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Showtime and Hulu Explain Why Their Brands are Pulling Double Duty

Two names, four products: will it confuse consumers?

Showtime and Hulu are both doubling up on product names.

Do you use Hulu, or Hulu? And do you subscribe to Showtime, or Showtime?

No, those weren't typos. The two words I repeated in the previous paragraph are actually referring to four separate products: Hulu has dropped the "Plus" from its Hulu Plus subscription service, meaning that Hulu now refers to both the "free" and "paid" versions of Hulu. And Showtime's upcoming standalone subscription streaming service, which launches early next month, will also be called Showtime.

The sudden double duty on the part of both brands grew even more confusing earlier this week, as Hulu and Showtime announced a partnership: Showtime (the network) will offer Showtime (the streaming service), as a premium addition for users of Hulu (the subscription), but not Hulu (the free version). Got all that? 

As head-scratching as it all sounds right now, both Hulu and Showtime, as well as brand experts, maintain that their respective brands' long-term gains will more than make up for any short-term confusion.

Hulu said it made the change after noticing that consumers were confused about the Hulu and Hulu Plus brand distinctions, with Hulu being the far more recognizable brand of the two. By eliminating Hulu Plus, the company hopes to create a consistent brand and alleviate—not cause—market confusion. 

The company revealed it was phasing out the Hulu Plus name at its April NewFronts presentation—CEO Mike Hopkins said its removal will make for a "more focused brand" (Amy Poehler later joked, "Our condolences to the Plus in Hulu Plus.")—though that news was overshadowed by the announcement that the service had landed exclusive SVOD rights to Seinfeld.

Since the NewFronts, Hulu has slowly been phasing out Hulu Plus. With the transition now mostly complete, Hulu shared the news in an email to subscribers last week, announcing that it was "retiring the Hulu Plus name," adding, "though the name is changing, your subscription is not."

As for Showtime, the network explained during its June 3 announcement that it had settled on Showtime as the name for its streaming service (HBO's standalone service is called HBO Now) because Showtime is "a brand already embraced by consumers as the home for cutting-edge original programming, sports and movies."

And because the services being offered are identical (unlike HBO Now, the Showtime streaming service will also include live access to the network's East Coast and West Coast feeds), the company decided that Showtime was the easiest, clearest name for the new product.

But it's not just the two outlets that are insisting that the Hulu and Showtime decision will ultimately be a boon for the brands. Tom Sepanski, naming and verbal identity director at Landor, says Hulu and Showtime's decision will have long-term brand benefits.

"From a branding standpoint, it makes total sense," said Sepanski, explaining that for Hulu, "the real Hulu—the most fully realized expression of that brand promise—is Hulu Plus. So you want the most fully realized expression of that brand promise to hold a descriptor, then you're actually diminishing the brand of just Hulu. Hulu becomes Hulu Minus. So that is more of a corrective move on their part: they want to push more people toward Hulu Plus. If Hulu has their way, more people are going to be experiencing the Hulu Plus brand than they are the Hulu brand, and that's what they needed to change."

Sepanski said Showtime's move was also smart. "The promise of Showtime is great original content and great movies that you're going to get whenever you need them, so why would you differentiate between the Showtime master brand and these different levels of content delivery? It should just be Showtime," he said.

"This could also be a predictive move on their part, where they're saying, potentially, there's a future where more people are experiencing the Showtime brand through this delivery method than they are through traditional cable mediums. It's like saying, if more people are experiencing HBO Now than HBO, then why would you call it HBO Now? So five years from now, HBO could be making a similar decision, saying, 'Hey, we've got more HBO Now subscribers than we do HBO subscribers, so we've got to correct that.'"

Despite the short-term confusion as users get their terminology sorted out, Sepanski says if the products deliver, consumers won't hold a grudge. "If the actual experience exceeds expectations, and people love the mobile version of Showtime and it's comparable to or better than HBO Now, then they're going to be a little more willing to do that work on the part of the brand," said Sepanski. 

However, if users aren't enamored with Showtime's streaming serivce, "then that extra work they're asking their consumers to do is going to be arduous, and potentially build some consumer resentment."

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