Playboy: A brand at odds with the modern world


Written By: Momo Amjad

Hugh Hefner, wildly successful adult media mogul and incredibly creepy old man, died at 91 this month, leaving behind the legacy of a dying brand and a 31 year old wife.

His death marks another major turning point for how we interact with modern brands. It was clear that Hefner was very much the Playboy brand itself and something he defined as being a part of his own personality. The two were inexplicably intertwined, and it was incredibly hard to distinguish between them. Everything that Playboy was had Hugh Hefner all over it – he was not just the face, but a physical example of the whole sexual freedom ideology and hedonism the magazine preaches. The brand in its entirety was driven by him, his personality and, ultimately, his whims and desires. He never really strayed from the original message of Playboy, no matter how outdated and irrelevant it increasingly became.

But modern brands are no longer run by these larger-than-life personalities, and if they are, they are part of a very exclusive, dying breed. Brands are now entities of their own, as a new savvy consumer generation becomes more and more aware and accepting of the personhood of corporations.

Millennials have a never-ending access to information, and this includes an endless stream of videos, interviews and articles on successful entrepreneurs and leaders behind major companies. But with the modern business practices and nomadic working culture, no one is going to be in their job forever – including these modern CEOs. In the UK people change employers every five years, and in the US it’s even shorter, at just four years. Successful modern brands who are thinking long-term are building relationships between the brand entity and consumer, rather than the people behind the brand and the consumer. Playboy, however, continued to rely on Hugh Hefner.

So, with Hefner’s death, it’s likely that we are seeing the end of Playboy. The brand has been steadily declining over the last few decades and has yet to figure out a way to access the next generation of consumers. And without the novelty of a hedonist octogenarian living in a mansion with a harem of beautiful women – what else is left of Playboy?

It’s clear that Millennials and Gen-Z have no interest in Playboy – and here are 4 reasons why:

1. The brand values are no longer relevant:

Although something has to be said for brand consistency and loyalty to its own beliefs and values – ultimately that’s irrelevant if those beliefs are 30 years behind the rest of society. Brand consistency is highly valued by consumers, but there’s a fine line in being consistent and being stubborn. Playboy as a brand refused to evolve and found itself unable to connect with either its original audience or a new audience, as both groups changed and developed over the last three decades, while Playboy remained the same.

2. The brand image was built around a person, rather than an idea or a value:

Playboy allowed itself to be led too much by Hugh Hefner and his lifestyle – the brand’s perception aged with it’s founder. And for a brand that prides itself on being sexy, there’s nothing ultimately sexy about a 91 year old octogenarian living and sleeping with women in their 20s. The older Hefner got, the more old and archaic the brand felt – consumers could physically see the brand age with every new gray hair on his head.

3. The decline of “lads mags” as technology enables curation of content:

In 2014 we started to see the domino effect, as “lads mags” fell one by one, from FHM, Maxim, Nuts to the impending collapse of Playboy. With unprecedented access to information through technology, we have a new generation of consumers who are able to access and curate exactly what they want to see and when. The internet enabled consumers to pick and choose exactly what they want, which parts of a brand they want to engage with and when, where, and what they want to consume. Playboy’s approach stuck to its nostalgic obsessions and with Hugh Hefner as the editor-in-chief with ultimate veto power – Playboy only ever showcased a curation of what Hefner’s wanted.

4. The brand’s values are no longer aspirational. They’re actually unattainable:

Not only are Millennials uninterested in the values that Playboy is trying to sell, but, for a generation facing an unprecedented amount of debt, a crippled employment market and potential nuclear war, Playboy’s lifestyle is so far out of reach for an average young person that it’s inconceivable. We have a generation that’s no longer interested in wealth as a marker of success, but instead seeks satisfaction and happiness – 64% of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year on a job they love than $100,000 a year on a job they find boring! Playboy’s associations with wealth (millionaire personality, expensive clubs, mansion, yachts, champagne are all dripping with cheesy aspirations from a bygone era) are simply unattainable.

Consumers interact with brands in a more personal way than ever. What you are consuming now says something about you. What you wear, what you read, what you buy reflects the messages you want to tell the world about yourself, and what Playboy offered with Hefner at the helm is simply not something that reflects who Millennials are.

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