What did a Chicago-based copywriter raised in a strict Methodist household have to teach the marketing world? As it turns out, a whole lot. Hugh Hefner, the famed media mogul, and Playboy creator passed away last week at the age of 91.
In 1953, with just $600 of his own money, Hefner established an empire that generated millions upon millions of dollars. Despite his questionable views on women, he undoubtedly left behind an admirable legacy of unconventional tactics and a brand built around the beautiful marriage of nudity and literature. While Hefner swapped out Playmates like bedroom slippers, he remained at the center of his brand, steadfast in promoting free speech, gay rights, and reproductive rights.
Hugh Hefner instilled several life lessons for marketing industry professionals looking to build a successful brand. He dreamed big and took risks, always learning from each business venture whether it failed or succeeded.
Identify Your Brand
Hefner blended social and sexual principles, featuring the brilliant literary work of Margaret Atwood and Jack Kerouac, groundbreaking interviews with Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King, Jr., and cheeky photography of gorgeous women. Hefner pumped humor, politics, and artistic nudity into our lives, and all while wearing pajamas and gnawing on a pipe. His brand was risqué and unique, constantly pushing the envelope and never apologizing.
Despite Hefner’s initial success with Playboy, other pursuits were not received with such unrivaled success. There were two failed magazine publications, a failed late-night TV show, and nightclubs enrobed in scandal and shut down. Regardless of the missteps, Hefner never let the disappointments get him down. In 2005, with the wildly successful series “The Girls Next Door,” he pioneered reality television the way Playboy had done for the magazine industry decades prior. The reality show breathed new life into the brand and introduced Playboy and the infamous Bunnies to a new generation. He was always willing to take risks and try new avenues. He learned from his failures and continued to grow as a business and a leader.
Have a Clear Vision
Hefner was determined to change a world rife with rigidity and traditional morals and reinvigorate it with open sexuality and freedom of expression. He regularly donated to charities and used Playboy as a platform to raise awareness for LGBT rights and desegregation. Hefner was always at the forefront of the Playboy brand and guided the representation of it.
When Playboy sales and website viewership declined significantly, Hefner boldly revamped the digital content strategy and announced in 2015 the website would no longer feature nude photography. Website traffic dramatically increased from 5 million visitors a month to 20 million, and Playboy was able to appeal to a younger audience. The magazine briefly removed nudity from their publication, but a year later returned to showcase those famous Playmate assets. Be flexible with branding, and accept when certain tactics stop working.
Aligning with the right brand advocates can be remarkably beneficial for both the spokespeople and the brand. Hefner’s brand advocates just so happened to be tanned, toned and perfectly manicured 20-something-year old beauties. Playboy helped launch the careers of countless celebrities like Pamela Anderson, Jenny McCarthy, Charlize Theron, Cindy Crawford, and Anna Nicole Smith. These famous ladies will forever be known as Playmates.
Hugh Hefner created a multimillion-dollar entertainment empire by breaking traditional marketing routes to success. He paved the way for innovative marketing approaches, fearless leadership, and creative expression. The perennially robed gentleman surrounded by beautiful scantily clad women a third of his age changed the marketing world forever, and we are eternally grateful. Rest in peace, Mr. Hefner.
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