Go Thin or Bust 

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

A 2005 commercial for Kimono condoms speaks volumes about the company's self-image. In the ad, a woman sits at a poker table with four men. The setup is swank: Chandelier light reflects from the walls, glass tumblers litter the table, smooth jazz plays in the background. When the woman runs out of dough, she wagers a single Kimono condom, and another player sees her bet with all his remaining chips. It's a fitting analogy for a company that presents itself both as an underdog, and a producer of high-end condoms. Consider the tagline: "Kimono. When the Stakes Are High."

In a market dominated by Trojan and Durex, where images of male virility are the norm, Berkeley-based Kimono has created a brand identity that's an anathema to the competition. Launched 21 years ago by Mayer Laboratories, a company founded by longtime birth-control advocate David Mayer, Kimono is the condom industry's answer to couture. It's a sleek, elegant Japanese import with a pretty patina — packages are designed with cranes, koi, and other Japanese imagery — and a price about 15 to 20 percent higher than most other brands.

"Kimono as a name is a Japanese silk robe," said Mayer at his office in downtown Berkeley. "But that was all part of our marketing when we started. ... To try to communicate more that condoms can be silky and thin and sheer and elegant — and something that women might approach as a kimono versus as a Trojan."

Mayer lowered his voice disparagingly on the word "Trojan," the US industry's dominant brand, which he considers to be the Exxon-Mobil of condoms. He's repelled by the military imagery bound up in the Trojan name and the phallic metaphors in its advertising language. (After all, Trojan's perennially popular Trojan Magnum XL just happens to share its name with the handgun used in Dirty Harry.) "I just think they're marketed more toward men," Mayer said of Trojan and other industry big boys like Durex and LifeStyles. "You know, race cars, high-performance sex. Women aren't interested in that, but it tends to hit a different demo."

Indeed, the American condom industry is anything but demure. In fact, it's often quite cutthroat. Companies routinely appropriate one another's terminology and brand identities. They send litigious letters to one another and race to beat one another to the trademark office.

Mayer and Kimono have gone against the grain in marketing their products, basing their brand identity on the apparently radical notion that there are other ways to market condoms besides affirming the penis size of the buyer. Instead, Kimono markets its condoms as being so thin and silky that they're practically not there. In short, the company appeals not only to women, but also to a different side of male vanity — the squeamish impulses that make many guys resistant to using a condom in the first place.

Kimono may look like a sensitive girly-mon in the condom world, but it's allowed Mayer to grow his business by cultivating a market that all the big boys now seem interested in infiltrating. Ironically, Mayer did this by claiming to sell the country's thinnest condoms — a concept that seems to be at cross purposes with the very function of condoms, which is to provide reliable protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases without breaking.

Now, it seems like the whole condom industry is fighting over who makes the least-condom-like condom.

Mayer Laboratories is located in a pristine downtown Berkeley office complex, home to insurance salesmen, lawyers, and a popular local artist who illustrates New Yorker covers. The place is bright and well-ventilated, and a pebble garden in the foyer could have been transplanted from any high-end department store in Union Square. The lab looks like any other office space. There aren't any Willy Wonka-type condom machines spitting colored disks of latex onto a conveyor belt; nor are there any seedy adult ads on the walls. Rather, it's antiseptic, with cubicles and a large conference room in the back where, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Mayer laid out his whole arsenal of products.

Arrayed on the long table were six packages of condoms from Mayer's line Kimono, along with packages of other Mayer products such as Aqua Lube, Digitex gloves, and the fc female condom. In the condom world, these are all considered to be high-end designer products: more elegant, more expensive, and more feminine than the average Trojan or Durex contraceptive. For Mayer, they hold sentimental value, symbolizing his effort to carve out a distinctive brand identity that could sustain a small Berkeley condom-maker. They also illustrate Mayer's seemingly counterintuitive quest to popularize the world's thinnest condom.

Few people in the world can boast a condom history as long as that of David Mayer. In 1978, he launched National Condom Week as a freshman at UC Berkeley, spent several years working in teen programs in the Contra Costa County Health Department, and traveled to Haiti in 1984 to promote public health and family planning. Mayer describes himself as having a history of "male involvement in family planning," and says that even if he had never spawned his own condom line, his impact would still be felt in the contraceptive world. The American Social Health Association still plans National Condom Week events every year (although after thirty years, Mayer said it has kind of gone the way of Valentine's Day).

When Mayer launched Kimono in 1987, the AIDS epidemic had generated a surge in consumer demand, and companies just needed to fill the pipeline. By then, most condom companies had product lines with contoured tips, ribs, studs, and splashy colors. But Mayer thought he knew another type of aesthetic that could get people to buy more condoms.

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