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Building Brand Value the Playboy Way Love him or hate him, Hugh Hefner provides the ultimate example of successful branding.

By Susan Gunelius

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Charley Gallay | Getty Images
Hugh Hefner

This article is an edited excerpt from Building Brand Value the Playboy Way , available from Palgrave Macmillan.

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word, Playboy? If you said sex, then you're just one of hundreds of millions of people around the world who make the same association, and I'm going to tell you two things right now based on that association:

  1. The Playboy brand is working.
  2. This book is not about sex.

Of course, if you didn't answer the above question with the word sex, then I'm very curious to know what your answer was. Regardless, I didn't write this book to talk about sex. This book is about branding and marketing. It's about the history of an iconic, globally powerful brand that represents an unlikely subject for a product that has gone from highly controversial to somewhat of a commodity over the course of half a century. Most importantly, this book is about the role of a brand champion in building a brand.

For Playboy, Hugh Hefner played the role of brand champion throughout the brand's 55+ year lifecycle. It could be argued that there has been no other brand champion in history who could be so closely associated with the brand he championed, nor is there another brand champion who has fulfilled that role for such a long period of time. Other brand champion names such as Steve Jobs, Mary Kay Ash, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Martha Stewart come to mind, and many of those people will be discussed in this book. However, they all pale in comparison to Hugh Hefner who became the living embodiment of the Playboy brand.

I should mention that Hefner's role as brand champion was one he played with vigor and resolute purpose. But as some might wonder how his stamina endures in his private life, I wonder how his stamina to champion the Playboy brand in the public's eye and through his workaholic behavior continues to drive him. As you read this book, you'll learn more about Hugh Hefner, the man. You'll learn how his childhood shaped his thinking and much of his behavior, and you'll learn what that meant to the Playboy brand. You'll learn how his belief in the product he created, Playboy, was all-encompassing, and you'll learn how he promoted and defended the brand and company above all else as a tireless brand advocate and brand guardian.

Marketers and branding experts are always searching for the perfect recipe to boost brand equity. There is no doubt that a powerful brand can be an invaluable company asset, however, marketers have always battled with senior management to secure the budget necessary to build brand value. The reason is simple. Brands are intangible assets. Company owners, shareholders, and analysts want to see hard numbers reflected on balance sheets and income statements.

Unfortunately, there is no space in accounting software for "Brand" to fit in the Assets column. That doesn't make it any less meaningful and useful, but companies focus on metrics and quantifiable data. Things like brand fall to the wayside. It's an unfortunate reality in the profit-driven, bottom-line conscious world of business. Building brand equity is a long-term strategy. When shareholders demand double-digit growth year over year, corporate executives typically choose short-term tactics to meet those expectations and keep their jobs over long-term strategies to position the company for continued success in the future.

All days weren't perfect in the history of Playboy. In fact, much of the past 30 years have been bleak for Playboy, however, the company survived. Despite facing a wide variety of challenges, not the least of which has been an inability to be proactive and develop long-term strategies, Playboy has survived. How? This book will show you that a strong brand can help a company weather the storms and overcome insurmountable obstacles.

Don't get me wrong. A strong brand doesn't guarantee success, but the power of a well-established, well-known brand can boost a company's chances for success immensely. Did anyone think that Martha Stewart's company could fully rebound after she was found guilty of violating insider trading laws and spent several months in prison? Many people thought her business would fail after its brand champion brought such public humiliation to the company. However, the public was able to disassociate Stewart's personal financial troubles from her brand's promise. The company rebounded and her stint in jail is remembered as a mere diversion in the brand's lifecycle.

Similarly, did anyone believe that Tylenol could regain its stronghold in the over-the-counter pain reliever market after the Tylenol poisoning epidemic in the 1980s? The brand seemed tarnished beyond repair, yet within a very short time, the company not only repaired the product's brand image but it reclaimed its place as market leader. Again, the power of a brand cannot be denied.

The Playboy brand overcame myriad obstacles during its lifecycle. Despite being linked to violent sex crimes, a murder, drugs, and more, the brand emerged from each attack strong and continued to grow. Much of that success can be attributed to Hugh Hefner as the ultimate brand champion continually defending the brand. His utter belief in his product and brand was tenacious. In fact, many people found it hard not to believe with him.

That leads to one of the most important aspects of the longevity of the Playboy brand. At its core, Playboy is a relationship brand, and relationship brands are always well-positioned to become extremely powerful. As you'll learn in this book, a relationship brand invites people to personally connect with it, directly interact with it, and share brand experiences with others. Relationship brands typically lead to strong customer loyalty, and loyal consumers turn into repeat buyers and brand advocates. There is no more powerful form of word-of-mouth marketing than a band of loyal brand advocate customers. They talk about the brand they're loyal to with others, defend it, and buy it again and again. There is a reason why that old Breck shampoo commercial used the tagline, "and she told two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on." It just works.

Even if you detest pornography and would never purchase a product sold by Playboy, it's undeniable that the brand is powerful and has lived a long and prosperous life. And there is no denying that much of the brand's success can be linked directly to Hugh Hefner.

Susan Gunelius

Marketing, Branding, Copywriting, Email and Social Media Expert

Susan Gunelius is CEO of KeySplash Creative Inc., a marketing communications and strategic branding company. She has authored a dozen books about marketing, branding, social media, copywriting and technology and is the founder and editor in chief of, a blog for business women.

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