Hugh Hefner Knew How to Build a Brand - But Not How to Shift It Ahead

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No matter your age, you’ve most likely heard about Hugh Hefner, the bunnies, the Mansion, and of course, the magazine’s centerfolds. If you’re closer in age to my generation, you knew to say you read the magazines for “the articles.” There is no doubt that Hugh Hefner, who passed away yesterday at the age of 91, knew how to build a brand. He knew that you had to create an experience that brought the brand to life. That he brought the Playboy brand to life in myriad ways was not a question.

The Playboy brand had always included two components: the obvious – beautiful, mostly naked young women – but also an intellectual manifesto called “the Playboy Philosophy” that espoused ideas that were way ahead of their time: free, open sexuality; equal access to that freedom for women, as well as men; inclusiveness and a welcome mat for blacks, gays and lesbians, and others not considered mainstream in 1950s America; and a fervent respect for the First Amendment.

That said, for all his forward-thinking and his brand-building acumen, Hefner and his Playboy management team could not move the brand forward. As the world started to change, Hugh Hefner’s lifestyle – the embodiment of the brand – became passe. There was no ability to reinvent – to re-envision – how this brand might continue to succeed. Instead of shifting ahead and coming up with a strategy that could truly revitalize revenue streams for the long term, the brand continued to try and sell the Playboy of the 1960s and 1970s to men ( and women) born after Hef’s seventy-fifth birthday.

Yes, Hugh Hefner knew how to build a brand, and he built a great one – for its time, not our current time. The fact of the matter is that it is very difficult to resurrect a brand that, once perfect in its day, is no longer relevant.

When you have a founder with a vision that was tailor-made for its times, you need an organization whose top priority is to look for opportunities to shift ahead to meet the demands of the current market.