About a year ago, Playboy Magazine’s management, with support of founder Hugh Hefner, announced they were leaving nudity behind, or, um, in the rearview mirror, and focusing their magazine on other content. They suggested that Playboy really wasn’t about female nudity; it was about a broadly sophisticated lifestyle for men. They felt this new move could revive steadily declining subscriptions and put Playboy on a new course. While I liked the thought process at the time, in a bold prediction of the fairly obvious, I also wrote that it would fail. Apparently, it did. Playboy backtracked this week and announced a return to more skin and less modesty, bringing their brand back to where they were struggling to compete not long ago.
Also a year ago, Hef’s son, Cooper, who was not on their payroll at the time, sharply criticized the move. But he has since joined his father’s enterprise, and with his recent promotion to Chief Creative Officer, it was Cooper who announced that the old was new again. “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,” Hefner said in a tweet in February. “Today we’re taking back and reclaiming who we are.”
I asked a few business associates (men and women) for their take on this turn of events, and most agreed that Playboy was better off with nudes on their pages than without. A few also agreed with the statement “Playboy Magazine? What’s a magazine?” Which is clearly one of the bigger problems young Mr. Hefner has to deal with. Readership of all magazines declined 19 percent from 2011-2015, and ad revenues, of course, have gone down, as well.
But, can a brand go home again and reclaim its “raison d’etre,” its “je ne sais quoi,” or some other pretentious French phrase that means mojo? Sure it can. Cadillac is a great example.
At the height of its brand power, Cadillac was not just the leading luxury car brand in the United States; its name had become jargon for describing any superior product, as in “it’s the Cadillac of….” Yet, by the 1990s, Cadillac was reduced to a unibody lookalike of its Buick and Oldsmobile siblings, with little more than headlight and taillight variations to distinguish it from more down-market models. Cadillac had lost touch with its brand, and their market was changing around them at a rapid rate.
Cadillac finally figured out that while luxury was still a viable part of their brand, huge cars were no longer the standard of excellence. Styling and performance were becoming more important and brands like BMW, Mercedes and Acura (and later Lexus) were leading the way. To adapt, Cadillac introduced the CTS, a direct competitor to the BMW 5 Series and created a luxury version in the SUV category with the Escalade. Sales improved and the revamped Cadillac models are now known for both luxury and performance.
Adding naked women back in the mix may be what Playboy needs to revive its brand. It’s at least a first step toward rebuilding its circulation. But, here’s a thought: adding women to their readership might be what they really need to grow it. Let’s see how creative Cooper Hefner can be.