Playboy Returns to Bare Basics

Playboy returns to branding basics

Playboy, a classic example of a brand that strayed from what made them a household name, has brought nudity back to the magazine.

Playboy covers up

Playboy dropped nude photos with the February 2016 issue at the urging of their sales department and media buyers. The ill-advised goal was to attract more mainstream advertisers and a younger demographic.

Playboy’s circulation had dropped from its peak 5.6 million in the 1970s to below 700,000 before the change. When sales departments or media buyers are allowed to dictate a brand’s direction, it’s often the first step toward oblivion. Not surprisingly, when nudity was removed from the magazine the circulation never did rebound.

“I’ll be the first to admit that the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated, but removing it entirely was a mistake,” said Cooper Hefner, the magazine’s chief creative officer and son of founder Hugh Hefner.

The experts agree. University of Mississippi journalism professor Samir Husni told the Associated Press he thinks Playboy’s ban on nudity probably alienated more readers than it attracted.

What were they thinking?

So what made Playboy think this the way to go?  While they did research the marketplace, Playboy brass reached the wrong conclusion. Playboy Enterprises CEO Scott Flanders said, “The political and sexual climate of 1953, the year Hugh Hefner introduced Playboy to the world, bears almost no resemblance to today.”

Cooper Hefner disagreed with company management’s conclusion, telling Business Insider: “When you have a company and the founder is responsible for kick-starting the sexual revolution and then you pluck out that aspect of the company’s DNA by removing the nudity, it makes a lot of people, including me, sit up and say: ‘What the hell is the company doing?’”

BuzzFeed culture writer Anne Helen Petersen explained Playboy in its prime was a “lifestyle bible”. Without nudity, Playboy became, “a caricature of itself.”

Consistent branding is important, but staying true to the true character of a company is key to continued success. When you move too far away from the core elements that define your brand, you’re messing with the primary driver of consumer loyalty and repeat business.

Those who don’t learn from history…

Coca-Cola is a perfect example of a well-established brand that fixed something that wasn’t broke. Coke tasted just fine to the billions around the world who loved it. But after some months of decreasing sales, they decided to veer away from their core formula that made them successful. They created “New Coke,” a monumental disaster of a product that didn’t even three months.

No one ever claimed Coca-Cola didn’t do the market research.  The blame for New Coke belongs entirely to the market research team that conducted over 200,000 taste tests to confirm that subjects preferred New Coke over both Classic Coke and Pepsi.

As Coca-Cola discovered later, taste preference wasn’t the only factor in consumer’s purchasing decisions. Consumers base their purchasing decisions on habit, nostalgia, and loyalty as well. The researchers also neglected to make sure subjects understood that by choosing New Coke, they would be killing off old Coke. If consumers had known this, it could have drastically altered their responses.

Continuing to do what established the brand is key to maintaining its success. But, in a competitive marketplace, you have to find ways to continuously improve and freshen it. Adding new elements helps ensure your customer base doesn’t take it for granted.

In its effort to go more mainstream, that’s the marketing mistake Playboy made. Nudity defined Playboy. Take it away and what’s left of the brand?

“I didn’t agree with the decision, explained Cooper Hefner. “I felt as though millennials and Gen-Y didn’t view nudity as the issue. The issue was the way in which nudity and the girls were portrayed.”

Playboy’s new (old) direction

In an attempt to recapture Playboy’s brand and core audience, Cooper Hefner’s business strategy is aiming to own a very specific space his father created — a cool mix of politics, sex, and anti-establishment attitude.

Whether bringing back nudity will bring former Playboy readers back to the magazine remains to be seen. But, that may not be enough for Playboy to succeed.

“The people who grew up with Playboy magazine are starting to fade away,” Husni said, “so they will have to figure out what the millennial generation wants in the 21st century if they are going to survive.”

The moral of the story is don’t stop doing what got your brand its customer base in the first place. Just keep improving the user experience.

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