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The Power of Positive Brand Association

Traditional TV distributors and content creators just got more to worry about. Netflix movies don’t have to be actually good anymore, they just don’t have to be disappointing. The power of the brand drives satisfaction and for cable, satellite TV and telco TV operators that should be terrifying.

In a research note Sanford Bernstein media analyst Todd Juenger addressed concerns whether Netflix’s $12 billion content budget is money well spent. The law of averages would assume that at some point, Netflix has to release a string of duds, which will panic investors and send the stock into a tailspin, thus justifying the traditional pay TV business model and we can all rest easy like it’s 1990 and cable will just keep growing and growing, right?

No, no, no, no and wrong.

Juenger pointed to Will Smith sci-fi vehicle Bright, which Netflix released in December and critics lambasted as “wretched,” “an absolute mess”  and “a movie with blockbuster aspirations and faerie-sized brains.” So it’s no surprise that the movie, which sported a $90 million budget, got a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What was surprising, is that viewers liked it. A lot.

According to Nielsen data, more than 13 million Netflix subscribers watched Bright on its opening week, and its Rotten Tomatoes audience score is currently 85%. For Juenger that disparity isn’t so much a condemnation of the general public’s grasp of cinematic excellence (or failure) but that Netflix not only shouldn’t care about critics, they actually don’t.

Want proof? Netflix announced in January that it has greenlighted a Bright sequel.

Netflix also has its share of critically acclaimed programming – Icarus won the Academy Award for Best Documentary last week and its documentaries have garnered several Oscar nominations dating back to 2013. This year Mary J. Blige was nominated for Best Actress for a Netflix movie, Mudbound, which also attracted nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Original Song and Cinematography. Netflix also has won scores of Emmy Awards in the past several years, so on that front, it is far from a slouch.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said the success of Bright highlights the disconnect between critics and the general public, and also points to the differences between international and U.S. audiences – the movie did better overseas.

But Juenger believes that it also shows the positive association Netflix customers have with the brand – it’s fun to use and only costs $10 a month – which he says makes Netflix customers pre-disposed to reacting favorably to practically anything the company does.

“In other words, they go into a Netflix show expecting to like it,” Juenger wrote. “So guess what, when they are finished, they confirm their bias and tell themselves they did. A self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But Juenger doesn’t believe it stops there. He argues that in many cases, if you put the same show on any cable network, the reaction would be the opposite.

“Much to the frustration of TV executives, we believe there are scores of shows that have been launched on traditional TV in recent years, and failed, that would have had a completely different (positive) reception had they been launched on Netflix,” Juenger wrote. “…We don't think the huge consumption and positive reviews from Netflix members are a result of that community believing it was an amazing piece of cinematic art. We think much more likely they found it a fun, guilty pleasure, something different and bite-sized, with a big Hollywood star and some special effects, that they could watch with their date, or spouse, or family some weekend evening – for ‘free.’”

While Bright should make some TV executives nervous, Juenger also pointed to a new TV series that should keep them up nights.

Dark isn’t the first Netflix hit to be offered in a foreign language – that honor should probably go to Narcos. But while Narcos had subject matter familiar to U.S. viewers – the Colombian drug trade – and was offered in a language (Spanish) that is familiar to millions of Americans, Dark was not. Shot in Germany in German, Dark is a supernatural thriller that follows four families in a fictional town as they investigate the disappearance of several children. Many saw the series as an attempt by Netflix to attract local foreign audiences. But according to Netflix chief product officer Greg Peters, more than 90% of Dark’s viewership came from outside Germany. That should send shivers down the collective spines of U.S. TV executives.  

Because that means that not only does Netflix get an “A” for brand recognition, quality and satisfaction– do you know of a single cable operator who can even come close? – now it doesn’t even matter if viewers can understand its shows. Sure, there are English subtitles, but Americans are supposed to hate to read, especially when they’re watching TV. Netflix has upended another tried and true American idiom.

I have said for years that cable operators don’t deserve their bad service reputation – ask the average schlub if they hate their cable company and most will respond with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Then ask them if they love their broadband provider (most likely a cable company) and they will respond in the affirmative with equal enthusiasm. Cable has tried for years to break that chain and they have made some progress, but they are nowhere near the finish line.

On the flip side, streaming services have been plagued by frequent service outages almost from the get-go, and yet inspire a fraction of the hatred of their cable counterparts.

But this seems different. Cable has for years been the go-to place for quality programming – in fact, Netflix was built on the back of past seasons of cable shows like Breaking Bad and others. It’s not like cable is going to lose its quality mantle overnight. But Netflix’s ability to pay top dollar for shows and talent – it agreed to sign showrunner Ryan Murphy to a five-year deal worth $275 million – could make it increasingly difficult for cable and broadcast to compete.    

If the momentum from Bright and Dark continues, and given Netflix’s track record, that is likely, then it turns the whole model on its ear. It used to be that programmers produced content for a specific country expecting only people inside that region to watch it – German-language shows for Germany, French-language programming for France, and so on.

“If Netflix can invest in German content (or French, or Portuguese, or Italian, or Korean, etc.), and derive value from that content globally, that completely changes the ROI equation for investing in local market content,” Juenger wrote. “The return on the investment is no longer calculated based on the number of German subscribers [that] can be attracted and retained by a body of German-language content. The content is now also generating a return across the entire world.”

As of last count, Netflix had about 118 million global customers. Earlier this week  Pivotal Research Group CEO and senior media & communications analyst Jeff Wlodarczak estimated that Netflix could have 250 million international subscribers by 2024.

In a research note, Wlodarczak wrote that Netflix appears to be operating in a “virtuous cycle” – the larger their customer base grows, the more they can spend on content, which grows the base, increases barriers to entry and raises the ability to take future price increases.

“All else being equal with the broader markets, as long as Netflix continues to beat and raise on subscribers we believe the stock will continue to work,” Wlodarczak wrote.