27 October 2016
Playboy makes a lot of money in China through brand licensing deals. Photo: Bloomberg
Playboy makes a lot of money in China through brand licensing deals. Photo: Bloomberg

Playboy drops full monty for bigger piece of China

Playboy will no longer publish images of fully nude women in its magazine from next spring. You can blame China for that.

The porn pioneer, which gave generations of pubescent boys around the globe their first glimpse of breasts, earns a surprisingly rock solid 40 percent of its revenues in China.

Not from its magazine, which is banned in the country, but from the happy returns on licensed merchandise.

From Heilongjiang to Guangdong, Tibet to Shandong, it’s not uncommon to see men and women wearing t-shirts or carrying handbags donning the ubiquitous bunny logo—a rabbit head wearing a tuxedo bow tie.

Or upon closer inspection at high-end department stores, dress shirts and suits, women’s apparel, bags and shoes, belts and wallets, and luggage, not to mention bath products and fragrances, liquor and jewelry and a lot of other things Playboy has slapped a logo on.

“China is one of our most important markets,” Playboy CEO Scott Flanders said in a statement earlier this year. “To achieve this leadership position without ever having a media entity in China is a testament to the tremendous power of our brand.”

And that brand translates into hard cash.

Last year, roughly one-third of Playboy’s US$1.5 billion global retail sales came from China, said CNN. Over the past decade, the company has made US$5 billion in retail sales in the country.

“In China and other Asian markets, Playboy has positioned itself as a lifestyle brand for sophisticated, suave, fashion-conscious consumers by working with strong licensees in premium mass-market apparel, sportswear, eyewear, et cetera,” said Torsten Stocker, greater China retail partner at AT Kearney, in an interview with the Financial Times.

In recent years, Playboy has partnered with top tier retailers and brands in Asia, such as Lane Crawford (Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai), Isetan (Tokyo) and Marc Jacobs (global).

In May, Playboy announced plans to build flagship stores in major Chinese cities, and expand its retail presence from 3,000 to 3,500 outlets, in partnership with Handong United, a recently formed group.

While Playboy will continue to feature loads of perfectly airbrushed models in various stages of undress, explicit nudity in the magazine risks complaints from shoppers and tarnishing a brand built over the company’s 20-year history in China.

Is distributing pictures of naked women really a business liability?

“You could argue that nudity is a distraction for us and actually shrinks our audience rather than expand it,” Playboy’s Flanders argued last year.

Besides, despite China’s anti-porn measures, Chinese consumers—and pervs everywhere—can get as much smut as they want on the internet.

“You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture,” said Flanders.

Playboy will also continue its tradition of investigative journalism, in-depth interviews and fiction, notes the New York Times, a move that will be appreciated by those who buy the magazine “for the articles”.

The company cleaned up its website last year (stopped showing pictures of naked women) and saw traffic quadruple and the median age of its readers move from 47 years of age to 30, “an attractive demographic for advertisers,” the Washington Post quoted a statement from Playboy as saying.

Playboy is a household name in China, with 97 percent brand awareness among Chinese consumers, according to research firm Penn Schoen Berland.

“As one of the most famous and treasured brands in China, Playboy is considered the ‘must-have’ fashion choice by men and women across the Mainland,” said Xiaojian Hong of Handong United.

Through licensing agreements, Playboy-branded consumer products are now in 180 countries.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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