Why Did HBO Max Become Max? Behind the Streamer’s Relaunch Strategy

This week, HBO Max faded to black — and was reborn as Max. But many people are still wondering: Why did Warner Bros. Discovery decide to change the name?

HBO, after all, remains a solid-gold brand representing premium-quality original TV shows, going back decades, from “The Sopranos” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to “Game of Thrones” and “Succession.” Meanwhile, Max, as observers have pointed out, is a pretty generic name from a branding standpoint. (Note that the Twitter handle @Max belongs to Instacart co-founder Max Mullen, while on Instagram it’s held by hockey star Max Domi, a forward for the Dallas Stars.)

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Here are the two basic reasons Warner Bros. Discovery chose to excise HBO from the HBO Max with the relaunch:

  • To signal a broader programming mix: HBO Max was positioned as the successor to HBO, but from the beginning included more than just what was on HBO proper. With Max, WBD has stuffed in a slew of nonfiction programming from the legacy Discovery Communications side of the house — Max features 35,000-plus hours of content, more than doubling the lineup over HBO Max. The company’s goal is to let “every member of the household… see whatever they want at any given time,” CEO David Zaslav said in announcing the new name last month. In a much-discussed slide from WBD’s Q2 2022 earnings report (see below), when it first announced the plan to merge HBO Max and Discovery+, the company said HBO Max had a “male skew” with a focus on scripted, while Discovery+ had a “female skew” with unscripted content. Anyway, the thinking was that the new Max name was needed to reflect that it’s a place where you can watch not only, say, “Euphoria” and “Barry” but also stuff like “90 Day Fiancé,” Jonathan and Drew Scott’s “Property Brothers” and Shark Week episodes. And while HBO is no longer in the name of the service, it retains a prominent position on Max, including having its own spot on the top of the home screen alongside “series,” “movies” and “new & notable” categories.

  • To make the flagship streamer look more “family friendly”: Warner Bros. Discovery executives ultimately felt that the HBO name was somehow restricting HBO Max’s uptake among households with children. “We all love HBO, and it’s a brand that has been built over five decades” to stand for “edgy, groundbreaking entertainment for adults,” WBD head of streaming JB Perrette said at the Max launch event in April. “But it’s not exactly where parents would most eagerly drop off their kids… Not surprisingly, the [kids’ content] category has not met his true potential on HBO Max.” The new Max includes a placeholder kids’ profile (which by default allows access only to content with PG and TV-PG ratings or lower) on the start screen for all new subscribers.

SEE ALSO: Max Launch: All the TV Shows, Movies Coming to Expanded Streaming Service

Zaslav also has said that Discovery+ churn rates are much lower than HBO Max. So the (untested) theory is that by massaging Discovery content into Max, the combo streamer will have lower churn (i.e. cancelation rates) as people discover more shows they love to watch — instead of, say, signing up for one season of a buzzy series or one tentpole movie and then bailing. “Driving [down] that churn may be more important than driving the growth,” Zaslav said on the Q1 earnings call. “If we can drive down the churn, the growth will be very substantial.”

All the same, senior execs “heavily debated” the name change, Perrette revealed. They did “look fairly briefly at various alternatives that could include Warner or include WB or could include the [HBO] brand,” he told reporters last month. “And we just felt like, that was sort of not necessary. We had Max, which was short, tight. Says something universal. Yes, the risk was ultimately that it’s sort of maybe less ownable because it’s a common word. But the flip side is that also made it very approachable and very easy. And when frankly, we found ourselves talking about the service, the shorthand was always ‘Max.’ We never said even ‘HBO’; we would just say, ‘It’s on Max.'”

Max launched in the U.S. on Tuesday, May 23, with what appeared to be only minor technical issues, aside from many users (depending on device platform) needing to manually download and log in to the new Max app. Warner Bros. Discovery also quickly announced it would reversed the move — made in the middle of the ongoing WGA’s writers strike — to lump together writers and directors in film listings on the new service.

Of course, how effective the transformation of HBO Max into Max will be in realizing WBD’s goals of attracting and retaining a broader base of subscribers remains to be seen.

HBO Max versus Discovery Plus - WBD Q2 2022 Earnings Slide
HBO Max versus Discovery Plus - WBD Q2 2022 Earnings Slide

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