Scott Killian is the Chief Brand Officer at Playboy, the famous men’s lifestyle and entertainment company. He manages the company’s e-commerce business and is part of the management team tasked with reimagining its North American consumer products business. He also comes from a manufacturing background, having owned his own domestic cut-and-sew operation. He shares with us how his thoughts on American manufacturing and how it fits into Playboy’s story as an iconic American brand.
While it’s true that we’re removing nudity from the United States edition of our flagship magazine as part of its reimagining, Playboy has always been an intelligent brand that produces journalism, other forms of content from legendary writers and artists, and our iconic interviews. We continue to receive journalism awards, which is a testament to quality of work we publish. The same core tenets that made the brand successful in the past will be relevant to our future. We’re inevitably compared to other publications like Esquire and GQ, but we’re distinguished by our very large consumer products licensing business. As a result, Playboy transcends the magazine – we’re a global lifestyle brand.
About four years ago, management had the foresight and discipline to eliminate roughly 70 brand-weakening licensing deals in the North American market and focus on international markets where we saw incredible revenue growth. In 2014, Playboy generated $1.5 billion in annual retail sales around the world. With the reimagining of the magazine, now is the perfect time to re-introduce Playboy consumer products to the North American market. We want to be strategic and careful about how we approach that process. Rather than an aggressive licensing program with third-parties, we wanted to start with our online store because it’s a place to be thoughtful and careful about brand positioning.
Our new product line will pay homage to Playboy’s roots as an iconic American brand. In 1953 Hugh Hefner mortgaged his furniture to raise the 600 dollars in seed capital he needed to start this brand at his kitchen table. We believe Playboy embodies the American entrepreneurial success story. We wanted to get back to our roots and capture that entrepreneurial spirit by aligning ourselves with small craft manufacturers.
Executing Our Vision with Small Batch Manufacturing
As Playboy’s audience continues to get younger, we felt it was important to remind this new generation about our brand’s roots. As a result, we sought out quality manufacturers that demonstrate the same entrepreneurial self-determination that we believe is core to both Hef’s personally and the Playboy brand. The products are unique and made in small batches. Most of our T-shirts come from Los Angeles. A factory in Brooklyn hand-stitches pillows for us. We have a sweater manufacturer whose products are 100 percent handmade and spends 25 hours on each piece. Other products include solid brass bottle openers in the shape of the Playboy key from the 1950s, cigar box electric guitars that sold out almost immediately on social media, glassware, and vintage advertising-style clocks.
Beyond curating great products, we also focus on the stories of the people who make them, and the processes they use to produce them. For example, we found a company in San Francisco that not only makes beautiful jackets, but they use the same patterns as they used for fighter pilots and bomber crews dating back to World War II. I used to own a cut-and-sew facility of my own, but I operated a laser or robotic blade cutter. These guys use a pair of scissors just as they have for the past 70 years, and the results speak for themselves. They’ve produced jackets for everyone from the military to rap stars.
Finding these manufacturing partners has been one of our greatest challenges. We’ve looked everywhere imaginable – referrals, trade shows, the internet, and Maker’s Row. The process of meeting with manufacturers and touring their operations inspired us to create a program we’re calling Playboy Makers. As part of the initiative, we’re producing a series of short profile videos that tell some of these their stories. Not only the story of how they produce the goods, but also their personal lives – how they got into the business, how they found that piece of old equipment that nobody makes anymore, or what inspired the passion to bootstrap a small business.
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My approach to manufacturing really derives from my background in sports, where I oversaw licensed consumer products. I operated the official online stores for all of the major American pro sports leagues and one of the biggest challenges was maintaining inventory across all of the different teams, sizes, and styles. In in the late 1990s I pioneered a lean manufacturing approach that allowed us to overcome many of those challenges with domestic, on-demand manufacturing, and I brought this same thinking with me to Playboy.
Domestic manufacturing a great way for Playboy to reconnect with our entrepreneurial and uniquely American roots, and also provides us with operational advantages. I’m now more bullish than I’ve ever been about the future of American manufacturing. The combination of new technologies and proximity to the end consumer allows for rapid prototyping, short run production, and limitless customization options. Manufacturers who can add value to the process rather than simply offer a commodity are going to be the real winners.
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