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Will Playboy’s Brand Survive Without Nudity?

Marketing experts weigh in on the magazine’s future

Playboy's brand has come to mean more than just scantily clad (or nude, for that matter) women. Getty Images

What's a brand without its core proposition? That's the question facing Playboy Enterprises, which made headlines last week when it announced that, beginning in March 2016, its 62-year-old flagship magazine will no longer publish nude photographs.

The decision, according to the brand's executives, was partly a reaction to the massive growth of easily accessible (and often free) online pornography—part of a cultural shift that, ironically, Playboy itself helped to bring about.

Phillip Morelock, Playboy's chief digital officer and head of ad sales, told Adweek: "The response we are getting from advertisers who want to be a part of the new Playboy has been phenomenal so far. This shift is clearly resonating with brands who have long wanted to use our platform to reach men, but to whom the nudity in the magazine was a barrier."

In the first half of 2015, Playboy saw its circulation fall by 23 percent versus the previous year to just over 800,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. All told, the U.S. edition of the magazine loses around $3 million a year. But at the same time, Playboy's website, which went nudity-free last August, has been booming, especially with younger men.

The revamped print edition will include a greater emphasis on upscale lifestyle content, long-form journalism, celebrity interviews and fiction. Aside from its centerfolds, Playboy has, of course, long been known for its respected storytelling and celebrity Q&As, having published the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Haruki Murakami and Margaret Atwood and interviews with Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King Jr. The sex appeal won't be gone altogether. Readers will still find "sexy, seductive pictorials of the world's most beautiful women" in the magazine's pages, it says, but the content will be more PG-13 than R-rated.


 

Advertising insiders are applauding the change. "I think it's genius," said Petur Workman, vp of business development at Phoenix Media Group. "This is going to allow them to attract a much more upscale group of brands."

"The upside of having nude photography in the magazine is negligible and the downside is that it brings a kind of stigma to the brand that they don't need," added Landor chief strategy officer Thomas Ordahl. "Playboy's decision is a no-brainer from that standpoint."

At the same time, selling the new, safe-for-work Playboy could be tricky. "Once you have successfully created a lifestyle brand, it's really hard to become something different," cautioned Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "It's probably going to take quite a bit of time to transform the brand into something new and relevant while also trying to retain some of the original cachet and relevance that makes it unique."

Ordahl believes Playboy should return to its roots. "There are a lot of things playing culturally in their favor right now, from the renaissance of the cocktail culture to the popularity of the Mad Men era," he said. "I think there's definitely something in the 'swinger' idea that they could play up."

Reed suggests targeting the startup guy. "These young entrepreneur types are hard-working but also want to have fun," he said. "Playboy could insert itself into that cultural narrative as a brand that represents the play-hard side of things."

However the brand recasts itself, there's one thing everybody agrees on: Playboy's brand equity is built on a lot more than just naked women.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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