Playboy made news earlier this week with the announcement that it plans to no longer feature fully nude women in its print magazine. 

From a distance, it seems like a radical rebranding. "I read Playboy for the articles," has been an uncreative quip for nearly five decades. 

Here's the thing: It wasn't really a quip. And it can be true again, if the company returns to one of the strengths of its heyday: interviews and writing and (non-nude) photos you won't find anywhere else. In fact, this could be the start of an incredibly smart comeback

The Real Assets.

One place to start would be the magazine's archives. There are countless old stories and photos in Playboy which--if promoted with proper timing via social media--would lure readers (and advertisers) in droves, even though they are decades old. That's how engaging the material was.

For instance, as Simon Dumenco points out in Ad Age, Jimmy Carter told Playboy in 1976 that "I've committed adultery in my heart many times." All these years later, Carter is still in the news--and trending on Twitter--any time he makes an announcement, whether it's an update about his battle with cancer, his reaction to the removal of Confederate battle flags, or his promotion of a new book. 

That's not all. In 1959, Ella Fitzgerald appeared on Playboy's television show, which was called Playboy's Penthouse. It was a variety show with interviews that ran for two years. This was the first TV show to air that showed blacks and whites socializing with one another, according to a recent Playboy timeline in Fast Company

Playboy's archives also include short stories by some of the most revered fiction writers of the 20th century: Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Nadine Gordimer, Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike. Those names don't move the needle on Twitter the way an ex-president does, but they are branding gold: They help position Playboy as a potential rival to the New Yorker as a home for creative writing. 

Likewise, Playboy can leverage its intersection with pop music through years. Promoted properly, the in-depth "Playboy Interview" with Bob Dylan would still turn heads, as would some of the as-yet-unpublished archives. Cooper Hefner, son of founder Hugh Hefner, hinted at this during an Ad Age conference in 2013. In reviewing his father's scrapbooks, Dumenco writes, Cooper saw photos of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Frank Sinatra at the Playboy Mansion. (There were also letters to his father from Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan.) All of which could become the grist for a television series or documentary. 

The Playbook.

Perhaps more important than any of this is a simple truth from the world of business: Many companies have performed this sort of rebranding before. The most prominent comparison in recent history 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. How did it happen? Chris Zook, a partner at Bain & Company, believes the Marvel comeback was a matter of the company simply recognizing anew the power of its long-held properties. "The renewal of Marvel was based not on leaping to new hot markets, or dramatic new technologies, but the reapplication of the strongest assets in the company’s historic core," he writes in the Harvard Business Review.

In Marvel's case, those assets were its brand and its collection of roughly 5,000 characters--many of whom were immortal brands in their own right. Prior to its bankruptcy, Marvel was focused more on paper and ink than it was on films. The realization that its assets would be worth more in a new environment--movies--was central to the turnaround.

"We found that 90% of strategic comebacks were fueled, in part, by assets in the original core business ...that were adapted to a new environment and took on new value that had not been previously recognized," writes Zook. Other examples of once-latent assets that fueled a turnaround include IBM's service business and Apple's software interface differentiation.

The point is, a playbook exists for Playboy's comeback. Beyond that, there's evidence the company's new approach is already working. In August of last year, the Playboy website dropped nudity. Since then, Playboy executives tell 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."

Moreover, it's not as if Playboy is going bankrupt. The magazine is profitable as a whole, even though the U.S. edition loses about $3 million a year. CEO Scott Flanders views this as a marketing expense. "It is our Fifth Avenue storefront," he told the New York Times. And here's the most telling nugget from the Times' story:

The company now makes most of its money from licensing its ubiquitous brand and logo across the world--40 percent of that business is in China even though the magazine is not available there--for bath products, fragrances, clothing, liquor and jewelry among other merchandise. Nudity in the magazine risks complaints from shoppers, and diminished distribution.

In other words, the brand and logo have a value transcending the magazine around which they were initially built. Can you foresee a day when the Playboy bunny outdoes the polo pony and crocodile as an icon for men's clothing? Upon seeing it, older men might still quip--in jest or in honesty--that they once "read Playboy for the articles."

And fewer and fewer young men will know what they're referring to.