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Brand Strategy

Brand Differentiation Is Comparative

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Playboy's New Brand Strategy

Radical is relative. There’s been plenty of chatter recently about Playboy’s much-hyped decision to rethink its nudity policy and how it represents a substantial change for the brand. Maybe it does, but that doesn’t make it a disruptive move. It only makes it ground-breaking for Playboy, within Playboy’s own reference set.

It’s so tempting to think that shifts being made to and within a brand are extraordinary; to believe that what you are doing is unprecedented, shocking, new, responsive…but the critical comparison isn’t with how your brand has behaved and what you’re used to, but rather with how those you compete against are behaving and what consumers are looking for. By my assessment, Playboy has “disrupted” itself all the way to parity. The brand owners may see this as a giant step. I’d argue it was one that was long overdue for a whole host of reasons.

I would also argue that it will land the brand in a place that seems to make little sense from a brand strategy point of view. It will now be another men’s magazine in a world filled with men’s magazines. It will now be another magazine filled with articles in a world overflowing with content. It will still be a business in the world of publishing at a time when publishing itself is questioning where to next?

What this shift may do, as Wired observed, is to protect the only valuable asset that Playboy really has – its logo. Making the brand more family friendly will mean Playboy can get an airing in social media and it may enable the brand to retain relevance for brand licensing. I don’t see that as radical. And I’d question how much time it buys the brand or where it gets the brand to. Nostalgia still feels like Playboy’s key play. For all the up-talk, this is still a brand that seems to be relying on its heyday to make it through today and perhaps tomorrow. And the press coverage around Playboy’s announcement bears this out. There’s been lots of emphasis on what Playboy was and what it did. Past tense. What the brand hasn’t done is to re-explain its relevance in ways that men today will find interesting.

Is the Playboy brand buying itself anything more than time? And if so, time for what?

I don’t think you can ever “return” a brand to what it used to be. I think any strategy that attempts to do so risks trying to re-engineer the genie, long after the bottle has been sent off for recycling. Faced with a brand in trouble and needing to reframe how it is valued, my first principle is always ‘be careful what you try and save, if anything’. It’s tempting to believe that the things you know and value as a brand are indispensable. But disrupting your brand isn’t about making new sense out of what you had, it’s about making all the changes necessary to remain interesting, and creating a storyline to get you there fast enough and in an exciting enough way for buyers not to dismiss you.

Burberry proved that a company with heritage can find new relevance but only by being very clear about its universal truths and adapting its story to make its history a vital part of the backdrop to its future. As Tom Shapiro observes, “The first step is to identify the aspects of your current business or marketing that are out of whack. For Burberry it was a poorly managed global expansion (plus an unpleasant association with British gangs). Whatever it is that’s holding you back–get rid of it without mercy.”

If you’re not radical enough, you could literally be killing your brand with kindness.

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