My Thoughts on the Netflix / Qwikster Controversy

I wrote this in 2011 when Netflix announced that they would be renaming their DVD service to "Qwikster" and separating it completely from the existing Netflix site. I wasn't actively blogging at the time, but I ran across this again and liked what I had written, so I've back-posted it here.


Core Focus – What problem are we trying to solve?

It has been said that if Union Pacific realized they were in the transportation business rather than just the railroad business, we would today be flying on Union Pacific Airlines. Rather than maintaining a strategic vision of the problem their company existed to solve (getting people and goods from point A to point B), they focused too closely on one particular solution to that problem (railroads) and were thus unprepared to respond when changing business climate made their chosen solution less and less relevant.

More recently, we saw Blockbuster repeat the same mistake. They incorrectly believed that their success was based on running an efficient DVD rental business, when in fact it was based on solving the problem of convenient access to high quality video entertainment. As improving technology made new methods of content distribution possible, they clung to their existing brick-and-mortar solution for far too long. And by the time they did try to explore other options, their years of inaction had given their competitors too much of a head start for them to stand a chance of catching up.

In order to understand the path forward for Netflix, we must first understand their core competence. As a consumer brand, the best way to do that is to ask not what products or services Netflix provides, but what problem they solve for their users. What need does Netflix fulfill that makes people love them as much as they do?

I would argue that Netflix's value to their customers is the same one that they wrestled away from Blockbuster: delivering convenient access to high quality video entertainment. If we keep this fundamental goal in mind, and focus our tactical decisions on achieving this goal, the rest of the questions become much simpler.


Brand Integrity – What's in a name?

Naming a company or product is easy. Building a brand is very difficult. Yes, you have to give your company/product/service a name. But more than that, you have to make that name mean something. Not a literal meaning, but an emotional meaning.

A brand name with a literal meaning can be useful in explaining the potential value to the first wave of customers. But as a brand evolves over time, the literal meaning is quickly replaced by what the brand means to its customers. And that meaning is defined almost entirely on how the brand makes people feel, based on their (and their community's) interaction with it.

When you consistently solve users' problems and make their lives easier, your brand will come to mean something special to them. "Netflix means entertaining the whole family without spending a fortune." "Netflix means dinner and a movie without having to go brave the weather." "Netflix means independence from an oppressive $50-80/month cable bill." "Netflix means never running out of new movies to keep my kids entertained and happy." These are the kinds of meanings Netflix users have blessed the brand with over the years.

When you have a brand this strong, introducing a new brand can be very risky. If the new product or service solves a different problem (like eBay vs PayPal, or the myriad of P&G brands), multiple brands that are expected to mean different things to different people certainly make sense. But if the new product or service simply solves a slightly different subset of the same problem (like Google's many search-related sub-brands), it usually makes more sense to keep the existing brand (and all the good will that comes with it) and differentiate the new functionality in context.

This risk only increases when the new brand is being applied to the product or service with which the users originally fell in love. Changing the name implies that the company no longer has faith in the re-named portion, and that it may no longer retain the qualities that defined its brand to begin with. It introduces friction, confusion and fear. It makes people worry. "Do they dislike this product enough that they want to take their name off the label?" "Are they just planning to sell it off to someone who's going to ruin it?" "Does the brand name even mean what I thought it did anymore?" Obviously, not questions one would ever want people to ask about a brand.

To determine whether a new brand or a sub-brand makes more sense, we must return to the original question of what problem you are solving for the users. If Netflix means convenient access to high quality video entertainment, instant vs mail order, movies vs TV vs games, and physical media formats are all just variations on that original problem and should therefore be represented as sub-brands.

Netflix Instant means instant access to (a somewhat limited selection of) great content in an instant.
Netflix [_____] means access to an endless library of content, delivered to your door in just a few days.
Netflix Games * means being able to play any game you want, for as long as you want.

Netflix still means everything it has ever meant. The sub-brands just help you tell a more tailored story to different types of users.

* Though Netflix does not currently deal in games, I include it here both in anticipation of that someday happening and to help illustrate these suggestions more abstractly than just to the two current services.


Convenience Is King - Streamlining User Experience by Platform and Preference

While the Qwikster re-branding has gotten a lot of press, the more passionate complaints across the blogosphere have been of a much more practical nature. Yes, the essence of what Netflix means has a great emotional impact. But the loss of convenience from having to go to multiple websites to do what they can now do in just one place has a much more pragmatic impact on people's lives.

To determine the best course of action, we must again return to the question of what problem Netflix is there to solve. If the goal is to delivering convenient access to high quality video entertainment, convenience is a vital part of the equation. This means getting them from interest to immersion as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

If you look at the path people take to get to the Play button, a few distinct experiences emerge. Users who don't yet know what they want to watch need a way to browse what's available, seeing recommendations and details about different titles that may increase their interest. Once they find something they like, they need a way to express interest in the title – this could be clicking a Play button, adding it to a queue, rating it, or marking it as something they already own. When they decide they're ready to start watching, they need a way to select a title – either from a browse page, queue or other entry point. Finally, when they have finished watching a title, they need a way to choose what's next.

How they navigate between these stages – and what content/functionality they are presented with – can be customized based on what we know about them. First, we know what platform they are on: are they accessing Netflix through a desktop browser, smartphone, tablet, set-top box, or gaming console? Second, we know which services they are currently subscribed to. Finally, we might know a bit about their personal preferences from past behavior.

Given this, it comes relatively straight forward to extrapolate how to guide the user through the process.

  • One entry point per platform
    For those accessing Netflix on a web browser, there should only be one website. For those accessing Netflix on their smartphone, tablet, set-top box or gaming console, there should only be one app per platform (and be as similar between apps for the same platform type as possible).

  • Browsing vs Selection
    Once in the system, users should be given the option of either browsing (and/or searching) the total collection of what is available to them or seeing a list of the titles that they have previously expressed interest in.

  • Streamlined Browsing (Requires BU Collaboration)
    When the user doesn't know yet what they want to watch or play, they also won't know which format it's available in. So browsing can easily be separated between TV/movies and games, but within each top-level category should allow browsing by intuitive filters such as genre, recommendations and past behavior, as most of Netflix's browse interfaces currently do. This is the portion that will require the most collaboration between business units, as the Instant and DVD groups must agree on that format in which the basic title info is presented, and then provide separate call-to-action hooks for each of the services that title is available for (Instant, DVD, Blu-Ray, teaser to look at the tie-in game, etc). But any extra coordination between business units will inherently pay off with a much more streamlined user experience.

  • Streamlined Selection (Allows BU Experimentation)
    Within the selection branch, it will likely make sense to have separate selection screens based on the specific services that a given user subscribes to. This can allow the various business units to have a fairly wide berth of innovation around how best to display their own content. The Instant team may choose to go with a tiled box art view with category links for narrowing large queues by mood (or who marked it, for family accounts, eventually). The DVD team may choose to reuse the mood/user filtering sidebar, but present the results in a priority-ordered text view. And the Games team may choose to use the same priority-order view as DVDs, but use a sidebar that allows filtering by platform, genre and game rating. Further customizations can be made based on platform (browser, tablet, console) and interface (mouse, touch, remote), to make it as easy as possible for a user on any given platform to quickly and easily find something great to watch/play.


Summary

People love Netflix. If they didn't, they wouldn't be reacting this passionately to recent changes.

Netflix means convenient access to high quality video entertainment. As long as a new service still addresses this core mission, it should retain the core brand (or a sub-brand thereof).

Convenience is king. While there are certainly logistical changes that can be made to both the user interface and back end processes, convenience to the user should always take precedence over the convenience of various business units.

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