Playboy magazine has lost its cool and now its nudity – where does it go from here?

Where next for Playboy?

In the Swinging Sixties, when Playboy was all there was, its distinctive brand of softcore nudity was revolutionary – and deeply exciting. But in the intervening decades, this once tumescent publishing phenomenon turned into the publishing equivalent of lukewarm lasagne.

What Playboy is responding to now – albeit rather late in the game – is a full-on identity crisis. Sure, it still holds huge brand equity, but for far, far too long, nobody has thought intelligently about how to use it. It’s now said that the magazine’s biggest challenge is competing with 21st century media and culture powerhouses like Vice.

Let’s be honest: the Playboy brand is utterly cool, but the magazine as most of us remember it is no more. Its entire format and lack of news value have become its biggest problem – not the presence of nudity, as some have suggested. After all, in an age where Playboy’s original raison d’être has been entirely displaced by internet porn, it desperately needs to find a new USP. And enhancing its news value and place in culture will be increasingly instrumental if it wants to recapture its relevance.

When Kim Kardashian’s oiled derriere cover shots infamously ‘broke the internet’ last year, that should have been Playboy, not Paper magazine. For more than three decades following its launch in 1953, Playboy boasted killer cover lines that created priceless PR-able content – with stories such as ‘Bo Derek X-Rated’ (Jul ’84); ‘Carmen Electra Bares Her Fenda’ (Apr ’03); or ‘Madonna Nude: Unlike a Virgin… For the Very First Time’ (Sep ’85). But clearly these opportunities are no longer enough, in so far as they exist at all.

So what next?

Well, to really bolster its ‘cool’ credentials, Playboy should consider bringing in a high-profile editor-in-chief – a Katie Grand or even better, Tom Ford – to transform it into a more fashion-led ‘style’ periodical. It should commission controversial and cutting-edge photographers, like Terry Richardson, to really rev up the magazine’s “sexy” credentials. Then we might start to see a magazine I’d happily want to place on my coffee table. The line between fashion photography and porn is blurring all the time – and that’s the territory Playboy should be looking to inhabit.

Secondly, it should reinvent itself as a much more premium product – a biannual – with a focus on breaking new celebrity imagery in an utterly glamorous way. Playboy should reclaim its spot as the celebrity publicist’s first port of call for rehabilitating a client’s image. Every issue should be built around something utterly unique – a first, a celebrity as you’ve never seen her before, pushing the boundaries of taste and visual imagination. Its ambition should be to create the most talked about covers of the year, taking the lead from Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Issue, or, for that matter, Kim Kardashian’s backside.

With so much of the brand’s business model dependent on merchandising, it’s likely the decision to remove nudity from the magazine was in part designed to appease licensees. However, if we look at the particular brand of sex that Kim Kardashian sells – considered socially acceptable globally and showcased most distinctively with the help of a champagne glass – this is where Playboy’s efforts ought to be focused. Positioning itself as a product that reeks of aspiration would also help drive its licensing business, which is fundamentally where its income comes from.

Playboy is such an iconic brand and there is a huge opportunity here, but only with the right strategy. Should the magazine have a reputation for having an incredibly provocative photographer with a nod towards nudity? Yes. Should it be sensational? Absolutely. But for a brand that’s struggled so profoundly to keep abreast (sorry) of its identity, simply toning down the sex feels like a denial of its own personality. Or a bum note, if you prefer.

Warren Johnson is founder and CEO of W

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