What’s in a Name? A Big Bowl of Disappointment

WarnerMedia’s latest streaming service is (sigh) HBO Max
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Maybe unlike you I was hoping that WarnerMedia would tear the cover off the ball in naming its latest streaming channel -- to be launched in November -- a service that AT&T Communications chief John Donovan told the investment community last month would change the way you look at TV forever. I was hoping for something big, bold, outside of the box. Instead I got…. HBO Max.

Now, no disparagement to the teeming multitudes of branding experts that no doubt struggled to come up with a moniker that would stand out among the ever growing number of over-the-top services from AT&T. There’s DirecTVNow, the OTT version of DirecTV. Then there is HBO Now, the OTT version of HBO. And don’t forget HBO Go, the online version of HBO for HBO’s linear subscribers. And then there is AT&T Watch TV, the streaming service available to AT&T wireless customers with unlimited data plans that sounds more like a command than a brand.

I know a lot goes into naming a brand. You have to take thousands of things into consideration, like how the name resonates with people, how they identify the new brand with existing brands, whether the brand means something entirely different in another language  and whatnot. I’m by no means a branding or marketing expert -- and I am sure several such experts will point that out as they tell me to keep my opinions to myself. But is there any harm in hoping for a name that would have broken from the pack? HBO Max? Really?

BTIG media analyst Richard Greenfield tweeted July 9, the day the new name was revealed, that HBO Max isn’t even that unique. It’s the same name WarnerMedia gave its combined HBO and Cinemax service in Latin America.

I guess it could have been worse -- they could have named it HBO +. That little dingbat proved to be very popular in the streaming video arena this year -- Disney, which launched its ESPN + streaming sports service last year, is slated to launch its entertainment streaming offering Disney + in November, followed by Apple’s Apple TV +. HBO + wouldn’t have been much of a stretch.

And when I think back to other big recent branding efforts in the media business, there have arguably been more hits than misses. Sling TV, in my opinion, is a great name -- it always helps when a brand name is a noun, a subject and a verb, because then you can create an entire sentence like “Sling sling in a sling with a sling,” and be kind of grammatically correct. 

Qube was a great name although the product was way ahead of its time. I never liked Verizon initially -- I was perfectly fine with Bell Atlantic -- but it grew on me over the years. And I really hated XFinity when Comcast launched it almost a decade ago, but it has proven to be one of the better branding decisions the cable industry ever made. And it has definitely grown on me too.

Part of me believes that whatever the name, the quality of the product will win out in the long run. But then there is part of me that remembers that scene in Hudsucker Proxy, when Norville Barnes, played by the great Tim Robbins, shows a co-worker the invention that is finally going to get him out of the mailroom, a perfect circle drawn on a blank sheet of paper.

“You know, for kids,” he says matter-of-factly.

That little drawing becomes the Hula Hoop and for a bit becomes the most popular toy for kids. But I think it would have had a much different fate if it was named “Circle Max, For Kids.” And even with a great name like Hula Hoop, the Hula Hoop didn’t occupy that spot for long. Sure, they still sell them, but it’s nothing like it used to be.

So maybe I should just shut up about HBO Max. As long as the content is strong and the price is competitive, it should do just fine. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing, and here are a few names I wish WarnerMedia considered.

HBOhno: Think of the promotional opportunities -- it could be marketed as the swift, slippery, on-the-edge streaming TV service, with none other than eight-time Olympic speed skating medalist Apolo Anton Ohno as its spokesman.

HBOff: The kids today like speed, and if Apolo Anton Ohno isn’t available, our marketing department is prepared. (The ff is for fast-forward).

HBOdelay: This streaming service, named for an album by seminal rapper Beck, is no Loser, baby. But it does have a Devil's Haircut. 

HBOld: Let’s face it, the senior set is the demo with all the money. And since HBO doesn’t have any advertising, (not so sure about the other content) who needs millennials? Let the brand name reflect the audience the product is targeting.

HBOwe: At $17.99 per month -- what some pundits are predicting will be the price-point for the service -- WarnerMedia’s streaming offering will be more than double the $6.99 monthly charge for Disney+. Add that to all the other streaming services the youngsters already subscribe to -- Netflix ($15), Hulu ($11.99 for no commercials) and Amazon Prime ($12.99) -- and you almost have a full-blown linear cable subscription. 

HBOle: Realizing HBO Max is the name of its Latin American counterpart, WarnerMedia decides to go in the other direction, using a popular soccer chant made popular in part by a staple of WarnerMedia’s other programming network TBS -- The Replacements

HBOMG: You know, for kids.

HBOderus Urungus: Named for the deceased lead singer, guitarist and bassist for heavy metal band GWAR, HBOderus Urungus is on the cutting edge of intergalactic barbarian content.

StankeyVision: In keeping with the time-honored tradition in the media business of naming products after their creators, HBO introduces a streaming service for the ages named after WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey.

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