The Streaming Wars

Relevant Differentiation Will Win The Streaming Wars

Streaming entertainment is a crowded, competitive category. Cabin fever and closed movie theaters helped exponentially grow the streaming entertainment business. It is about to undergo yet another alteration. Welcome to the new year of content cull.

To satisfy our growing need for in-home entertainment, Covid-19 opened the door to intense showbiz competition beyond what cable providers could offer. We collectively became part of the global Netflix nation.  Other media mavens saw opportunity.  With dozens of streaming options, New York Magazine pointed out some media heavy hitters are now serious challengers to Netflix. Disney, Apple, Amazon, HBO, CBS and NBC have created content-heavy streaming choices. 

Netflix still owns streaming entertainment. Most calculations put the Netflix global subscriber base at about 208 million. Amazon Prime is slightly behind this with a global subscriber base of 175 million. Reporting in The Wall Street Journal indicates that global streaming reached 1 billion subscribers over the past year. 

But, if we learned anything from the pandemic, it is how easily consumers adopt new behaviors and habits. After more than a year, we are exchanging screens for greener scenes, moving outdoors and away from home.  

With the lock-down veil lifted, many of us are now questioning whether we actually need to subscribe to so many streaming options. We are now examining which brands to keep and which brands to ditch. 

The great content cull is upon us. Portfolio paring is a reality. After all, just how many streaming subscriptions do we really need? Among all of the streaming possibilities, which brands are our favorites?

Brand favorability depends on this: which brand offers a relevant, differentiated trustworthy entertainment promise relative to its costs? Relevant means the brand meets my needs. Differentiated means the brand is unique relative to competition.  Trustworthy means the brand will deliver its promised experience relative to its costs. Costs are price, time and effort.

Winning the streaming wars will require streaming brands to articulate their trustworthy promise of their important and unique valuable brand experience. Without a specific brand promise, a streaming brand will become a nice-to-have but generic choice.

Currently, blockbuster movies along with archived film libraries and new original, made-for-streaming content are the preferred ways brands achieve relevant differentiation.  

For example, Disney+ has its newest films and its evergreen portfolio of classic animated feature films. HBO Max has the established HBO name, its reputation for quality creative and its portfolio of Warner Brothers cinematography, due to AT&T’s 2016 purchase of Time Warner, now WarnerMedia. Newcomer Paramount+ is banking on the recognition of its familiar mountain logo with its extensive, deep library of films, old and new. Formerly CBS All Access, along with its film archives, Paramount+ is home to CBS, nick, Comedy Central, MTV, BET and the Smithsonian Channel.

In the streaming service crowd, only discovery+ offers a desired, unique brand promise that reflects an entertainment-road-not-taken. Rather than tout a film-based library, discovery+, is betting that people want familiar, trustworthy comfort-viewing.  To stand out in the pack of streaming brands, discovery+ provides a streaming brand alternative.

Discovery+ believes its current day-to-day content is as original and compelling as it gets. Discovery+ has the advantage of its unique and sometimes weirdly fascinating programming covering cooking, home improvement, reality TV, travel and animals. Discovery+ has a portfolio including Discovery, HGTV, OWN, TLC, Food Network, HLN, Animal Planet, Science Channel, diy Network, History, A&E and Cooking Channel. Discovery+ is home to the wildly popular”90 Day Fiancé”, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”, and “Fixer Upper”, for example.

In an interview with The New York Times, David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery, parent of discovery+ said, “Almost all of the players in the (streaming) business moved toward scripted series and scripted movies. They went to the big stars and the red carpet. The big shiny object. We’re not so shiny and we don’t have a lot of red carpet.”

The New York Times story highlights discovery+ as the sort of programming people can have on in the background while doing other things. Described as “ambient” or “passive” TV, discovery+ can be a soothing backdrop where you do not have to follow along.  

Mr. Zaslav added, “ When you wake up and put the Today Show on in the background or put on the Food Network, it’s for comfort. You don’t watch ‘The Undoing’ (the highly hyped psychological drama starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant) while you’re cooking dinner. But you do put on Guy Fieri or ‘Super Soul Sunday’ or ‘Fixer Upper’ or ‘How it’s Made’ or ‘Mythbusters.’” These shows are what discovery+ calls “real life” (rather than reality) content.

Using a construct for defining a brand promise, here is how Discovery executives appear to be defining discovery+. This is how the discovery+ brand promise is relevantly differentiating itself from its competitors. 

First, what does discovery+ offer me, and why is that important to me?

  • Discovery+ has: Useful content, Content I know, I can listen without watching, I am able to do other things while listening, Content not requiring complete concentration
  • Discovery+ has: Content I love, Comforting content, Comfortably informative content, I feel safe, I feel at home, Content that is easy on my mind

Second, how does discovery+ reflect my values and what is its attractive brand personality?

  • Discovery + is meaningful for me because: I value entertainment that can make my life easier, I appreciate being comfortably entertained, I value information that can make my home more comfortable
  • Discovery+ attracts my viewership because it is: Down-to-earth, Friendly, Authentic, Interesting, Informative, Has my best interests in mind

How does discovery+ support this relevant differentiated brand promise? Discovery+ streams:

  • 55,000 episodes of favorite shows from my favorite channels
  • Content covering home, family, food, nature, adventure, true crime, relationships, science, technology, paranormal and more
  • Exclusive original programming
  • Greatest real-life entertainment and exclusive originals all in one place
  • Affordable $4.99 per month
  • Olympics and other sports
  • And, finally, how confident am I that discovery+ will deliver its promised experience for these costs (price, time and effort)? 

Discovery+ has a lot of high quality competition. But, these competitors will need to continue creating their own expensive proprietary content to survive. Many of these competitors will only be as good as their last blockbuster or original series, continuing to define themselves by these category’s mainstays. 

Having a specific, non-generic, relevant, differentiated brand promise is key for any brand-business success. Only Disney+, essentially an extension of the Disney brand promise, has a relevant differentiator: to create happiness based on its mission to make a safe, high quality, affordable, magical place appropriate for the whole family. But, Disney+ will need to figure out how to make this promise work through its streaming. Just offering the archives and the new blockbusters may not do the trick.

Discovery+ may be small, but it has something the larger streaming brands do not have: a clear and compelling, relevant, differentiated brand promise. As the media magnates gather in Sun Valley, besides focusing on mergers and acquisitions, it would be beneficial if they focused on just what my media brand stands for in the minds of customers. 

(As a coda, AT&T announced that it will merge its WarnerMedia portfolio with discovery+ to create a media behemoth larger than Netflix but with fewer subscribers. Although there are strategic reasons for this, the exceptional nature of discovery+ adds incredible strength to this soon to be formed streaming service.)


In 1994, when Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras wrote Built to Last, they were referring to Visionary Habits of Successful Companies. Their highly influential book focused on the results of a six-year research project into what makes enduringly great companies. Their stated goals were: “to identify underlying characteristics are common to highly visionary companies” and “to effectively communicate findings so they can influence management”.

Companies that endure are iconic; they are studied; they are analyzed; and they are held up as examples of best practices that other businesses should exemplify. The same is true for brands. GE, IBM, Kodak and Xerox are examples of brands that now realize longevity is not necessarily a prerequisite for future success.

We live in a time when replacing goods and services is par for the course. We seem to have no qualms about ditching an old iPhone for a new model, or downloading the latest app, or frequenting the newest restaurant. In fashion, we have fast fashion that by its very nature is meant to be disposable. In automotive, ownership is starting to decline in favor of renting or subscribing: “Why keep something around when I can have the newest model whenever I want?”

With the exception of some durable goods products such as large appliances, there seems to be a reluctance to buy goods and services that are built to last. We appear to prefer obsolescence to endurance. Some brands such as Patagonia have urged customers to keep wearing their old Patagonia clothes rather than buy new ones. But, even in luxury goods, where holding on to a satchel or pair of shoes as the value increases, there are websites where owners can sell these possessions to make a quick buck.

So, it is a surprise that in a past report from The Wall Street Journal’s “The Future of Everything”, we were told to hold on to possessions, some of which are so much better with age. We learned that owning these goods for the long term will enhance our future: we were asked to buy something that “is destined for an estate sale rather than a landfill.” Products identified as “keepers” were luggage, boots, watches and classic home goods. The “The Future of Everything” article reflected one of the major paradoxes of our age: the desire (and hence clash of) for replaceable and irreplaceable.

“The latest and the legacy” is a unique paradox reflecting the wish for innovation/novelty and the need for things that have stood the tests of time. Technology has accelerated the pace of new products and services. We are used to replacing phones, laptops and other digital, smart, mobile devices and connected appliances with new versions on a regular basis. We fear missing the immediate ownership of the latest. People around the world will wait on line, overnight, regardless of weather, just to buy the newest Apple device.

And, yet, at the same time, we seek the authenticity, heritage, customs and legacies of products and service steeped in tradition.  Etsy, the online craft forum, is a paean to crocheted medallion quilts, handmade dangling earrings, knitted Argyle socks, and all sorts of imaginative, high quality craftsmanship. Vintage clothing stores sell authentic outfits from our parents’ and grandparents’ decades. Millennials are buying vintage sound systems to play LPs (even though they are also streaming music from Spotify). The Future of Everything referred to these types of enduring products as “heirloom” just like the tomato seeds sold in those various seed catalogues: those cultivars from gardens of the past, not like those used in today’s industrial agriculture.

Photo by Milad B. Fakurian on Unsplash

Brands have an opportunity to capitalize on the conflicting needs of being in the “now” with living with the “then”.  In the liquor category, Jim Beam and Jack Daniels are establishing their heritage credibility for a modern group of drinkers. KFC is currently making a remarkable comeback by focusing on their traditional, iconic mealtime buckets of chicken.  The familiar, timeless Colonel, and his values are back, but in a timely, humorous, contemporary manner. There is something compelling about revisiting a relevant, repackaged icon right now. Levi’s invented blue jeans. It has an amazing heritage. On its website, the brand confirms its history and its modernity, by being both now and then. Their statement is that Levi’s® Made & Crafted® builds on the legacy of 140 years “by designing tomorrow’s classics using today’s best materials and construction techniques.”

Brands in and of themselves are all about the future. Brands promise a relevant, differentiated trustworthy experience: buy this brand and you will get this experience. More than ever, brands have the opportunity to address our needs for the both the latest and the legacy: brands that are built for now and built to last. In our time-crazed world of now, it is nice to know that there are brands we can hold onto for time to come.

Larry Light in Forbes CMO Network

Larry Light shares insights to help be a beacon of light for brands struggling in a ever changing world dominated by a global pandemic.

Read some of his latest pieces now by clicking on the titles below!

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Looking for a gift for your marketing peers?

Check out our collection of books by Larry Light and Joan Kiddon. They make a perfect unexpected gift for the marketing leader in your life.

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Cover Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

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Read some of Larry’s latest pieces in Forbes on the epic impact Covid19 is having on the marketing world:

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Land Rover And The Case Of Defender’s Denied Distinctiveness

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Home Depot, Alexa And The Paradox Of Do-It-Yourself

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Larry Light’s Column Roundup

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The Latest From Larry Light In Forbes CMO Network

Read the latest from Larry Light’s column on the Forbes CMO Network:

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