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Disney Has a Brand Problem, Quibi Has the Best One—Or Brands Are Bad

“What is an Apple show?” “What is an HBO Max show?” “Why are we still asking such outdated questions?”

What’s a Quibi show? It’s the one that’s 15 minutes long.

TV networks, streamers, and other content providers, heads up: Unless you can answer that question just as quickly and with equal clarity, stop talking about your brand. You don’t have one, and you don’t need one.

As the streaming era shifts into the content wars, so much focus on the success or failure of new content providers stems from their brand — or how the viewing public sees each company trying to sell them a new subscription service. Is Apple’s brand identity as a sleek, user-friendly, forward-thinking tech company going to help Apple TV+ appeal to prestige TV junkies? Will Disney’s brand as a family-friendly animation juggernaut with nostalgic ties to each generation’s childhoods make Disney+ an instant favorite in the streaming wars? Can HBO Max leverage HBO’s sterling reputation for high-quality original series across a wider platform filled with a wider array of shows?

These are the kind of questions being asked as Apple and Disney test the streaming markets, but many of them boil down to the same question: What is a [streaming service] show? What is an Apple show? What is a Disney show? What is an HBO Max show? These questions are trying to cut to the chase: When you think of this brand, what kind of show do you imagine?

That way of thinking can be helpful internally, as executives choose which shows to go after, green-light, and heavily promote for their platforms. They were also helpful in the golden days of broadcast TV, when viewers would watch one channel for an entire night or week or even longer, simply because they trusted that network to produce the kind of shows they liked to watch.

But back then, networks were curating TV for their viewers. Now, viewers are curating TV for themselves. People are seeking out specific shows from specific creators, writers, directors, and stars. They’re not putting their trust in a brand to provide all the content they need — that’s exactly why streaming has been so successful in disrupting television. Watching whatever show you want, whenever you want, is largely preferred to being told when and what you can watch.

Director Steven Spielberg speaks at the Steve Jobs Theater during an event to announce new Apple products, in Cupertino, CalifApple Streaming TV, Cupertino, USA - 25 Mar 2019

Steven Spielberg introduces “Amazing Stories” at an Apple event in 2019

Tony Avelar/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In answering the above questions about each new brand, most people would put a negative spin on Apple’s rollout — why would the latest iPhone design give me any idea what kind of show Apple would make? Why does a tech company think it can step right into the entertainment industry and succeed? If Apple doesn’t have a library of TV to offer, shouldn’t I have a clear idea of exactly what they are offering?

I have no idea what an Apple TV+ show looks like, other than the shows it’s released, and that’s not a problem. What matters is I know that Apple is producing original series, and that I know how to access them if they make one I want to see. (Granted, not everyone knows this, and that’s a much bigger problem, but it’s still not a branding problem.)

In today’s day-and-age, brands get in the way far more than they help. Look at Disney. Yes, they’ve wisely purchased brands to live inside their overall brand in anticipation of this very moment: when the company can offer all the brands to customers for a recurring fee. People want to watch Pixar movies, Star Wars movies, and Marvel movies, not to mention Disney’s own catalogue of classics, but that’s in large part because each of those brands are really just franchises. Marvel movies are all superhero stories, most of which are linked together. Star Wars all stems from one original film. Pixar is the closest to a true brand, but it’s still very neatly boxed-in: kid-friendly animated films. That’s it.

Disney knows it needs to offer more than franchises if it’s going to conquer the streaming market. Like Netflix, it’s trying to offer subscribers everything — look no further than its Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ bundle. But now its brands are becoming a problem. How can Disney, the home of “The Little Mermaid” and “Moana,” also be the home of FX shows like “American Horror Story” and “Mayans MC”? The belief that Disney is family-friendly makes these mature-audience series counterintuitive to the brand.

We’ve already seen plenty of dust-ups over other profitable Fox properties that don’t fit the Disney mentality. What will happen to future installments of “Deadpool” and future movies like “Jojo Rabbit” (which is currently cleaning up in limited release)? Disney wants anything that makes money, that draws an audience, but its big bulky, all-important brand is getting in the way.

One could argue that it would be easier if Disney had no brand, and could offer everything in its vast library without any expectations attached. Maybe people wouldn’t immediately identify Disney movies as the ideal of family fare, but they could filter their Disney+ settings for “best family films” and see a page filled with recommendations — recommendations generated by Disney’s own algorithms. Seeing a column full of family-friendly movies and a column full of R-rated films seems easier than looking at a Pixar logo and a Fox logo and going, “Yeah, I’m safe with ‘Up’ but not ‘Ice Age.’”

Similar issues plague HBO Max (which has to distinguish itself from HBO enough to pique subscribers’ interest), Hulu (the unknown subset of Disney’s adult content), and more streaming outlets. So, we’re back to Quibi. What’s there to say about Quibi? It’s got a bunch of shows, from a bunch of famous people, and they’re all going to be streaming soon. What sets it apart from all the other newcomers boasting those same attributes? Quibi is shorter. The others, well, it takes too long to explain.

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