Brand and UX must not be forgotten in the streaming wars.

The effect for streaming services that prioritise content over brand and a well-designed experience could be “catastrophic”.

In his famous 1996 essay Content is King, Bill Gates predicted that “content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting”. And how right he was. Content is now the supreme weapon for brands vying for your attention in the streaming wars. Content is the reason why Disney pulled its owned IP away from Netflix and has invested heavily in promoting its huge catalogue heavy-hitters, from Marvel to Pixar to Star Wars. Consequently, this is also why Netflix has been forced to invest upwards of  $17.5bn on original content this year.

Much has been made over this scramble for content. But in reality it’s only half the battle. The user experience of the brand and the design systems of these streaming services are every bit as important as the content itself. If content is king, then the brand is the throne on which it sits.

It begins with brand.

Nike doesn’t sell trainers – it sells the idea of you becoming a better athlete. Apple doesn’t sell Macs and iPhones – it sells the idea of changing the world with technology.

These attitudes tell an audience what to expect – that’s how a brand that fits into the lives of audiences grows a relationship. Channel 4’s editorial perspective means audiences can expect sharp, alternative content whether it is a comedy, drama or documentary. With HBO audiences expect gritty, adult content with complex narratives.

“We have great exclusive content” isn’t a value. You need to offer a unique perspective on the world. In streaming, Disney+ isn’t access to exclusive content – it’s access to magic, dreams and life’s great stories. These values allow brands to resonate in people’s lives.

Brand is an experience.

Equally the brand equity of Apple and Disney also means users expect a quality experience – despite neither having ventured into the streaming arena before. The strength of the brand gets you into the life of audiences – whether that’s on a TV, or as an app on their phone – the quality of the content and the system that delivers it then connects them to the service. Design plays a key role here.

A design system needs to be robust and have a strong theory. This means you need a system which is agile and capable of adapting to the audience wherever they are experiencing it – from watching via a tablet on a plane to watching at home on the sofa. The design must seamlessly delight in every moment of the experience. Every interaction is the brand. But design must also deliver against the brand voice and values.

It is difficult to avoid getting lost in the sea of sameness when creating such a design system. There is a typical ‘way’ of delivering content – data can inform where is the best place to put a particular thing on the screen – but you need to remain conscious of your own brand and ensure you are distinct from the competition.

If you let data systemise your design, you will end up competing on the same field as everyone else. If you let brand values systemise your design, you can create something unique that differentiates you in the minds of audiences.

Disney can’t feel like Netflix. A system that works well but looks like an Excel sheet would still discourage users. Design needs to be both highly-functional and embossed with the personality of your brand.

Making design deliver.

The need to balance brand personality vs user experience is the cause of friction between designers and developers worldwide. But the sense of discovery and excitement needs to be balanced with the reality of keeping people hooked. Take Netflix introducing auto-playing trailers for its original content. These techniques might effectively attract user attention and increase awareness – but does it ultimately have a negative effect on the user experience?Streaming services should be conscious that every interaction is the brand. A user may love Breaking Bad but if the design system that delivers it is jarring it is potentially more damaging to the Netflix brand than a bad show. It is important to delight as much in the small moments as you do in the big. While working to reimagine the All 4 experience we created the streaming ‘playbar’ – a brand system which expanded horizontally to become an infinite stream connecting every channel and every show. This created an experience which was slick and effortless across TV and digital interfaces and delivered a unified All 4 experience for users. During our work redesigning an American network streaming service, we faced the challenge of finding the right balance between how the UX serves the fan and the optimum level of brand visibility. We understood that the content needed to take centre stage – so we developed a design system which steps into the background to connect fans to the content they love as quickly as possible. A successful design system balances the content and the brand to put a smile in the mind of its users.

Thinking beyond streaming.

Bill Gates was right to recognise the power of the internet to distribute content. But when it comes to determining who will emerge as the streaming king, content alone is not enough. In the world of streaming if you remove tentpole content from a brand that isn’t strong, the brand will collapse. Whereas tentpole content that is removed from a strong brand can be replaced. Strong brands have the ability to cut through a crowded place. But a strong brand needs a strong perspective. The brand that will claim this throne is the one which makes an intuitive leap into the future and moves away from the conventions we have seen emerge. You can’t iterate your way to transformational change. Services need to think beyond streaming. The term isn’t fit for purpose. It suggests that the act of streaming is a one-way relationship with the viewer passively being delivered content. If you think about the process in terms of streaming you are forgetting about what really excites audiences. Brand, content and user experience all need to merge to deliver on the viewer’s terms. That’s what keeps us watching.