If the ultimate measure of a brand is what you do, not what you say, then Netflix is underperforming seriously. The company brags that “Netflix members can watch as much as they want, anytime, anywhere, on nearly any Internet-connected screen” and that members have can “instantly watch unlimited movies and TV shows streaming over the Internet.” But in reality, members have access to a very limited streaming inventory a problem exacerbated by the newly announced HBO/Universal Pictures agreement that will box out Netflix for the next decade. And recent high-profile service outages have made a mockery of the promise of “anytime, anywhere” viewing. Netflix would do well to start taking accountability for its brand and consider revising its brand promise to manage the expectations of its members.
As has been widely reported, Netflix suffered embarrassing service outages on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Netflix blamed Amazon Web Services for the Christmas Eve outage, and Amazon took accountability by apologizing and explaining the outage. Well, blaming Amazon Web Services helps members understand what happened, but the problem is that no one really wants to hear explanations, nor should they. We don’t need to know how the sausage is made; if we get a faulty product, we need accountability.
But for all the bad PR the services outages caused, a bigger, more ongoing threat to the Netflix brand consists of limited streaming inventory — a shortcoming Netflix attempted to redress with its December 2012 play for exclusive rights to Walt Disney Studios, only to suffer a setback in January 2013 when HBO and Universal agreed to a distribution arrangement that blocks Netflix from crucial content for years.
You don’t stream movies on demand on Netflix; you watch whatever Netflix can make available to you. In recent days, I wanted to watch four movies that Netflix lacked online: Breakdown, The Dead Zone (the 1983 version), Executive Decision, and Waiting for Guffman. In three out of four cases, the movies I wanted were available on DVD only, and the fourth, not at all. These are just recent examples. Too often, Netflix is not a place for me to stream a specific movie that I have in mind, especially with catalog titles — a major problem for the affluent and growing Baby Boomer population, which has money to spend and movie memories that date back a lot farther than The Hunger Games. Clearly, Netflix has a long way to go in order to fulfill its brand promise for people who want to stream movies. And remember, Netflix wants you to stream movies. This is the company that tried to foist streaming on its customers in the first place.
So what’s the solution? I think Netflix should take accountability where it matters: price. When a movie you want is not available, Netflix should offer you a rebate. When Netflix suffers an outage, Netflix should offer you a price break. Would putting its money where its mouth is motivate Netflix to become a high-performance brand? Moreover, Netflix could address the shortage of streaming inventory by revising its brand promise and setting expectations. For instance, movie service Fandor sets expectations by promising members “an online destination for watching amazing independent films from all over the world.”
You won’t find Die Hard on Fandor, but you’ll have success with more esoteric movies such as the 1921 Buster Keaton comedy Hard Luck. By contrast, Netflix has engineered itself to disappoint by positioning itself as something of an all-purpose movie rental destination, which it certainly is not. Is Netflix the preferred brand for television enthusiasts? For recently run movies? I don’t know, but I’d like for Netflix to tell me. Unless Netflix does a better job protecting its brand, ironically Amazon will eat Netflix for lunch.