Where are the brands in online TV? (take two)


A quick TV teaser for you. Here are the loglines for four new series coming soon to a subscription service near you.

• A biopic based on the memoir of Steve Jones, legendary Sex Pistols guitarist (directed by Danny Boyle).

• Attorney Mickey Haller inherits his biggest case yet: the defence of a studio executive accused of murdering his wife and her lover (starring Neve Campbell).

• A TV adaptation by Steven Moffat of a novel by Audrey Niffenegger in which a couple's relationship is put to the test when time travel is involved (starring Rose Leslie).

• A poignant drama spanning space and time, following a couple who, years ago, discovered a chamber buried in their backyard that leads to a strange, deserted planet (starring Sissy Spacek and J.K. Simmons).

Now, the question is, do you know (or can you tell) which drama matches which streamer: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+ or HBO Max (+Sky Atlantic)?

Which is the best fit with each brand’s positioning and editorial strategy?

Not so straightforward, is it? (Answers at the end).

Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen some alarming headlines about the bursting of the media tech bubble. Netflix subscriptions down, with $50 billion wiped off its value in a single day. Disney stock down 19% in April and Amazon down 14% in a single day. This volatility has been attributed to growing competition, the cost-of-living crisis and production pressures (or, more soberly from marketing guru Mark Ritson, a post-pandemic return to a more normal growth curve for Netflix, at least).

But is there another factor lurking behind these more obvious global forces?

In 2019, back in the days when we used to go to conferences, I presented a session that posed a key question: where are the brands in online TV? It highlighted the astonishing lack of brand differentiation between the major streamers that existed at the time.

Three years on and with additional competitors including Disney+, Apple TV+ and Peacock having entered the fray, there’s still a general and surprising feeling of same sameness at a brand level.

In the frantic race to secure the next big box set hit with A-list talent, it seems that many of the streamers risk losing sight of the basic qualities of a good brand: a clear, differentiated brand proposition, driven by audience insight and brought to life creatively, that appeals strongly enough to consumers that they’ll choose your brand over the competition, and therefore delivers shareholder value over time.

A caveat here. These global entertainment giants are known for their secrecy with audience performance data and it’s possible that they have research evidence of razor-sharp brand positionings. However, from the perspective of an audience member and subscriber, I just don’t see it.  

At a time when every newspaper I pick up seems to have a feature about how to tackle the economic crunch by ruthlessly reviewing and cancelling subscriptions to under-used apps, I suggest this is dangerous, especially when we know that even more competition is imminent (Paramount+ and ITVX, to name but two forthcoming launches).

Compounding this brand problem is the fact that growing online TV competition is a feature of what Adam Mastroianni of Columbia Business School calls the oligopoly that’s conquering pop culture. Mastroianni’s data shows that, rather than stimulating creative innovation and originality, the outcome for both movies and TV is more and more remakes, reboots, sequels, spinoffs and franchise expansions. And he suggests that the same thing is happening with music, books and video games.

Two of the four new series summarised above are remakes of movies that were originally based on books. Another recent remake illustrates the brand problem. Looking for Ten Percent (the English-language version of Call My Agent!) we had no clue which streaming service it was on or whether it was one we still subscribe to after an energy-bill-inspired purge. We located it on Amazon Prime Video, but it could just as easily have been on Netflix (the home of Call My Agent! after all), or a.n.other streamer.

Several episodes in, despite really enjoying the show, our relationship with its host brand and commissioner is barely deeper than the relationship we have with DPD or Hermes when they’re delivering an online order. And if we had discovered that Ten Percent had been on a service we had recently cancelled, it’s doubtful that it would have been a big enough draw for us to re-subscribe.

Despite the entertainment oligopoly and stock market pressures, the current shortage of true brand differentiation in online TV should give encouragement to competitors in this sector that see the opportunity to zag when most others are zigging. When the global economic crisis has played out for a while, those left standing may well include brands that single-mindedly pursue a clear, unique audience positioning rather than blindly joining the arms race for the next big remake, adaptation or line up of A-list talent.

Andy Bryant, Managing Director   

Answers: Pistol (Disney+), The Lincoln Lawyer (Netflix), The Time Traveler’s Wife (HBO Max/Sky Atlantic), Night Sky (Amazon Prime Video)