Julienna Law
Feb 2, 2023

When it comes to Playboy in China, sex doesn’t sell — the bunny logo does

Playboy is looking to revamp its brand image in China during the Year of the Rabbit. But after 30 years of licensing, is it too late for a turnaround?

Photo: Playboy x Jack & Jones
Photo: Playboy x Jack & Jones

When thinking about the Playboy name, several things could come to mind: There is the print magazine empire — the sexy models, pin-ups, and centerfolds — that peaked at 7.16 million copies in 1972 and went digital in 2020. There is the legacy of its late founder Hugh Hefner, with his mansion and infamous parties where scenes of debauchery once unfolded. 

Then, of course, there’s the iconic bunny silhouette: a symbol of playfulness and pleasure that has become so popular it has almost outgrown its association with the enterprise. Unchanged since its conception in 1953, the unmistakable black bow-tied rabbit has traversed the world, adorning everything from perfume bottles to private jets.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Playboy (@playboy)

But after decades of being licensed in China, the logo has begun to lose its luster. This is why, on January 17, Playboy’s parent company PLBY Group announced a joint venture with the Chinese brand management company Charactopia Licensing to shift from a traditional licensing model to a selectively owned and operated model. Based in Shanghai, this new team “will focus on reinvigorating all aspects of the China-market Playboy apparel business, including online and offline retail strategies, product design and assortment, and brand marketing to its multi-generational audience.”

Widely circulated and replicated, the Playboy logo has become plagued by doubts of authenticity in China. Can the American company rehabilitate its image and reclaim the symbol of the rabbit? What challenges will it face as it pivots toward its own apparel business in China?

Sex doesn’t sell — the bunny does

Playboy’s entry into China in the 1990s gave it the opportunity to reposition itself. Unable to launch a media presence due to the government’s censorship of pornography, the brand (known locally as 花花公子) was able to step away from its adult content and return to its roots as a lifestyle brand. 

“China is a sexually conservative country as we all know,” Susan Gunelius, President & CEO of marketing communications agency KeySplash Creative, Inc. and author of the book “Building Brand Value the Playboy Way,” penned in a blog post. “Playboy grew its business in China by licensing the Playboy bunny, and the bunny became popular similar to how a brand like Hello Kitty became popular. It didn’t have to do with sex.”

No longer tied to R-rated imagery, the logo was made accessible to all: men, women, and even younger consumers. It was also warmly received. In 2015, Playboy signed a 10-year licensing partnership with Handong United to expand to 3,500 retail touch points and ramp up the manufacturing and distribution of its men’s and women’s apparel. By 2019, total net revenues attributable to Chinese trademarks reached 48 percent, and by Q1 2022, the country still contributed more than $10 million out of the $69 million in total revenue.

However, this surge in popularity gave rise to new problems. Excessive merchandising caused the brand to be associated with, in some cases, cheaper or substandard goods, hurting its credibility and cool image. On sites like Taobao, the logo has been stamped on everything from underwear and socks to long-sleeved shirts heavily discounted at just $2.82 (19 RMB), making it difficult to differentiate counterfeits from the real deal. Several users on Xiaohongshu have questioned the prices and authenticity of the products they’ve searched, pointing to a loss of consumer trust.

A men’s long sleeve shirt on Taobao is currently discounted at 19 RMB. Photo: Screenshot, Taobao

“On account of China’s strict rules around indecency, the application of the brand in China has always taken on a much more toned-down, genericized image, losing all hint of its taboo-breaking origins,” explains Adam Knight, co-founder of the cross-cultural agency Tong. “Conceding its unique selling proposition in this way meant that the brand opened the door to mass counterfeiting on a level almost unparalleled among foreign brands.” 

Elevation through local partnerships 

As such, Playboy has taken steps over the years to establish itself as a serious fashion player. Part of this strategy has included launching an in-house clothing label called Playboy White Label in 2018, expanding into different categories (lingerie, denim), and collaborating with a range of retailers and brands on logo and graphic-heavy attire. 

Globally, the bunny has teamed up with streetwear titans like Supreme and Anti Social Social Club, along with designer labels like Saint Laurent, Drake’s OVO, and Yohji Yamamoto, signaling a shift towards higher-end fashion. Over in China, the Los Angeles-based house has similarly joined hands with local apparel names like Whoosis, M.E.D.M, and GXG, as well as the Hong Kong-based toy label ZCWO, the latter creating a $340 cigar-wielding, champagne glass-holding bunny sculpture that sells on Lane Crawford. 

Playboy partners with Chinese brands Whoosis (left) and ZCWO (right). Photo: Whoosis, ZCWO

“These collaborations help us keep our product offerings fresh while we can also tap into new audiences through like-minded brands,” Jared Dougherty, President of Strategic Partnerships at PLBY Group, tells Jing Daily.

Co-branding also helps Playboy generate hype and awareness in an otherwise saturated space, according to Knight. “Licensing is much more transactional in nature and more akin to a traditional model of advertising and customer acquisition. Collaborations are by definition far more creative and potentially immersive.”

Foreign logos face bigger challenges ahead

But China is a competitive market, where survival requires more than a makeover. Chinese consumers are continuing to choose local brands over foreign ones for their creativity and cheaper prices, as McKinsey’s 2023 China Consumer Report shows, causing mass market brands to take financial hits or even pull back from the country altogether. 

“Gone is the time when a foreign logo could spur consumption desire,” says Arnold Ma, CEO and founder of China-focused marketing agency Qumin. “Today’s Chinese consumers are more sophisticated, and look for not only good quality products, but also how a brand’s story could resonate with them on a meaningful level.” 

Playboy’s second collaboration with Duke + Dexter is inspired by private jet glamor and pays homage to the publication. Photo: Playboy x Duke + Dexter

The Qumin founder argues that change ultimately starts with the brand itself, rather than the products. “Look at successful western brands and learn from them,” he advises. “Least of which, consolidate their product lines, consolidate brand messages, and most of all, rein back the licenses and focus on a few, quality products.”

With the joint venture expected to start operations in the first quarter of 2023, Playboy has its work cut out for it. But perhaps there’s not a more auspicious time for a new beginning like the Year of the Rabbit. Plus, the American icon has always been about creating a culture around freedom, inclusion and pleasure — and that’s certainly something consumers in China and around the world can get behind post-COVID. 

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