Sex: intrinsic to the oldest profession and one of the most powerful forces of human nature. Unsurprisingly, sex is used extensively in communications and advertising.
The day after Hugh Hefner passed away, Grain director Madelyn Postman discussed the Playboy brand on BBC’s Talking Business with Aaron Heslehurst.
Whether men really think about sex every seven seconds, creating a brand centred on sex itself is a compelling proposition. That’s exactly what Hugh Hefner started to do in 1953, featuring another established brand, Marilyn Monroe, in the first issue of Playboy magazine. Hefner coined the term “centerfold”, granting pin-ups a format more suited to the proportions of the human body.
From the beginning, Hefner wove literature, humour, politics and culture into the magazine, broadening the appeal from a simple girlie magazine. “Hef” did not shy away from acts and statements which would test people’s limits of morality. As a proponent of free speech, Hefner fought a battle all the way to the Supreme Court to keep the right for his magazine to be distributed by the US Postal Service.
By the time of its peak in the 1970’s, Playboy had reached a circulation of 7.2 million copies per issue. The downhill ride after that pushed Playboy to become something bigger than the magazine, encompassing an entire lifestyle devoted to sex: ideally in the Playboy Mansion, with the Playboy Bunnies.
There are registrations for “Playboy” in 31 out of 45 possible Nice trademark classifications, covering furniture, clothing, casinos, food, carpets, alcoholic drinks, broadcasting – nearly everything you can imagine sporting a set of bunny ears. Though the magazine itself operates at a loss, the Playboy brand brings in one billion dollars of revenue every year.
In many ways Hugh Hefner embodied the Playboy brand, creating and living a lifestyle other men could fantasise about. At the same time, he was able to separate “Brand Hef” from the Playboy brand, and I doubt that his death at the age of 91 will have any negative effect on Playboy’s worth.
You could compare the Hugh Hefner and Playboy paradigm to Steve Jobs and Apple: in both cases the founders created brands with a longevity which has outlasted their own mortality.
It’s worth looking at the role of licensing in brand strategy. Playboy licenses out its brand extensively, which leaves it vulnerable to brand dilution and a loss of control. When I joined Gucci (soon to become Gucci Group) in 1998, the CEO Domenico de Sole had just completed a thorough audit and clean-up of the licensees, including one which made Gucci toilet roll. Typical product areas where brands use licensees for the level of expertise required include fragrance, eyewear, lingerie, watches and makeup. Toilet roll, though useful, does not make it onto that list of strategic product range expansion.
Managed well, licensing can be the perfect way for people to consume the brand in many different guises. For example, Cath Kidston plasters its twee vintage look on everything from luggage tags to baby booties, and has collaborated with other brands from Nokia to Tesco. The company is surging ahead, particularly in Asia where sales have increased by almost 20% over its past financial year.
Playboy’s licenses don’t seem to be out of control. Sixty-four years after publishing a magazine with a centrefold of Marilyn Monroe, Playboy has successfully branded sex, licensed it out, and today reaps the rewards to the tune of $1 billion per year.