Playboy made news a few weeks ago with the announcement that it plans to no longer feature fully nude women in its print magazine.

If you only judged Playboy by those photos, the move might have seemed like a white flag for the brand--an admission that its business model was broken. 

"Not so," says Weston Anson, Chairman of CONSOR Intellectual Asset Management, a brand valuation and licensing company based in La Jolla, Calif. CONSOR's past and present clients include adidas, Amazon.com, the estate of Dr. Seuss, Lucasfilm, and Rolex.

As it happens, Anson was a senior vice president at Playboy for four years (1977-81), the head of the company's new business group. In that role, his job was to license and extend the Playboy brand "in as many ways as we could," he says. Anson's experience in the Playboy empire--combined with his vantage point as the chair of a company that assesses the value of intellectual property--puts him in a unique position to judge the decision to drop nudity. 

And from where he's sitting, the decision was a wise one. Nor was it as abrupt as you might think. Already--going back to August, 2014--the Playboy website had dropped nudity. Since then, as Playboy executives recently told the New York Times, "the average age of its reader dropped from 47 to just over 30, and its web traffic jumped to about 16 million from about four million unique users per month."

Numbers like that, says Anson, illustrate how the brand has emphasized its lifestyle and luxury attributes more than its celebration of female nudity. "The elimination of nudity is representative of how they’ve redesigned their site and brought a much younger look to it. It's no longer a static monthly magazine. It's a much more vibrant, newsy vehicle." Since going nudity free, he adds, the brand has attracted new advertisers such as Stoli Vodka and Hornitos Tequila.

Playboy's Evolution

According to CONSOR's estimates, the value of Playboy's U.S. brand has increased over the last five years, from roughly $125 million to the range of $175-$200 million. (Those estimates are mainly based on the viewership increases, since CONSOR doesn't know what Playboy's revenues are.)

During his tenure, Anson helped the brand reach overseas markets in Europe and Asia. "Playboy was the only publisher at that time thinking on a global basis in terms of extending its brand," he says. "It was even ahead of Vogue. We really were leaders at that point." 

Anson, a Harvard Business School grad, credits Playboy founder Hugh Hefner for the global branding strategy. "He was always ahead of his time. He always believed in not just leading the way here, but in as many countries as we could plant the flag." 

Playboy's overseas foothold is another reason Anson is sanguine about the brand's future. As the New York Times points out, Playboy now makes most of its money from licensing its brand and logo globally. Forty percent of that business is in China, even though the magazine is not available there. In China, you can find the brand on bath products, fragrances, clothing, liquor, and jewelry among other merchandise. 

I asked Anson how he would frame an HBS case study about the Playboy brand, based on what's happened in recent years. He said he'd call the case "Born Again." And the chief lesson would be this: Stop being static. "You have to change your content to reflect who is reading or using it--and what media they're using," he says. "Those are the obvious points. The one thing they haven't done yet is tapped their archives to any great extent. I'd focus the case on how to mix the archives with new content." 

Luckily for Playboy, there are many business model templates for monetizing the intellectual property of your archives. Chief among them, as I wrote recently, is Marvel Comics. Like Playboy, Marvel had value in its archives: namely the rights to Spider-Man and Captain America. Despite this bounty of intellectual property, Marvel battled bankruptcy in 1996.

Yet its comeback was so successful that Disney ultimately acquired Marvel for $4 billion in 2009. By contrast, Playboy is doing quite well. The magazine is profitable as a whole, according to the New York Times, even though the U.S. edition loses about $3 million a year. 

So don't jump to the conclusion that Playboy is a sinking ship, just because it eliminated nudity. The brand and logo have a global value transcending the magazine around which they were initially built.