As HBO Max morphs into Max next month, the onus is now on the marketing teams inside Warner Bros. Discovery to get the word out. While talk of a combined HBO Max and Discovery+ streamer has swirled around Hollywood for months (including the now-correct assumption that it would be named Max), awareness of the change is just now hitting consumers.
That’s where Pato Spagnoletto, global chief marketing officer of direct-to-consumer at Warner Bros. Discovery, and his team will come in. They have a month — the new service launches May 23 — to educate audiences on why the streamer is dropping “HBO” from its name, and what it will now be offering — including the promise of more personalized recommendations, better positioning of kids’ content and several splashy titles, including a Max original devoting each season to adapting one book in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series.
But at the same time, they still hope to emphasize the must-see HBO product that originally drove the service. Hence a new logo (which includes a “bullet” inside the “a” in “Max” that is a callback to the bullet inside the “o” in “HBO”) and tagline. Variety spoke Spagnoletto about all things Max as the streamer kicks off its relaunch campaign.
How are you looking at marketing Max, given the new name is a word that’s pretty impossible to “own” as it’s a commonly used word?
We knew going into it that ‘Max’ could be very generic, but we did a couple of things: One, obviously, we did a lot of research to see how and where the name was being used inside and outside of our category. And then two, did we feel that we could truly own it and make it our own? The answer was yes, because there really isn’t anyone that has a full grasp on it. A lot of companies use it as a qualifier or as an appendix. But when we looked at the equity of Max in the context of HBO Max, through the visual designs and, most importantly, how we want to invest in the brand, we think we have everything that it takes from a marketing perspective to create a full, ownable brand. The name, the visual design, the positioning, all of those things is what makes it ownable.
How did the Max tagline, “The One to Watch,” come about?
We were using it so much internally that at one point we were like, this could actually be the line for us. It works on multiple dimensions. It works at an emotional level — ‘The One to Watch’ when you’re feeling X, as you seen in the campaign. ‘The One to Watch’ for a specific title. It has confidence, but it also is a little bit of the underdog like, ‘they’re the one to watch.’ We like having the balance of confidence, but also there’s no arrogance in it at all. We want to stay with it for a long time. This is not a launch tagline, this is our brand tagline. If you think about other amazing brands in and outside of our category, great taglines will stay with the brand for years. That’s our aspiration.
Is this grasping, or is that slogan a nod to the idiosyncratic episode naming for “Friends,” which always began the titles with “The One…”?
I wish I could tell you that we were that advanced, but it’s not connected, no. But you see how it works! People can make their own connections, which is great.
In choosing to drop HBO from the name, how much of that decision was affected by a renewed focus on kids & family content, which didn’t ever really take off on HBO Max?
A big decision to move to ‘Max’ was to signal change. The change is that this is a service for the entire family. As JB Perrette [president and CEO of global streaming and games] mentioned on stage, HBO is not conducive to family viewing. But with Max and, more importantly with the content that we’ll have in it, we feel very comfortable that we can deliver on family viewing, including for kids. We have some of the best properties, from Looney Tunes to “Chopped Junior” and everything in between. It is a very important part of the mix for us and we know that for households that have kids, one of the criteria in choosing and keeping a service is, does it have content for the entire family? That was one of the major reasons that we moved to ‘Max,’ to be more broad. And then specifically, as you saw on the campaign, we will go deeper into making sure that families have full awareness in choosing the service.
How will you balance marketing new kids and family Max original titles and reminding users about giant children’s libraries available, like Hanna-Barbera?
We have to take it in bite sizes. From a marketing campaign and branding perspective, our job is to make sure that consumers know that we have a kids offering and a family offering. We’ll use certain titles, some of them may be new, some of them may be from the library, but just to show the breadth of it. The second bite happens in the product. And one of the reasons why we took the time to rebuild the platform is to improve our recommendation and personalization engines, so that in that library and that breadth of content that we have, even within kids and family, the product really needs to be able to surface the right titles to the right audiences. That’s the one-two punch that we we lean on: one, awareness, and then, two, delivery of actual titles within the product itself.
With “The One to Watch” as the slogan for Max, what does that mean for Discovery+ and how you will continue to market both products to consumers?
“The One to Watch” is really a nod to the one service to watch because it has all the content for all your moods and for every member of the family. Max delivers on that promise better than HBO Max could today or Discovery+ could today. So that tagline and the whole positioning is really to support the new service. As we’ve said, there will be super fans of Discovery and the content on Discovery+ who may choose to stay there and we are more than OK with it. We’ll support that because as a service, as a profitable service, consumers are happy on it. So we’ll give them plenty of opportunity to sample Max, but it will always be a two-way door. If they’re not interested in staying there permanently, that’s OK and they can come back to Discovery+.
At the start of the presentation, CNN and sports content was featured in a sizzle reel for Max, with no announcements regarding its inclusion on Max . But CEO David Zaslav did say more will be coming on live sports and news programming on Max in the next few months. How are you looking at those offerings in your marketing plans?
It’s what David said. We know we have great assets on both news and sports and in the coming months, we as a company will figure out the right strategy to have those be part of the service, but nothing to report on now.
How will the new personalization feature work on customers — as in, will my homepage focus on what specifically I would care about, while also showing me new Discovery and HBO content that everyone might care about, like Shark Week and “Succession”?
The most important thing that we can do to drive engagement. The best antidote to churn is content discovery. The personalization engine will look at your habits and a lot of things on the back end to serve you what is personal to you. But we know that from a marketing and merchandising perspective, we have to make sure that we expose you to new categories and new titles. So to your examples of Shark Week or “Succession” or whatever it might be, we have the ability to put our thumb on the scale a little bit, if you will, and run our own internal owned-and-operated inventory to expose you to new titles. Today, if you’re watching any of the HBO Max shows, you’ll see that before any of the major shows, we have a 30-second trailer. Sometimes we’ll use it for the brand, sometimes we’ll use it for specific titles. That, plus merchandising in the platform, are all touch points that say, ‘hey, we know you love this, here’s something that you might be interested in because it’s brand new.’ And by the way, the brand new part, it takes a minute for the algorithms to capture that and put it inside, same thing for SEO side of of the service. So it’s a very common practice where you have human curation to kickstart discovery.
Two big announcements out of the Max streaming presentation were the new “Game of Thrones” and “Harry Potter” series. For “Harry Potter,” the logo, imagery and music used to announce it on screen were those belonging to the original film franchise. Does this mean Max is looking at keeping those elements in marketing this new show?
We are so excited to have that franchise come back. It’s really entertained so many of us in the last 20 years. It’s so early on, honestly, that I don’t want to mislead you one way or the other. We are just starting on the journey of what the content will look like, how it will be produced and shot. And obviously the marketing point is intended to reflect the actual content. So what we showed on the screen was just an illustration of the history and the richness of that, and is not necessarily an illustration of what we plan to market and how we plan to market the new content.
How many names for the new service did the team go through before landing on Max?
A lot, is the short answer. We worked with an agency called DixonBaxi who has done amazing work for us and other companies in the past. We really sweat the details on the shapes of the letters, the bullseye inside of the A — all of those things were very, very deliberate. I have to give a huge kudos to the team that worked on that because I think the end product really reflects what we wanted to. It’s a little bit of a nod to the past, specifically with HBO, but also signaling clear change through both the design, the logo, the color templates and everything else. But it was fun and I’m happy with where we ended up.
See below for examples of TV spots and ads Warner Bros. Discovery is using in the lead up to Max’s launch.
This interview has been edited and condensed.