Playboy unveils its latest piece rebranding

Playboy launches online shop
Playboy launches online shop

The next phase in Playboy's massive brand transformation has officially begun.

Less than one month after the media company shocked readers by saying it would no longer publish nudes in its eponymous magazine, the company on Tuesday launched, an online shopping website for the brand's merchandise.

In testing since early October, the shopping site marks a major shift in Playboy's domestic retail strategy, after it all but retreated from the market when the company went private in March 2011.

Although the company sells licensed products in 180 countries, the merchandise on will not be made via a licensing partner. Instead, the vast majority will be manufactured in the U.S., including T-shirts and sweatshirts made in Los Angeles and beer openers milled in Toledo, Ohio.

The 2,000 products available on the site — which Playboy hopes to eventually grow to 10,000 — also represent a turn upmarket for the brand. They channel what CEO Scott Flanders referred to as the 62-year-old brand's "modern heritage," and include such pieces as a $395 virgin wool cardigan and $160 branded leather iPad case.

"We have permission to be an authority on a lot of different subjects of interest," Flanders said. "We want every one of our products to be on-brand."

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Although Flanders said Playboy generated the majority of its profit from its retail and licensing business — in 2014, for example, it rang up $1.5 billion in sales worldwide — only about 10 percent of those revenues came from its U.S. business.

That's largely because, when it went private 4½ years ago, the company terminated about 50 of its global licenses. As a result, Playboy went mostly dark in Europe and North America, so that it could eventually reintroduce the brand at a more "elevated" level, Flanders said.

Through the new initiatives, the CEO expects to grow Playboy's domestic retail business to roughly 50 percent of sales, which he said would be in line with other brands that have a large, consumer-focused packaged goods division.

"There are few brands that have the global recognition of Playboy," Flanders said. "We think we can get to that."

The new site and relaunch of its U.S. merchandise had been in the works since the brand hired Scott Killian as its chief brand officer in April.

But they're far from the boldest moves the company has made as of late. Last month, Playboy said that come March it would stop publishing nudes in its magazine, as it attempts to rewrite its image and become more mainstream.

That follows a move last August that did away with nude images on its website. Since then, Flanders said, the brand was averaging four to five times the number of monthly unique visitors, at 16 million to 20 million a month.

Will cutting nude photos end Playboy?
Will cutting nude photos end Playboy?

While Flanders said he had expected the move away from naked pictures to be well received by viewers and advertisers, he was surprised how quickly the change resonated.

"Usually your surprises go the other way," he said. "That's what led us down this path of confidence that we could take the brand entirely safe for work."

He added that the company has also attracted "astoundingly positive" attention from advertisers, including several companies interested in the March issue that haven't placed ads with the company in many decades.

Online, where the company previously did not sell advertising, it's signed deals with brands from Nintendo to Mini Cooper.

Still, the company — which does not disclose specific figures for its annual sales or profits — has its work cut out. A recent article by The New York Times pegged Playboy's circulation at roughly 800,000, compared with 5.6 million in 1975.