufacturing the Microthin condoms in Japan. "They went to one of our competitors," he said, bitterly. Mayer concedes, however, that Kimono never got around to trademarking the term Microthin until April of 2008, sixteen years after it first started using the phrase.

Mayer says the word "microthin" appeared on Trojan Ultra Thin packages in 2007, which advertised the new Ultra Thin condoms as being "made with 'microthin technology.'" "In some ways it was a concession," said Mayer, alluding to the use of his brand name to describe a competitor's product. Although these words no longer show up on Trojan's web site, their occurrence in consumer product forums suggests that Trojan did indeed use them. But then, "micro" is a ubiquitous adjective, recycled again on a package of Trojan Supra "Microsheer" Polyurethane Ultra Thin Lubricated Premium condoms.

Meanwhile, a couple months ago, one of Mayer's customers informed him of some new marketing material from Durex, which advertised its new "Sensi-Thin" condom as "the thinnest in the world." When the product hit stores a month later, Mayer got a pack and read the marketing claim, which he said was specious. Mayer said Durex alleged that the Kimono MicroThin was 59 microns thick, while falsely advertising itself as being 45 microns thick. Not true, said Mayer, who insisted that MicroThin had always stuck with its official 49 micron measurement. He was incensed, to say the least.

"We went and tested several boxes of their product. They had this interesting language that claimed they were the thinnest condom in the world ... based on what they called the mass method of measurement." According to Mayer, this measurement standard is seldom used by manufacturers. "What it is, you take your weight of your condom, divide it by your length of your condom, divide it by some other things, and it comes out with a calculated thickness."

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