Steven Heller | Essays


The author's favorite Playboy cover, from June 1961

Founded in 1978, Banana Republic’s core products were travel-oriented, khaki-colored safari clothing and accessories. In 1983, after The Gap bought the company, the BR brand was transformed overnight into a luxury fashion retailer. Although it retained its questionable brand name, signifying South American dictatorships governed by North American fruit corporations, it became a shopping staple for the Baby Boomer-Yuppie crowd. Many clothing, food, and entertainment businesses have totally changed their styles and core content for demographic reasons, but usually these shifts were done with evolutionary caution. Last week a world famous brand announced an unexpected, revolutionary change that caught the world off-guard. 

I’m talking about Playboy’s announcement to no longer publish nude photographs of women in its storied magazine. Male readers always joked that they read Playboy for the interviews and articles, which are indeed informative and well-written; still, photos of Playmates are more than integral to the overall brand—they are the heart of the corporate ethos. 

Denuding the magazine, although such cheesecake is admittedly a vestige of a bygone political, social, and cultural time, is like cutting down all the giant sequoias and still calling it a redwood forest. Playboy cannot be Playboy without its pounds of flesh and gatefold center spreads. Although the Playboy name connotes more than its original narrow meaning—the bed-hopping, cocktail-drinking, pipe-smoking, man-about-town—its identity is, for better or worse, wrapped up with the Playboy Bunnies, who will soon be released into the wilderness. 

Playboy’s leaders may figure out a way to remake the brand—and the world will be watching—but it will be hard to retain the word "Playboy" as its brand. Maybe it should rename itself Playtext—or simply Hefner’s as a memorial to its creator. Whatever it will be will be, it got me thinking about what other core asset/products, if forever removed, would destroy major brands. Here are a few:
What if Disney lost its mouse, McDonald’s took burgers and fries off the menu, Lay's gave up on potatoes altogether, The New York Times no longer covered the news, R.J. Reynolds stopped producing cigarettes, or Trump International made The Donald disappear? 

Playboy made a gutsy corporate move. Time will tell whether or not it can survive without its traditional asset. 

Comments [6]

Disney without its mouse and McDonalds without burgers and fries aren't altogether implausible; while they would be undeniably transformed, there's enough brand DNA beneath the surface to support other endeavors, so long as Disney keep making dreams real and McDonalds keeps serving food quickly and ubiquitously. The real concern with Playboy is that there's already a publication occupying the space it seeks to inhabit, and it's been doing it for over eight decades: Esquire.
Eric Doctor

Did you see that recent NYTimes report on the "future of news" i.e. some kind of Wikipedia nonsense. Seems closer than ever to some crowdsourced thing...
Mike Lowe

Playboy said something to the effect that “the availability of every kind of sex and nudity is available at the click of a mouse” had a lot to do with this decision. Esquire magazine has been showing beautiful women (but scantily clad, only hints of nudity) for most of the 20th century, followed in 1995 by Maxim, a bit more risque but still not Playboy’s model of frontal nudity. Playboy won the sexual revolution—so they can, I believe now—take an Esquire Magazine style/model and be successful at it. Now I can tell my wife I really do read Playboy for the articles.
John Foster

if the interviews and articles really are 'informative and well-written', they shouldn't need to use images of naked ladies to shift copies?
Jane Sheppard

I think this new approach is definitely a highly risky movement that the publisher had decided to take. However, in order to move forward to a more open-minded cognitive type of marketing, it has to portray an entirely new storage of display on its magazines. Hopefully the readers will see this new take as a new strategy and not just a gimmick.
Nathan Davidson

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Taposy Rabeya

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