Netflix has continued to use its brand identity to not just sell its service, but influence the marketing of the content it produces. But is that approach sustainable?

With the rest of the movie marketing world in chaos, things have probably been a bit simpler over at Netflix. While studios have been scrabbling around to update ever-changing release schedules, Netflix has happily continued to shovel content into the faces of its perpetually captive audience.

And when it comes to the bigger releases, the platform has proven time and again that it knows exactly how to let people know what’s coming. Between its magic algorithm (that will likely be fully sentient within a decade) and employing one-man movie marketing teams like Ryan Reynolds, it often feels like Netflix content just sells itself.

But while ‘traditional’ marketing techniques may at first seem to be low on the Netflix list of priorities, they do still form the backbone of its creative approach. Word of mouth remains one of the most effective tools Netflix has for attracting viewers. But for those audiences who aren’t part of any on or offline conversation, the ‘casual browsers’, key art (or at least, something that has evolved from it) is still essential.

Like all brands (and movie studios) Netflix keeps a house style to maintain brand tone and identity. Nothing unusual there. But where the streaming giant differs from a movie studio, is that it allows that brand identity to influence the look and feel of the films and shows it sells too. And when you think about it, that makes absolute sense. Punters aren’t paying to watch The Crown, they’re paying for access to the platform upon which The Crown is exclusively available. In other words, Netflix’s content isn’t the product, Netflix is.

And when you start to look at the different kinds of content Netflix puts in front of audiences, certain patterns start to emerge. To give you an example, when Netflix wants to convey high drama or appeal to subscribers who love a good thriller, it’ll make use of a good serif font. Something strong, that’s either old or transitional in style and lets the viewer know ‘this is serious’. You see it in all sorts of Netflix Originals, but here are just a few to show you what I mean:

Now, the eagle-eyed among you might notice a couple of things here. Firstly, the font for Beasts Of No Nation and Gerald’s Game are 100% the same. From what I can see (without access to the original design files), both use Trajan Pro Regular – an Adobe font, readily available on Creative Suite. The font for The Crown is different, with more pinched-in stems and a W that ‘crosses’ in the middle (presumably chosen because it looks more crown-like), but you’d be forgiven for thinking that was Trajan Pro Regular too. For The Haunting of Hill House and Hold The Dark, the designers have used Nocturne Serif Regular and Italic respectively (again, an Adobe font). Ghoul uses what I think is Classic Roman, which is almost a mashup of the other two, but what I’m getting at is, style-wise these are all pretty damn close to one another. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what happens when we switch Nocturne Serif for Trajan Pro…

There’s really not much in it is there?

So, Netflix clearly has a brand book that extends beyond its own identity guidelines to cover original content which considers font and, I would expect, colour (leave that with me, it’s a post for another day). This probably makes life easier when it comes to drawing up posters, thumbnails and clickable banners, but how does it affect the company’s actual business? Surely ‘more of the same’ is a counter intuitive marketing tactic for a company looking to bring in fresh subscriptions, even if those design choices have been well tested? Well, maybe, but also maybe not…

Let’s look at Stranger Things. A beloved series about to embark on its fourth season, but one that probably won’t bring in any new customers when it does. Chances are, fans of the first three seasons still subscribe anyway (Netflix retains over half the streaming market) and the small number who have drifted off wouldn’t justify the $65m+ (minus marketing) it apparently costs to make each series anyway. So, why is it being being made? Well, the answer is, Stranger Things by now is a highly successful sub-brand in its own right, one that emboldens the Netflix name and tells audiences (whether subscribed or not) that the streaming service is the home of high quality, popular shows that people talk about. And, with this kind of prestige product, comes the need to make it clear that the show is part of a wider ‘content portfolio’ (I know, gross).

Creating a look and feel for any sub-brand is a tricky business. Lean too heavily into the existing brand and it won’t feel different enough. Stray too far from it and it will feel completely disconnected. For Stranger Things Season 3, Netflix let fans know the show was returning with a teaser poster that once again built on the concept of 1980s genre movie artwork, but also left enough space to push the main brand into the material, reminding casual audiences of its status as ‘A Netflix Original Series’. Aside from saying as much in bold white text alongside a pretty large Netflix logo, the poster also uses a serifed font and colour treatment that is, frankly, unmistakably Netflix in look and feel.

The chosen image puts the show’s familiar cast front and centre, cautiously encouraging the viewer to join them on this next terrifying adventure. However, take the aforementioned branded elements away from the poster and… I’m not sure it’s very compelling. Without knowing who these characters are, what does the poster tell me? Presumably the purple leg things are a threat? If so, why do the kids not look scared? Why are only two of them looking this way? Do the fireworks mean something? Should I know all this already? This isn’t a poster designed to pull in new viewers, but remind audiences that Stranger Things lives on Netflix. It’s not an ad for the product (or sub-brand) it’s an ad for the platform (or brand).

Just to illustrate what I mean, let’s compare how a big studio approaches a teaser. Universal Pictures has a well established brand dating back over a century, but for this first Fast & Furious 9 poster, the company logo is barely visible. Even in the final trailer, the famous ident doesn’t appear until 00:32 and even then it’s for less than two seconds. The difference is, Universal Pictures isn’t trying to sell itself, it’s trying to sell a product. And that product is the ninth instalment of a franchise whose brand identity is already very, very strong. So strong in fact, that it can drop the whole Fast & Furious part of its name and just go by F9 – and people still know what it is.

And that NOS-fuelled level of confidence extends to the choice of image. Like the Stranger Things poster, it may not tell us much about the film or win over any new viewers, but what it does is target the existing fan base assertively and directly. There’s no wide-eyed hopeful invite to the audience, no gentle encouragement to join the cast on a new adventure. Instead, Universal Pictures assumes our enthusiasm by sitting us right in Dominic Torreto’s car, strapped in and patiently waiting for him to get off his arse and drive. If he’s even noticed us, that is.

Of course, these are very different products, being sold by very different companies, with very different business models. But for me that’s what is so interesting. The global pandemic may have allowed Netflix to assert its continued dominance over streaming, but this has only galvanised its status as public enemy number one to the big studios. Of course, some of these have hit back hard with their own streaming services, but for the most part, Disney+, Hulu and HBO Max still tend to place the brand emphasis on the product, not the platform.

With these streaming services now finally taking a chunk out of the Netflix market share and consumers slowly but surely (if Marvel’s early numbers on Shang-Chi are any thing to go by) returning to theatres, is treating a film or show like a sub-brand sustainable? Or is now the time to let the designers go wild and excite audiences with more daring posters, teasers and innovative campaigns? Honestly, I really hope it’s the latter. Your move Netflix.

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