Streaming TV Has a Branding Problem

NBCUniversal’s new streaming service is called Peacock. The name is based on NBC’s old logo, originally designed by RCA in 1956 to advertise NBC’s new color programming with a fan of technicolor plumage. They are currently in an SEO battle with the Wikipedia page for Peafowl.

AT&T launched HBO MAX last week, a conglomeration of HBO content plus Warner Brothers films, Warner Brothers TV, DC Films, Turner, Cinemax, and various other Warner Media subsidiary properties. It costs the same as HBO, but is different than HBO GO, and also distinct from HBO NOW. It’s not TV, it’s not HBO, it’s HBO MAX!

Pluto TV is a streaming service owned by newly merged ViacomCBS. Pluto claims 250 channels, 170 content partners and “a huge category of library on-demand content which spans across all genres of movies, news, TV shows, sports, documentaries, and blah blah blahhh…” No one really knows what is on Pluto TV, including the folks at Pluto TV apparently.

Confused yet? Crunchyroll is a manga/anime hub owned by AT&T. Philo collects licensed content from A&E AMC, Discover, and ViacomCBS which are also its owners. Plex holds the defunct Crackle library along with podcasts for some reason. Tubi has FOX library content. Then there are the roughly 190 or so other services that we don’t have time to mention. With a burgeoning, hyper competitive market, streaming TV’s early branding decisions are critical to their success.

Yet, many of these poor branding decisions share a common fallacy — a fallacy that the nature of media distribution makes an entertainment brand and not its content. The opposite is true. In a hyper competitive, saturated market, overpaid media execs have erroneously figured that the best way to digitize their content libraries was to create a complex mass of new brands rather than simply extending their old ones.

To understand how colossal of a mistake this is, let’s examine a legacy media brand that’s entered the digital space with huge success — Disney. Disney knows the power of an entertainment brand as they have subsumed several themselves, including Marvel, Pixar, ESPN, ABC, Star Wars, Nat Geo, and most recently Hulu.

Recognizing that the value of each brand stems from consumers’ affinity for the content, Disney does not change or alter any of the brands it acquires. Instead of diluting the potency of a beloved content library, Disney simply plugs newly acquired IP (intellectual property) into an ecosystem designed to make ancillary revenue off the back of its IP.

Someone buy this adorable creature.

The Disney model is a lesson in how to make content work harder. Push mass awareness via franchise movies and TV; then monetize that IP across an array of business units such as parks, cruises, music, home entertainment, licensing, or merchandise. Put more simply, your entertainment properties are giant ads to move product. Star Wars is still Star Wars, be it on the big screen or an instore display for Baby Yoda plush toys.

When Disney decided to pivot its business to respond to streaming TV, did it create a new suite of brands? Nope. Its streaming TV brands are Disney+ and ESPN+. When it acquired Hulu, an already successful streaming TV platform, did it rebrand it? Nope, it simply expanded its IP library with FOX content and bundled it with Disney+ and ESPN+ for 12.99. The lesson here: don’t dilute existing brand equity. Extend that brand equity to other businesses.

Meanwhile, NBCUniversal is purportedly going to sink more than $300 million dollars in 2020 to build Peacock into a streaming TV brand. Peacock will draw IP from an enviable library catalogue between their two legacy brands NBC and Universal, but the new brand will have an uphill battle drawing consumers away from Netflix, Amazon, AppleTV+, Disney, and others.

Which begs the question — why did a media brand with a 70+ year legacy in entertainment need to build a new brand at all? None of their programming changed. NBC was the home of football, the Olympics, sitcoms, late-night, and news. Universal houses Jurassic Park and Harry Potter. Their executives conflated new distribution with the actual value of their brand — a 70+ year IP catalogue consumers already knew and loved.

Call your streaming service NBC TV or Universal TV. I just saved you half a billion dollars in marketing costs. As an added bonus, your new streaming TV service wouldn’t be named after an irritable zoo animal whose name is associated with the words pea, cock, or fowl. You’re welcome.

Not to be outdone, AT&T, a company that bought DirectTV in 2015 for $67.1 billion after Satellite TV was already obsolete, is once again botching another media takeover. I should disclose here that I am an investor in AT&T which makes me the worst type of shareholder, an angry one.

HBO was an entertainment darling built over 20 years with groundbreaking shows like the Sopranos, Sex in the City, The Wire, and Game of Thrones. In 2019, the service already had 134 million subscribers globally, with roughly 10 million purely streaming subscribers through HBO NOW. For comparison, Netflix has roughly 167 million subscribers. With its limited and high-quality programming, HBO NOW commanded a high monthly price at $14.99. HBO was THE luxury entertainment brand and already profitable with the high margins that come with luxury status.

Unlike Disney which understands the inherent brand equity underlying its component parts, John Stankey and other AT&T executives said they wanted to scale HBO. Their stated strategy appears to be ‘make HBO MAX into the next Netflix by matching their content investments’. As luxury brands are built on premium products and scarcity, ‘scaling’ is corporate jargon for we are going to ruin this. Saint Laurent and Dior don’t sell their products in Walmart for a reason.

Instead of letting HBO be HBO while collecting tidy profits quarter over quarter, WarnerMedia decided to bundle Emmy winning television with mindless sitcoms like Young Sheldon and crappy DC TV spinoffs. Muddied by the already existing brands of HBO NOW and HBOGO, HBO MAX is poised to become the type of mediocre, ill-defined product we’ve come to expect from AT&T.

The winning strategy was to leave HBO alone, collect on its success, while driving people to a new offering derived from the existing brand equity of their other properties. With an umbrella brand called WarnerMedia, a TV service with the same name would have been an easy mental gap for consumers. This would have given WarnerMedia the best of both worlds, an already successful premium streaming property with HBO and a second, ad-supported service dedicated to their DC, Turner, TNT, and other media content.

Moreover, chasing Netflix is not a good strategy. This is a prime example of copycat syndrome. A brand should distinguish a company from the field, not chase someone else’s success. You know what I don’t love about Netflix? — spending 30 minutes filtering through a mountain of crap before finding something to watch. Talk about a race to the bottom.

WarnerMedia, NBCU, and others have failed to understand that the value of their media brands lie in their content libraries. Content does not change by their method of distribution. Smart media companies like Disney and Amazon will extend their brands into streaming TV rather than create new ones. The winners in the streaming wars will be the brands who realize that their value is the actual entertainment they produce, not how it gets to consumers.

Wes Morton is a freelance creative, writer, and producer with 8 years experience in the entertainment industry. For more visit https://www.wesmorton.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store