Late last year Playboy made headlines by announcing that they would no longer show nudity in their magazine. Down to a circulation of just ~800,000 (from a peak of 7.16M in 1972) the decision was likely spurred by declining readership and the changing media landscape. The move may also have been an attempt to compete with more popular non-pornographic male oriented magazines like Maxim – whose circulation is still relatively strong at 2M.

Taking the Metro North Railroad into Grand Central throughout the month of March, it was hard to miss the redesigned Playboy cover – it lined the exterior of the large Hudson News stand outside track 41, where my train routinely arrives.

As I walked by each morning, I kept thinking to myself: “Is anyone really going to buy that thing?”

The answer to my question came sooner than I thought – by March 24th the Wall Street Journal reported that Playboy (the company) was up for sale. Presumably the magazine did not meet sales expectations and as a result the company was on the auction block.

Today, Playboy magazine is no longer on display on the outside of Hudson News – but rather it’s hidden on the interior of the stand, next to other less popular magazines.

The overall lesson for me: It’s really really hard to change your brand.

Think about it – Playboy is probably one of the best-known brands in the world. On top of that, between October 2015 and February 2016 there were dozens of positive news articles about the redesign – every major news outlet from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal did a story on it. The total press coverage given to the magazine redesign would probably equate to millions of dollars of paid ad spend. And still – Playboy failed to change their brand.

Despite their best efforts, Playboy still “means” pornographic magazines. By removing the pornography, they haven’t changed their brand – they’ve fallen short of their brand promise. Or – as I like to say:

Playboy: all of the shame, none of the nudity.

They should have released a new brand name.  Why not?  They could have said it was “founded by the same people that brought you Playboy” and give people a different brand name to anchor on.  People treat brands like people – they can change slowly over long periods of time, but not drastically over short periods of time.

Hyundai provides a good example of how to successfully change a brand. Hyundai used to mean “crappy cars.” With a ton of hard work (and tons of advertising (and Jeff Bridges)) they’ve been able to successfully change their brand to mean “less expensive, but ok cars.” And even that small change took them 10 years.

Playboy had no shot of changing anything in just six months.

So why didn’t they release a new brand?

What I’ve seen time and time again is that the people that own a brand tend to drastically over estimate the ease in which their brand can be changed. It’s often much easier to start a new brand name than it is to change an existing brand. With the case of Playboy, this might be the mistake that puts the company out of business.

It’s Really Hard to Change Your Brand
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  • It feels to me more like the company was in freefall, and they were grasping at straws, i.e. trying everything they could think of.

    To your point: they weren’t going to change their brand in six months. But… they weren’t going to *launch* a brand in 6 months either.

    The real benefit of using the existing brand is probably less about the brand and more about distribution. Getting a new magazines on shelves, _available for sale_, is very hard. You’re competing and have no promise of sales. But stores already carried Playboy, and if they could reduce the MoM sales decline they’d be able to preserve their distribution. (In fact, I bet their distribution numbers were dropping, and boy is _that_ terrifying to contemplate if you own the magazine).

    I think there’s a bigger story here about being *so attached* to the brand that they resisted changes, long after they needed to. They were down to ~9% of their peak sales >40 years earlier? They should have changed 20+ years ago, not now. They probably just got used to annual declines, and hoped it would “stabilize” somewhere.

    Sure, it’ll stabilize somewhere. But there’s no guarantee that it’ll stabilize at a point where you can continue to make money.

  • I guess looking at it a different way- their strategy could have been to stabilize distribution then sell the company. Although, if that were the case it would signal a far worse situation than they let on.

  • Perhaps, but that might be good PR.

    I like the idea that the big change was just to stabilize distribution.

    Consider: the value of the magazine could be the discounted cash flow forecast for the magazine. The difference between month over month decline of 2%, and say 0.5%, is pretty damn large in a DFC model.

    Perhaps the number *did* improve, which is why they put it up for sale. They waited until the MoM changes looked good to maximize sale value.

  • Yeah – said a different way: it’s hard to sell a company in free fall.

    I’m really interested to see the circulation numbers for March and April. I don’t think they’re posted until later in the year.