Stripped Back

I have never read or bought a copy of Playboy. I don’t know anyone of my generation who has. Sales have been steadily declining for the last decade. Despite this the bunny logo has not lost its instant recognisability. ‘Playboy’ conjures up images of the mansion, glamorous bunny girls and playboy icon Hugh Hefner in his slippers. However, after years of over-licensing ‘Playboy’s glamour has faded.

“If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you,” Hugh Hefner wrote in the first issue in 1953. Sixty-two years later, Playboy announced last week that it will no longer feature nude images within its hallowed pages. It is aiming younger. The new target is 30-year-olds, the median age of Playboy’s Web readers.

But will this stripped back format reinvigorate Playboy? And what does this mean for brands today?

I do not see the plight of Playboy any differently to that of Woolworths, Borders, Blockbusters or even Black Cabs (vs. Uber). These brands are struggling or have failed to keep up with technology and their new digital audiences. I would argue the primary problem isn’t Playboy’s content, it’s how it is consumed. This audience want instant. They want it in the palm of their hand. How a product is delivered to this audience is everything.

One of Playboy’s struggles is where the core product, its magazine, is sold. The days of a sneaky newsagent visit and furtive reaching for a top-shelf magazine are over. If you wish to see nudity it is now as readily available as news.  Playboy provides exclusive and aspirational imagery, but, it can’t keep up with the free and frequent nature of the net.

I think Playboy should recognise the shifting digital environment and create an editorial app allowing them to target their audience effectively

An example of a brand that has evolved effectively is the Daily Mail, they suffered years of declining circulation figures, falling advertising revenues, the bombshell of phone hacking and the subsequent inquiry into press ethics. But, amid the accusations and allegations the Daily Mail’s website became the world’s most popular online newspaper. “The Mail took a decision early on that it was going to be drawn in the direction the audience wanted to go,” says Emily Bell, director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in New York. The website’s success is in part down to a decision to break with the editorial priorities of its print counterpart, she claims. Playboy’s audience still want to see nudity, and read articles, they just aren’t consuming either the way the audience had 20 years previously.

In its heyday Playboy was known not only for nudity but also for its cutting edge journalism, it included interviews with the likes of Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter. Taste-makers and trail-blazers were featured and wrote articles. The magazine stood for something, it featured some of the first black models published alongside white models, in a time when this was very much frowned upon. Playboy was more than its centrefolds. It had grit and belief.

If Playboy is to stand a chance with its Gen Y and Gen X audience it needs to give them a reason to tune in.

Burberry is a brand who 10 years ago was suffering the same fate, it had become over exposed. When Angela Ahrendts took the helm as CEO of Burberry in 2006, she asked one question:  Where were the trench coats? Burberry’s external focus on the competitive luxury clothing and leather goods space had led it to neglect the company’s core strength – its iconic outerwear. Organisations that lack focus commonly concentrate on the competition rather than feeding their areas of strength. Ahrendts saw the audience had changed the way they viewed fashion and in her first year she placed 60 per cent of Burberry’s marketing budget into a digital strategy, which ultimately saw the brand triple its annual sales in five years.

I think Playboy need to look at their own brand DNA and find a way to bring back the glamour and fantasy alongside smart journalism. Covering-up is red herring. The brand could find modern ways to take risks. Fantasy is an integral part their brand DNA but in a landscape where a third of millennials say they’re less than 100 percent straight and one of the world’s most famous male athletes now lives as a women, it isn’t that Playboy is still peddling fantasy, but that the fantasy has now evolved.

Brands that have adapted have succeeded. They have taken the USP of their product, creatively repackaged them and opened a new chapter.

Our very own PepsiCo is another good example. It has always been a challenger brand, but realised that it needed to advertise like a challenger brand – moving away from celebrity-endorsed TV campaigns and into a digitally led content-centric approach. This has earned more reach, engagement and talkability.

By evolving product delivery and accessibility, adapting retail models, sticking to the brand DNA and remaining flexible, all these brands have flourished.

If Woolworths had built up an online presence quicker, Borders has started their own e-reader, Blockbusters had created a digital platform and Black Cabs created their own cashless app could they not all still be flourishing?

Perhaps Playboy will save itself by covering up. Or maybe they need to strip back more layers and look out from between the magazine covers and step out of the mansion for inspiration.


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