When Ross Clugston went to watch the HBO dark comedy series Run a week ago, he ran into a problem: He couldn’t find his HBO Now app on his Apple TV device. He eventually discovered that his usual method of accessing HBO had gotten a major facelift, courtesy of WarnerMedia’s new streaming service, HBO Max.
“We had to figure out this weird way that HBO was now HBO Max, and then we had to download it and find our way in that,” said Clugston, executive creative director at marketing agency Superunion. “I think that’s the story here: the story of HBO fragmenting this brand.”
HBO Max, WarnerMedia executives have said, is intended to build on the prestige of the HBO brand name with a doubled-in-size catalogue of programming that appeals to the whole family. “This is not the prestigious brand voice of HBO,” WarnerMedia Entertainment CMO Chris Spadaccini recently told Adweek. “It’s also not the sentimental brand of Disney. It’s completely original, designed to be expansive and additive to HBO, focusing on some key growth segments: It’s families with kids, young adults, female-centered programming.”
That brand expansion is, by some metrics, off to a good start: A week after launch, some of the most popular programs on HBO Max are kids shows, according to data from Parrot Analytics. But the introduction of a new brand has also come with some major speed bumps for users and potential customers, who have to work through not just a new app but a web of rules about whether or not they have access to the service, which for now is not available on two major connected TV platforms: Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices.
That could spell trouble for potential new growth.
How customers get HBO makes a difference
“Consumers don’t do well with confusion,” said Dan Rayburn, a principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan and evp of website and conference producer StreamingMedia.com. “Consumers pick services that are easy to use and that they can understand.”
The new streamer, HBO Max, is not to be mistaken for HBO (the premium cable brand accessible on cable and through various television providers), HBO Now (the standalone streaming option for people without cable who want to watch HBO shows) or HBO Go (the streaming-only option for cable subscribers, who enter provider login information to watch).
HBO Max declined to comment about brand confusion in the first week of launch, though executives had repeatedly attempted to distinguish the different brands in the months leading up to Max’s debut. However, that distinction was still lost to some consumers throughout the launch, who tweeted about their questions enough for Twitter to pull together a section explaining some of the differences in its “For You” section.
One of those confused consumers included Clugston, who wondered whether HBO Max would end up “doing HBO a disservice” by merging it into a larger, broader offering like the one he discovered he was eligible for on launch night.
“I can definitely see the logic behind grabbing hold of a brand that people are really familiar with and attaching an add-on, but I think people are just looking for their shows and where they live right now,” Clugston said. “It can be a little bit hard to distinguish what content can be found at what destination.”
Even if consumers got past the new branding and are able to understand the difference between HBO and HBO Max, they then had to face another hurdle: the web of carriage agreements governing who is eligible to get HBO Max and where they can get it, which are so complex that they’ve prompted explainers (including from Adweek) and flowcharts.