Journey with me down the rabbit hole (pun intended) as I explore various brands, their efforts in building Community and other key observations I have made of them as a Brand Enthusiast and Marketer.
First, A note on Community
As a Caribbean National, my passion for community is deeply rooted in my DNA; where it and culture go hand in hand. Community has also been a way that I have personally coped with what life has thrown at me. Having bonded with strangers over our mutual love for Linkin Park (LP fans reading this - #MakeChesterProud) and the unspoken acknowledgement of what that means. I have founded and been a part of Mom-focused communities to figure out how to cope as a new parent while grieving the loss of my own parents - in other words, I see and appreciate the value of community.
By definition; Community refers to a group of people who share characteristics, interests, attitudes, circumstances or even goals. Originally, communities were usually assumed to be based on locale, but as the world and technology have evolved, communities are no longer largely restricted by geographic location. Whether by intention or not, brands have also played an integral role in this social evolution, in many ways, becoming the framework of modern-day pop culture and even some sociological constructs - Playboy is one such brand.
So why Playboy?
The Power of Brand
Playboy is a brand I have come to admire for remaining true to their core principles; of celebrating the female body with an unapologetic cigar-in-hand ‘Mad Men’ nod to the patriarchy. The brand has evolved beautifully over the decades; far less misogynistic since its first edition in 1953 to what could be regarded as the borderline feminist modern-day Playboy.com. Which boasts a wide array of articles ranging from political commentary to features on Black Voices and people making a difference in the lives of others. Their online merch shop has a wide range of products which include the descriptor “made responsibly” in addition to their recently launched line of CBD-based pleasure products.
Brand-orgasm aside - the Playboy core strategy has remained unchanged; beautiful women, well written and researched articles, and an incredible laundry-list of who’s who interviews from the likes of Jimmy Carter, Maya Angelou to John Lennon.
The tongue in cheek phrase, “I only read Playboy for the articles” has been around for a while and has become synonymous with the brand. The phrase has also become an identifier for the Playboy aficionado and overall community member. Someone who has a like for the lustful eye-candy located within the pages of the print magazine or on their website, with a more discerning taste for adult content, which tends to be ‘tame’ in comparison to its other adult media counterparts, like Hustler and Penthouse.
"If you don't encourage healthy sexual expression in public, you get unhealthy sexual expression in private," Hefner said in Playboy in 1974, according to CNN. "If you attempt to suppress sex in books, magazines, movies and even everyday conversation, you aren't helping to make sex more private, just more hidden. You're keeping sex in the dark. What we've tried to do is turn on the lights."
Hefner has been lauded as a pioneer of the sexual revolution but also a perpetrator for driving misogyny - but while a valid angle to explore, this article focuses less on the actions of the brand’s owner and more on the resulting identity of the brand; one which the public discovered and got to know over the years. Still with me? Great, let’s continue.
The Playboy Persona & Customer Avatar
The Playboy (which no longer has heavy gender-based masculine connotations) is usually a bit more on the well-read and well-spoken side and with a natural ability to chameleon their identity to suit situations and surroundings. The ‘Playboy’ is daring and debonair, sophisticated and savvy, vocal and vivacious.
People recognised this unfolding of brand identity over the years, they saw a mirroring of their own desired characteristics of the ‘Playboy’. The business leveraged that and crafted their audience niche in adult entertainment; a free-thinker, more respectful of women than a Penthouse / Hustler fan, likely to be regarded as a gentleman or a confident woman in various circles. This birthed the Community. A community developed from the inside out; through the careful crafting of the brand, establishing a tone of voice (outside of Hefner’s with time), identifying their audience and creating content that would be appreciated and valued by a very specific type of reader/consumer.
Community gives rise to Opportunity
This gave rise to opportunity; developing merch and branching out into physical spaces for the ‘community’ to meet, like the first-ever Playboy Club built in Jamaica which opened in 1963. “The Rabbit in Paradise” was the first of 30 clubs globally and even predates the famous Playboy Mansion which doubled as Hefner’s home from 1974 till the day he passed away at 91 in 2017. Interestingly enough, the home was sold in 2016 before Hefner died, under the agreement that he be able to live out the remainder of his life on property. Though no longer a part of the Playboy empire legally, it does not change the public’s perception of this iconic landmark in Hollywood and remains a venue for events and the like to this day.
Though Hugh Hefner did not know the term “Influencer Marketing” he certainly knew what he was doing in 1953 when he put Marylin Monroe on the cover of the first edition. Hefner purchased the calendar pictures of the starlet and included them in his first edition calling her the “Sweetheart of the Month”. Sidenote: There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding this spread, as the pictures were taken years prior to the publication, before Monroe’s rise to stardom, when Marilyn was broke and needed to make a car payment - she only received $50 for the nude photos, which Hefner was able to later ‘milk’ to his advantage. This, however, spurred Playboy on, to become the ultimate hidden-under-the-bed household brand of its time.
Thankfully Hefner later developed a better system of monthly features; photographing the magazine’s own centrefold spreads and transforming the Sweetheart of the Month feature into the Playmate of the Month. Hefner saw the power of the female starlet and leveraged them as his first seeming influencers - it was easy to sell a magazine with exclusive never before seen nude images of Hollywood’s favourite bombshells. However, here’s what you weren’t expecting… Hefner’s Playmates were never actually the Influencers who were helping to build the community, sure they sold magazines, but the true Influencers which seeded the community growth were the subjects of the featured interviews and those who contributed articles on current topics. The topics and backgrounds of people interviewed were wide and spoke to the intellect and not just the sexual appetite and prowess of the Playboy.
This is the pivotal difference in this brand’s essence; a true understanding and psychographic appreciation of their ideal target persona. Sex sells, but substance builds and this was the perfect recipe, not just for content but also to attract a consistent flow of who’s who Playmates plus credible and ‘influential’ candidates for interviews, who represented the ideal traits of the brand’s own identity and ideal customer avatar; Radicals and Revolutionaries.
Playboy continues to evolve
Playboy’s history is not without its dark corridors, but again I emphasize the indirect and sometimes direct role a brand can play in shaping society. In 1963 a then up and coming journalist; Gloria Stienem, assumed a fake identity and went undercover in one of the Playboy Bunny Clubs. The 2 part expose “A Bunny’s Tale”; noted as one of the first examples of undercover journalism, is what many believe to be the catalyst of Feminism and Gloria became its patroness in that moment. Her story displayed despicable conditions in which the Bunnies had to work, gross underpay, STD testing and of course sexual objectification to name a few - you can read more HERE. In later leaked memos; Hefner had exclaimed that feminists were the enemy and he was now at war, to which the response was more picketing outside his businesses.
"What I wanted to create was a pinup phenomenon that was devoted to the girl next door. Beauty is everywhere — on the campus, in the office, living next door. That was the concept ... Nice girls like sex too — it's a natural part of life. Don't be ashamed of it. Part of the sexual revolution is bringing rationality to sexuality. Because when you don't embrace sexuality in a normal way, you get the twisted kinds, and the kinds that destroy lives."
Despite Hefner's initial vision, the Mad Men days were quickly passing and with the help of an amazing editorial team; Playboy began to take part in key political conversations, sometimes passively and other times not. Take for example; 1965’s interview with civil right activist Martin Luther King Jr (yes you read that right) which was followed up on several occasions before and after King’s assasination in 1968. Another great example (and there are so many) would be then Presidential candidate; Jimmy Carter’s interview in 1976 which unveiled a personal side to him. The editorial feature was not only good PR, but also a not so subtle endorsement by Playboy of the candidate, this plus his vulnerability in the interview, is one of the likely factors that sealed his Presidency.
As time sped on, the era of the Working Woman hit Playboy with full force in the 1980s signalling the end of an era as the Mad Men went quiet. By 1986, all Playboy Clubs were closed, though the Mansion remained a party central and soon the pages of the community needed a rebirth. As circulation for print copies of the magazine decreased with the internet, Playboy adapted by going virtual. The result? A brand to be admired in its acceptance of social and technological evolution. Personal opinions of Hugh Hefner aside, I tip my hat to him for devising the perfect formula of ‘sex sells’ + appreciating the true power that comes with a receptive audience and a willingness to take risks and go against the status quo for the greater good. Take it for what it is - Playboy is a cornerstone of not just pop-culture but history.
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