BANGKOK (AFP) ― Its past may be a steamy affair, but Playboy’s Rabbit logo, stamped on anything from necklaces to notebooks, is ensuring the firm’s image in Asia is more about trend than titillation.
With little exposure to the men’s magazines and the raunchy outfits of founder Hugh Hefner’s famous bunny girls, many Asian consumers are snapping up the company’s products without focusing on the sexual resonances of the label.
In the mega-malls of Thailand’s capital the famous bunny with a bow tie is displayed between Hello Kitty cuddly toys and T-shirts bearing the monkey symbol of the Paul Frank clothing label.
“They don’t see the Playboy Bunny as an erotic thing. What they love with this brand is the logo, because it is feminine and so cute,” said a Playboy shop assistant at Siam Paragon, one of the city’s biggest shopping centers.
“Most of our customers are between 20 and 30 years old, but in the afternoon many teenagers come to shop after their classes.”
Like many media organizations, Playboy’s men’s magazine has struggled with the global economic crisis and competition from the Internet, losing readers and advertising.
Parent company Playboy Enterprises, which last had an annual profit to report in 2007, is now moving to position itself as an entertainment and lifestyle brand, with greater focus on merchandise.
The strategy is particularly clear in Asia where the magazine is hardly known, as local editions are only produced in Singapore and the Philippines while other nations have banned its publication.
A brief flirtation with an Indonesian version ― with fully dressed models
― ended with a violent backlash from Muslim hardliners and its editor imprisoned for two years for indecency.
Susan Gunelius, president of marketing firm KeySplash Creative and author of a book on the group’s strategy, said Playboy “has to position its brand differently in the Asian market and they’ve achieved that to a certain extent already”.
“It’s the merchandise that will be the cash cow in this region for Playboy. It’s an intelligent strategic marketing decision that should open the doors to big rewards for the company,” she told AFP.
In addition, the firm is counting on the Chinese horoscope’s current Year of the Rabbit as a period of opportunity.
Playboy’s licensing arm, which encompasses global sales of anything from clothing to cigars, watches, stationery and even energy drinks, is a small but growing part of the business and saw revenues accelerate in 2010.
The Chicago company has predicted the Asian market will account for 34 percent of total merchandise revenues by the end of this year, and expects to take in $20 million from the region in 2012.
Sarah Haney, senior vice president of the licensing division said most products are sold in China and Japan, but markets are growing elsewhere.
“Over the course of its 57-year history, Playboy has evolved from its magazine roots to represent an aspirational American lifestyle, even in countries that do not sell the magazine,” she said.
Playboy, which has retail stores in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne and Taipei, last year opened an entertainment venue in Macau.
In Thailand, despite the country’s famed sex industry, strict pornography regulations have kept many men’s magazines, including Playboy, off the news stands.
At the Bangkok shopping mall young women stroll among rows of pink fluorescent clothing, sparkly belts, and handbags as a family admires a pair of fuschia slippers decorated with a silver rabbit head.
In one of the few nods to the company’s sexier background, a new collection of underwear, created especially for Thai consumers, was launched at the beginning of 2011.
The Playboy mascot has become one of a galaxy of brands loved by Thai consumers, said anthropologist Olivier Evrard.
“They don’t know or refuse to see what is behind the brand, they prefer to think of it as something sanuk (fun) and divorced from the sex industry,” said Evrard, of France’s Institute for Development Research.
Nuchanaj Iamsam-ang, 39, who sported a green T-shirt with the rabbit print, said she comes to the shopping centre to restock every week.
“It’s a way for grown-ups to dress in a cute and young way,” she said.
“With its ears, it looks a bit like the gesture we make on a picture to look cool,” she said referring to the popular ‘V’ sign.
She was only vaguely aware that her favourite rabbit has its origins in a men’s magazine, with a target demographic of a mid-thirties, high-earning male, traditionally portrayed like Hefner in his youth ― well-tailored and pipe smoking.
“For women, the logo is really cute. But for men, well... it is really girly,” Nuchananj said.