Brand Forensics Episode 2: The Mistake

Brand Strategy
Following the clues to understand the newest player in the streaming space.
By 
Lauren Tannenbaum
June 21, 2023
Brand Strategy
Following the clues to understand the newest player in the streaming space.
By 
Lauren Tannenbaum
June 21, 2023

Thank you for joining us for episode 2 of Brand Forensics. In case you missed it, in our first we uncovered what we believe to be the motive for the Max naming and brand (i.e., the business problem to be solved).

We’re back in our tan Colombo raincoat, working our way through where things went pear-shaped. The evidence suggests Warner Bros. Discovery’s motives weren’t sinister, and introducing a new name to reflect the broader content library was a valid strategy. When we work with clients on brand architecture and naming, we look at things like target audiences and business models as criteria for whether a new name or a name change is warranted.  

Before we present our theories on where the brand strategy may have gone awry, we want to acknowledge the simple truth that people love to hate on a name or a logo change The “blowback” that has flared up on social media represents the [extremely] vocal minority of people who are inclined to get worked up by something like this. So even if MOST people accepted the change with a shrug, there are some embedded brand strategy issues contributing to the bumpy reception Max received.

Where did the problem start?

This was supposed to be a launch, but it was perceived as a re-brand.  

Warner Bros. Discovery was hoping to communicate something to the effect of “Look at this new streaming service that we just created to house all of this great content!”  But that’s not how it came across to consumers.  

In a survey we conducted, 63% of consumers thought that the introduction of Max was just the new name for HBOMax.  A mere 12% identified it as the launch of a new streaming service (and the remaining respondents were even more confused!)1. On Twitter there are far more mentions of the word ‘rebrand’ in association with the announcement than with the word “launch.” And the most commonly used phrase about the announcement? “Purposeless rebrand.”

Our gut (and a good bit of growing evidence) tells us this disconnect stemmed from the fact that they used a part of the ‘HBOMax’ name for this new service. It’s likely they were trying to capitalize on any equity that had been built around the ‘Max’ word, so they weren’t starting from scratch.  But what it looked like to the average consumer was that the company had rebranded its streaming platform by dropping the HBO brand and renaming HBO. Again.  I even got a message when I opened the app for the first time that said “HBO Max” is now “Max.”  

This misalignment creates some pretty substantive downstream effects for the brand.

  1. If users perceive this to be a rebrand then all of the prior rebrands of HBO streaming services now became part of the discussion. In the span of ten years, we went from HBO Go, to HBO Now, to HBO Max. The consumer perceived this to be yet another change and frequent rebrands are a red flag for consumers and us brand nerds alike.  
  1. If you choose to elevate Max as the name, the equal and opposite effect is that you may diminishing HBO as a brand. Certainly, the intent was to preserve the strength and equity, but pulling from the HBOMax name for the new service may have unintentionally had detrimental effects on the HBO brand.
  1. There is now a customer experience challenge that gets thrown into the mix.  If a service rebrands you expect that the little rectangle representing the service on your smart TV changes automatically and you don’t have to do anything.  But for many, they were left with confusing prompts to download a new app, messaging that they will need to buy a new plan at some point and continuing to have a separate Discovery+ subscription.

Stay tuned for Episode 3 where we look at what you can do to avoid similar mistakes.

  1. Joe Smith/Padilla Spotlight Online Survey, June 2023, U.S. Adults, n=1,059"

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