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What Disney and Playboy Can Teach You About Branding Here's what you can learn from brands that are still going strong more than 50 years after their founding.

By Dan S. Kennedy

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


In his book No B.S. Guide to Brand-Building by Direct Response, business coach and consultant Dan S. Kennedy offers a no-holds-barred plan to creating and profiting from a powerful brand. In this edited excerpt, the author discusses two well-known marketing geniuses, who turned their companies into worldwide brands.

Walt Disney frequently reminded everybody that "It all started with a mouse." Hugh Hefner's empire began with a stag as a symbol of maleness, abandoned because it was already taken, and replaced by the symbol of eternal horniness, the rabbit. These are two of the greatest brand-builders around.

You might not think the two should share the same sentence, but they have a lot in common. They both began with virtually no money and built valuable, powerful, iconic brands with little investment in actual brand-building and virtually no brand/image advertising. Both Disney and Hefner grew their brands on the back of direct marketing and sales activity, on free advertising via media partnerships and publicity, and through leverage of the media.

Other shared strategies include:

Creating a world of their own. Disney's line "The Happiest Place On Earth" might have been used by Hefner for the world of Playboy, symbolized by the Playboy Mansion, if Walt hadn't already snagged it. The existential importance of The Playboy Mansion was shown off in a Playboy magazine cartoon, circa 1960, in which a truth-seeker has climbed to a mountain peak to beg wisdom from the wise guru. The guru tells him: "There is a man who lives in a mansion full of beautiful women and wears pajamas all the time. Sit at his feet and learn from him, for he has found the secret of true happiness." Disney also featured a symbolic structure at Disneyland and Disney World: Sleeping Beauty's Castle, where dreams come true and romance flourishes. Both Disney and Playboy feature a profound sense of place--where no one ever need grow up.

Standing for and promoting a philosophy. Hefner even called it "The Playboy Philosophy" and explained it in detail, beginning with a series of essays in his magazine. Hefner argued against censorship, for sexual freedom, for civil rights, even for modern feminism. He also created a series of internal ads titled "What Sort of a Man Reads Playboy?" which presented a profile worthy of aspiration. Walt also stood for certain enunciated principles and values, built into the films and entertainment product, and integrated into projects like Epcot and Celebration. Here's a revealing Disney quote:

"Disneyland would encompass the essence of the things that are good and true in American life ... a place for people to find happiness and new knowledge. The older generation can capture the nostalgia of days gone by, the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future, and it will be a source of hope and inspiration to all the world."

Rather a grandiose way to describe an amusement park, don't you think? But that's the point. Disney and Hefner both saw and spoke of significance and importance in what they were doing that went far beyond the basic products and deliverables of their businesses. Whether you agree with them or not, these men who built great brands believed they were doing something important.

Personality-driven brand. Disney was as much the public face of his enterprises as was Mickey. He began promoting Disneyland by hosting a show on ABC and remained a familiar TV host for many years. He was the company's chief storyteller and salesman. Hefner used his own TV show early on, purportedly a party in his own penthouse, with his celebrity buddies all there having a good time. Very recently, he was again seen starring with his girlfriends in a reality TV series. The two individuals and these two brands, inseparable.

Place. The Disney Parks with Cinderella's Castle as centerpoint. The Playboy Mansion, with its infamous Grotto as its centerpoint. Both sites have a "Fantasyland."

Product as promotion. For Disney, it began with a licensed Mickey Mouse watch and a Disney train and has become a licensing juggernaut, with its characters and iconic images on hundreds of thousands of products. The Playboy bunny logo is one of the most licensed trademarks of all time for apparel, cologne, artwork, etc. All these products not only generate revenue but work at promoting, creating and sustaining interest in the brand.

Media. Walt Disney launched Disneyland with an alliance with ABC--now Disney owns them, along with ESPN and several Disney-branded cable TV channels and Disney radio stations. It still airs Disney specials on ABC, each an infomercial for the parks, current Disney personalities and new movies. Hugh Hefner began with Playboy magazinebut promoted Playboy early with TV. To this day, Hefner still uses such media plays--in recent years, there were reality shows on the E Network, all about the Mansion and his girlfriends. There was also a feature film, in 2008, The House Bunny. All these serve as powerful infomercials for the brand, yet Playboy has been paid for them rather than buying advertising. Its own cable TV channel is also both a business itself and continuous, 365-day brand promotion.

Consider how these two men launched and built their brands. They never spent or had to spend on dopey image advertising. Their brands were built by their own media products and businesses, by profitable advertising selling their products, by stealth advertising imbedded in TV programming they were paid to produce and provide or paid licensing fees for, and by an untold variety of merchandise proliferating in the marketplace, for which they were also paid licensing fees.

If you have a small, local business you may too quickly disqualify yourself and think that this is above and beyond you. There are two things to consider about that. One is that everybody started and starts somewhere, often small and local. Disneyland was, after all, a local business, and central Florida was picked as the second location based on the population within one day's driving distance. Hefner began in Chicago, his office in his apartment, his magazine assembled atop his bed, and then with one local Playboy Club. These days, geographic boundaries have been blurred and expanded by ecommerce and overnight shipping. A local gourmet cupcake store in Hudson, Ohio, has customers in 40 states and 9 countries. A clothier's shop in London mails catalogs throughout the U.S. and ships products worldwide. Why must you think small?

Second, even if you choose to be local and stay small, all the same strategies can and should apply, particularly if you want to be a locally dominant brand. Why shouldn't you dominate your market?

Dan S. Kennedy

Author, Strategic Advisor, Consultant, and Business Coach

DAN S. KENNEDY is a strategic advisor, consultant, business coach, and author of the popular No B.S. book series. He directly influences more than one million business owners annually. 

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