The shift from brands and advertising to pipes and subscriptions is inevitable — and well underway. Want proof? Look to Disney.
Terms like ‘Disneyflix’ and ‘Apple Prime’ essentially describe how the most powerful global brand owners are coming to terms with the new rules of engagement. This is not just another story of new versus old, it’s a fundamental shift in the natural order of consumerism. Brands have traditionally been prized, while distribution has been more commoditized. The ‘must have’ things held the power. But if the pipes into people’s lives have become more powerful than the products that go through them, then we’re in the beginning of a new era. and the change is just beginning.
Brands to Pipes.
Why would the utility of pipes beat the romance of brands? It’s easy to misinterpret our love of convenience as love for brands. People are promiscuous, and even our favorite brands can be replaced if something better asserts itself.
Possibly the greatest value of brands for consumers is familiarity. Decisions are stressful, brands provide familiar terms. This is especially useful in everyday items — the majority of the buying decisions we face. People routinely stick with underperforming products rather than trying unfamiliar ones.
Low friction purchasing, epitomized by ordering something from Alexa without getting off the couch, could be a substitute for the very reason brands work — it’s easier. Take some of my decisions away and get me the best stuff.
Brands have always fought for a place in consumers’ hearts, and then relied on their loyalty for repeat business. Pipes are structural relationships that don’t rely on such fickle factors. They are built on more vertically integrated distribution channels and behave more like utilities — a way into people’s homes and lives attached to an account.
Amazon is the ultimate pipe. Their entire value is that they bring things to you — the things can change as necessary: movies, pickles, sneakers. They own the interface, the invisible moving parts, and the household. They understand your preferences intimately and have become arbiters of choice in many homes.
Nespresso is a less intimidating example. You used to buy whatever coffee beans appealed to you at that point in time. Now you buy pods from the people that invented the machine that makes the best coffee in town — in your kitchen. Take my money.
As more categories become saturated with options, promises, ads, etc., people will be more likely to avoid or outsource decision making. Obviously trust is the key hurdle here, but brands don’t command as much trust as they used to. The transparency of the internet has killed a lot of the magic. Brands that make overly ambitious promises routinely get dragged down to earth by the crowd. Trust has been replaced with the certainty of reviews — a more transparent and democratic substitute.
Alexa, buy batteries. You get a big pack of generic batteries, rated 4.5 stars for a good price delivered to your home. Do we really need brands with brand managers and media agencies competing for our attention or do we just need batteries for the remote?
If pipes offer simplified decision making, better value and validation — then brands as we know them lose their value.
Ads to Subscriptions
Advertising was unsustainable from the beginning, for two key reasons. Firstly, when a market fills up, everyone needs to shout louder to get heard, until the noise drowns everything out and a vicious cycle sets in to the detriment of all. Secondly, advertisers pay to reach people, but the audience also pays, with perhaps the most precious resource of all, their attention. You pay attention, and our attentions are more burdened than ever.
This is the perfect recipe for people to opt out, should we give them a way to, and we have. In a very short span of time, ads have gone from having captive audiences to being avoidable. Social feeds are designed to skip over anything that doesn’t interest you. Fast forwarding over TV ads is great, but watching ad free content (Netflix) is even better.
The paradox of the connected world is that we have more ways to reach people but it’s becoming harder to connect with them.
With the fractions of attention brands can now hope to get online, new ad formats have to hook and hold audiences with fundamentally different types of storytelling, often with more tenuous links to the advertiser. Interesting brands with good stories to tell are benefiting from this, while those struggling to remain relevant are now struggling to communicate as well.
Brands have to continuously invest in communication to drive repeat sales. They have to earn each discretionary purchase. Subscription offerings get repeat business until something goes wrong, so they are measured on a more functional basis. They also get virtually free access to customers once those customers have opted in.
Access to people has become harder and more expensive. Subscription offerings save on these costs and can price their offerings more competitively. Conversely, the brands stuck in the shouting match have to pass an increasing media bill on to their customers. In some highly competitive industries, the bulk of what consumers are paying for when they buy a product is the cost of marketing that product. This erosion of value makes industries ripe for disruptive alternatives. Hence Hollywood and Netflix.
If you go to your local supermarket, you’ll know instantly we do not live in a post-advertising world. We still buy brands, and brands are still built through advertising.
We occupy two worlds simultaneously though. In that same supermarket people have smartphones and apps tucked away that are solving more and more of their problems and diverting money from traditional brands.
The old world with advertising is stalling as people’s attention is being hijacked by their phones, while a new world is growing rampantly. Advertising as we know it isn’t just in a difficult transition to a new medium, it’s losing its relevance. Expecting people to allow us to interrupt them to sell our wares is not a safe bet for the future. Similarly, building brands that rely on loyalty alone doesn’t offer security in the long run.
Post-advertising isn’t the end of advertising, and certainly not the end of brands. It’s the rise of a different way of thinking. How can we sidestep the noise and connect with people meaningfully? How can I own my distribution and interface freely with my customers? How can we lighten their load?
Was it Netflix’s ads that made you try their service or did you hear about its novelty from a friend? How about Uber? Bet you don’t remember seeing a Facebook ad before you signed up. They are the minority of businesses that currently occupy the post-advertising world. To new generations of consumers the way these services work isn’t novel, it’s normal.
For the many companies that rely on the power of brands, like Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Nike and Disney, the future holds much uncertainty. Their options boil down to adapt or don’t. Not adapting carries the risk of becoming a price taker in the long run. Adapting can be either through building your own pipe infrastructure, not an easy task and especially difficult for companies not born out of technology, or renting someone else’s pipe and ceding power to them and again facing the potential of long term decline.
Disney has chosen the former. Soon they will launch their subscription video competitor to Netflix. With a lot on the line, a transformation of epic proportions lies ahead. Whether it’s successful or not, it speaks volumes that the owner of the most magical brands in the world is entering the pipe race.
The list of advantages pipes and subscriptions have over brands and ads is overwhelming: more consistent income and cash flow, lower marketing costs, better access to customers, more flexibility and control of customer experience, better valuations and access to capital, better quality data and potential for AI. As these factors compound, the shift in the balance of power will accelerate.
The big pipes have been laid. New rules have been written. Expectations have changed. People are signing up or awaiting service in their area. Bet on accelerating and ultimately massive change ahead in what and how we buy.