HBO Max Unveils a Condensed Marketing Push Ahead of Its May 27 Debut

Streaming service ‘had to recalibrate’ amid Covid-19 pandemic

HBO Max marketing rolling out this week juxtaposes major WarnerMedia and HBO characters.
HBO Max

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Earlier this year, WarnerMedia Entertainment was planning an extensive three-month marketing blitz for its upcoming streaming service, HBO Max. The new platform would get heavy billing during tent-pole spring sports events like the NCAA Tournament, March Madness and the start of the Major League Baseball season ahead of its May 27 debut, plus a glitzy Met Gala sponsorship, a major presence at the TCM Classic Film Festival and experiential activations and retail tie-ins galore.

Of course, a lot has changed in the past two months thanks to Covid-19. Amid the ongoing pandemic, major sporting events are canceled, as are most in-person gatherings. Retail stores are closed and major galas and festivals have been canceled or postponed. HBO Max, however, is still going forward as planned, announcing its premiere date on Tuesday, but the upcoming service’s marketing plans have undergone a major makeover to match the “new normal.”

“It’s kind of a crazy time to be launching any product given the anxiety and the economic uncertainty that we’ve all been experiencing over the last months,” said Chris Spadaccini, the chief marketing officer of WarnerMedia Entertainment. “I don’t know if any marketer would choose to launch a new product in this environment, but people are streaming more content than ever and looking for an escape from reality. So in some ways, the timing and current climate could actually work to our advantage.”

Retesting creative to be pandemic-proof

Luckily for Spadaccini and his team, rejiggering HBO Max’s marketing plan didn’t mean tossing out its existing creative. Messaging rolling out in earnest this week is centered on educating consumers about what HBO Max offers and how it differs from the HBO brand, an approach that had been in the works for months. This week, the company began distributing trailers promoting the service that show off iconic scenes and characters from across the HBO Max catalog.

“We don’t need to beat our chest about quality, because you see it right there on the screen, but what we do need to do is explain that HBO Max is more than HBO, not more of HBO,” Spadaccini said. “That’s why our messaging strategy needs to be simple, and it needs to be expository, and we landed on ‘where HBO meets so much more.’”

The messaging is aimed at highlighting the expansive nature of the service while leaning into nostalgia. The brand’s tone, Spadaccini explained, aims to read as warmer and more approachable than HBO’s. It’s a balancing act that requires showing the connective tissue with the HBO brand without making HBO Max seem too similar to HBO itself.

“HBO Max is designed to be expansive, and it’s going to offer new content for different members of the family who have different tastes, but it is still evoking that premium quality that HBO represents,” Spadaccini said.

The company scrapped early messaging that highlighted WarnerMedia linear brands like TNT and TBS, which Spadaccini said, “furthered confusion” about what HBO Max was. Instead, the marketing team homed in on highlighting the best of the service’s library, testing titles with consumers to see which ones drove the highest levels of interest and intent.

Certain shows, like Game of Thrones, Wonder Woman and Looney Tunes, were unsurprisingly popular, while others, including The Wizard of Oz and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, performed better than expected with consumers. Characters and scenes from all of those shows are featured prominently in creative that chops scenes and characters together to show off the variety of programming. In video and static ads, the marketing campaign juxtaposes well-known characters with one another.

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