4 branding lessons from Hugh Hefner

The founder of the Playboy empire died Wednesday, leaving a high-profile legacy, as well as insights you can bring into your own campaigns.

Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday, epitomized the axiom that sex sells.

After news of Hefner’s death (at age 91 due to natural causes) broke, celebrities and fans alike flooded social media with reactions and memories.

CNN Money reported:

Hefner founded Playboy in 1953 with $600 of his own money and built the magazine into a multimillion-dollar entertainment empire that at its 1970s peak included TV shows, a jazz festival and a string of Playboy Clubs whose cocktail waitresses wore bunny ears and cottontails.

Over the years, the legend of “Hef” only grew as he bedded hundreds of young women, married a few of his magazine’s “Playmates” and cavorted on reality TV shows with a stable of girlfriends less than a third his age.

Here are four branding lessons you can learn from the iconic publisher and bon vivant:

1. Embrace your brand.


“For years Hef has been the literal persona of the Playboy brand,” Allen Adamson wrote in Forbes.

The Telegraph reported:

For decades, Hefner remained the pipe-smoking, captain’s hat wearing, silk-pajama-clad centre of a non-stop party at the Playboy mansions in Chicago and later in Los Angeles.

However, it wasn’t just a luxurious lifestyle surrounded by women that Hefner promoted.

Vanity Fair reported:

American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story , a docudrama, premiered on Amazon earlier this year, and the authorized project serves as a fitting hagiography. As Hefner told The Daily Beast in 2010, “I would like to be remembered as someone who contributed to, and changed the sexual and social values of my time. And I think my place within that corner of history is fairly secure.”

From penning Playboy’s first article to pushing the boundaries by hiring black comics such as Bill Cosby when most clubs were segregated, Hefner made himself a permanent part of Playboy’s narrative and what the brand represented.

Brand managers looking to inject a human element into their storytelling need look no further than their own organizations.

Often, employees can serve as the best source of stories, and executives can build trust and increase consumer confidence by sharing their insights and becoming a part of digital branding efforts.


2. Don’t be afraid to fail.


Evan Carmichael wrote in his blog:


While his first venture with the Playboy magazine received unparalleled success, Hefner was not so lucky with his next pursuits. He expanded within the publishing world with two magazines called Show Business International and Trump, neither of which had a very long shelf life. He also initially ventured into the world of television with the late-night show Playboy Penthouse, but it too found little success. Despite these failures that occurred early on in his career, Hefner did not give up on the idea of branching out and expanding the Playboy brand. “There are many roads to Mecca,” says Hefner. Indeed, when one road collapsed, Hefner was not hesitant to try another.


Though it can be disheartening to lose out on a client or get rejected by yet another journalist, PR and marketing pros shouldn’t be afraid of trying new things. By learning from failures as well as successes, you can hone your skills and perfect a pitch or campaign for the next time around.


3. Add particular value.


The running joke for Playboy fans has long been that they “read it for the articles.”

However, Hefner was adamant that the Playboy empire was not all about sex. Rather, that was merely a portion of the brand’s appeal.

Fortune reported:

… One of its selling points has been that the magazine was created for literate, cultured men who also happened to enjoy photos of nude ladies. An under-publicized and notable accomplishment of the magazine is that it has a surprising history of groundbreaking interviews with luminaries such as Miles Davis and Steve Jobs and has featured the work of famed writers including Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer.

You don’t have to send a saucy centerfold-type photo via Instagram or Snapchat to add value to your audience.

Instead, evaluate their interests and needs, and respond by crafting content that caters to the data. Not only can analyzing consumer metrics help you better target established and potential customers, it can also show your fans that you’re rewarding them for giving you the currency of their attention.

4. Be flexible.


In 2015, Playboy announced that it would start covering up its models.

It wasn’t that Hefner experienced a change of conscience or wanted to make a statement. The change happened to boost readership among younger consumers.

Jonathan Adams wrote in the McClenahanBruer blog:

Facing a circulation drop from 5.6 million in 1975 to just over 800,000 [in 2015], a move into digital delivery of content via the web was necessary to connect to a younger audience, widen content circulation and deliver content in a popular way. While consumption of content in the workplace is desired by consumers, nudity in the workplace isn’t an option. In August of 2014, Playboy’s website went non-nude to better allow for SFW and social media viewing and saw the average age of its reader drop from 47 to slightly over 30 while web traffic increased from around 4 million unique visits per month to 16 million.

The change lasted only a year, but it highlights the necessity of being open to new directions. Most PR and marketing pros can accomplish a similar boost in traffic, email opens or media relations success by testing a few methods and then tweaking strategies.

Test email subject lines as well as headlines for your blog articles to see which garner the most clicks. Track and learn from design and content changes that increase visitors’ time spent on your website, or offer to submit a guest article instead of pitching non-news to the next reporter on your list.

Being willing to try something new can uncover a whole new world of opportunities and breathe life into a deflated campaign.

(Image by Alexander Hauk via)


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