Financial Poise

Failure to the Max: Lessons from HBO’s Big Rebrand

There are good reasons the phrase “don’t fix what ain’t broken” turned into such a cliche. Sometimes we get so swept away in our efforts to be bigger and better that we fail to adequately take into account how those changes will play out in the wild.

Enter HBO Max… or, well, just Max. The streaming juggernaut announced a planned major brand transition a while back, extending beyond a name and logo change to include different offerings and a new user interface. As Gizmodo highlights, things didn’t exactly go as planned when they formally flipped the switch yesterday:

HBO Max, now rebranded as Max, had a less-than-ideal launch on Tuesday, with many subscribers reporting ongoing issues with the app. The problems may have stemmed from Max creating an entirely new app, rather than simply renaming its existing one, and many subscribers were displeased, saying they couldn’t log in or that the app had completely crashed.

The outages were reported in the early morning on Downdetector with complaints ranging from a lag in video streaming to subtitles not matching the scene. Others reported they could watch trailers but not the TV show or movie, have new 60-second commercials when they try to stream, and screen blackouts that allowed them to hear the audio but have no picture.

A spokesperson for Max told Gizmodo that these types of headaches were “to be expected” with any kind of launch like this. But it was still a pretty big stumble out of the gates for a leader in a market projected to top $416 billion by 2030.

So what went wrong? Why did it happen in the first place? Most importantly, what can entrepreneurs learn from the blunder? Let’s get into it.

The Road to a Revamped Value Proposition

To understand how we got to this point of upheaval, you need to understand the evolution of the primary HBO brand. Originally introduced in 1972 as Home Box Office, it served as an add-on offered by television providers movies with the interruption of advertising or cuts due to time or questionable content. This offering would eventually expand to include original content, too, with shows like The Sopranos ushering in a shiny new era of “prestige” television. 

But with the rise of streaming came complications. Competitors like Netflix and Prime were offering viewers the same uncensored, uninterrupted viewing opportunity, but you didn’t need to have a tv provider to access it. As consumers moved toward cord-cutting, HBO knew a pivot was necessary.

What we now know as Max has gone through a lot of changes over the years as HBO tried to figure out its best path forward. Would they only allow streaming access to certain types of media? How much legacy media would get included? What would they even call themselves?

And then there were profound concerns about how a broader, more affordable offering would impact HBO’s branding overall. The idea of being “premium” or “prestige” would be more difficult to sustain, some argued, in a world where their entire content library was that accessible. And would the race to compete with more content appropriate for a wider audience undercut that marketing position?

Ultimately, they decided they needed to offer more and figure out what to do with their brand from there. Which is when things got really fun.

Bumbled Rebranding

It’s not entirely uncommon for a company to rebrand itself from time to time. In some cases, brand imagery and standards have turned dated or stale and could benefit from a refresh. Sometimes a company needs a hard reset to shift public perception. At other times, a company’s direction is shifting so profoundly that a rebrand feels mission-critical for the launch.

For HBO, the reasoning behind a full rebrand was probably a mix of all of the above. The HBO Max logo had long been considered weirdly dated with its purple gradient coloring. And with plans in the works to distribute content decidedly not aligned with the original HBO branding (i.e. children’s programming), it felt disconnected. Add into the mix that they were trying to compete with other big streaming platforms, and a rebrand seemed like an intuitive way to gin up excitement.

So instead of HBO or HBO Max, viewers now have Max. 

In theory, this rebrand tried to do the right thing by preserving at least a portion of its initial (er, well, latest) iteration by keeping the second half of the name. Except it cut out the part of the brand that differentiated HBO from other streaming platforms in the first place: its curation. 

Its customers didn’t come there because they offered the most streaming titles in the world. They came there because the brand was known for trying to elevate both excellent content and viewing experiences. So they deleted the part of their name that carried value and kept the modifier in the spirit of preserving the brand identity of the parent (HBO) in the transition… for what?

Add into the mix that the logo kind of sucks, and marketers were already watching this launch with skepticism. And they were right.

Lose Sight of the User in a Rebrand at Your Peril

In fairness, a strong company and product can drag consumers kicking and screaming through a rebrand if they choose. It won’t always cause durable pain. But Max isn’t just a new logo. They changed how users interact with their value offerings.

That wasn’t a bad idea. HBO has a long track record of neglecting their user. Before HBO Max, there was HBO NOW and HBO GO – which did the same thing yet could not be used interchangeably. And even in HBO Max, discoverability was always a complaint. Navigation within their apps could be headache-inducing. 

Max offered an opportunity to start fresh. And they knew it. They also knew that failure to seriously invest in in-depth testing prior to launch was key. They’d already had enough headaches when their app rollout on Roku face significant delays or when it just stopped working altogether on AppleTV. 

And they launched anyway, despite being woefully unprepared. All of the tech backlash they face today is absolutely deserved, if only because the right planning and respect for their end users would have prevented it altogether.

Communication Failures Compound Rebrand Complications

The worst part of the Max launch wasn’t the terrible branding. It wasn’t even the tech snafus. It was that HBO absolutely failed in terms of communicating the changes to their end users.

Ask most HBO Max subscribers what the changes mean, and they won’t have too many answers for you yet. It’s a new name. If they can get into an app at all, they’ll notice a new look and more titles. 

But that’s all surface-level stuff. In reality, this new Max

  • Doubles the number of titles available before from places like the Food Network, HGTV, TLC, and more, including an expansive library of children’s content;
  • Dramatically improves content exploration and navigation for users looking for something specific or related to their interests;
  • Empowers users to better customize their viewing experience and avatars, including new downloading capabilities; and
  • Offers a new plan available for 4K UHD streaming.

But the promo for the rebrand didn’t do a good job of communicating any of that. It showcased the new branding and promised better value, but it felt like the same kind of background noise advertising streaming platforms deploy when not in the middle of a huge business model transition.

Even if everything had gone according to plan on the tech side of things, the plan was never communicated in a useful manner. So when a user who had not been following the poorly communicated transition went to log in to “Max”, they had no idea why they should be patient in the face of frustration.

Lessons for the Next Go Round

Just because Max fell on its face with its pivot doesn’t mean that your company would, too. As we already said, rebrands can be sensible – even lucrative. 

Following the Max roadmap definitely isn’t the way to stick the landing. Fortunately, there are different steps you can take to get it right.

  1. Make sure you clearly define why the pivot in question is being considered in the first place. This will help you better tackle the complicated process of effective brand development moving forward. 
  2. Strive to maintain balance between established brand equity and the goals of the pivot during strategy planning. This will foster a smoother transition. You probably don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
  3. Commit to centering the user in each decision, from design to product development, timelines, and marketing. It will make you much more likely to identify and resolve points of brand resistance in advance. 
  4. Test, test, test. Then test some more. Test every assumption and creation at every step of the way. This is especially salient advice for those who have been in a business for decades. Your experience grants insight, but can also lead to decision-making that’s lost touch with the end user’s needs and wants.
  5. Prioritize early, clear, and useful communication with your users during any big transition. People tend to be more patient during periods of change when you effectively and compassionately manage their expectations.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re rooting for Max to figure things out! After all, they gave us incredible shows like Succession, didn’t they? 

They will most likely get things sorted sooner than later. It just could have been a lot less painful. And should the time come for you to tackle a similar challenge, we believe you’ll do a much better job on the first attempt if you follow these steps.


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© 2023. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.

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Article Comments

  • guest1 says:

    What is worst is the fact Warner Discovery and HBO both categorically failed at setting up the proper infrastructure with their vendors to transition account histories for the service. Ever since the launch, I have been unable to access content on the “Max” app/site, and when contacting them about it got batted back to my provider, who then batted me back to Max, each telling me the other was responsible for fixing the issue of me not being able to login because the system does not recognize my account as having an active subscription. My only option is to either re-sub (pay again) or give up, because to add insult to injury they demanded screenshots of payments to verify that I am in fact subscribed, and then after sending them they have not responded further. Clearly, their intention is to simply ignore long time accounts so they don’t have to bother “grandfathering” them, and hope one is fool enough to re-sub and re-pay, at a higher price mind you even if you intend to have access to 4k. Slap in the face, on top of all the other poor quality control issues with the app itself, and the mess of an interface they have put in it. Firmly committed at this point to never pay one more cent to Warner Bros for anything.

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