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"Netflix's Branding Genius: Keeping Us Hooked" — Usman Sheikh, Marketing CEO

Usman Sheikh (00:00): My name is Usman Sheikh, I'm the founder and CEO of a digital marketing company called Web Worx Labs. And I'm also a college instructor that teaches strategy and marketing. And today my love letter and discussion is about Netflix.

Sam Thorogood (00:27): Welcome to Branding Love Letters, exploring the emotions brands evoke and the journeys they take us on. I'm Sam Thorogood, a graphic designer and your host. In each episode, I invite a guest to pick their favourite brand and unpack why it means so much to them. This podcast is a celebration of the branding that informs, impacts and inspires us. So, without further ado...

Usman Sheikh (01:10): Yeah, so when I was in university and I'm dating myself because Netflix at that point was still doing DVD rentals through the mail. Uh, and that's how that company came about. Uh, and I, um, was exposed to giving it a shot because at that point we're working with a very limited budget and we didn't have the internet in our pockets the way we do with the smartphone. So, uh, everybody got DVDs and rented out and for us it was Blockbusters or what have you. And at that time, that was the best place to go get movies. And given we were students, uh, and, and we had very limited budget that $8 appeal to get something on your mobile with a WiFi, with unlimited access to entertainment, uh, was an instant connection. Um, and I got exposed to it at that time and I was like, what is this? Um, and, uh, ever since then, I have let go.

Sam Thorogood (02:11): And what was it about the brand that initially drew you in, piqued your interest?

Usman Sheikh (02:15): Well, it was, it was as, as a student in a university, you know, you look for something that is no frills, that is, uh, simple promise, and that gives you a tremendous amount of value, uh, in a very, uh, limited price, uh, something that's intuitive and easy to use, uh, something that uses technology, uh, and, uh, you know, all of those things kind of attracted me towards it. Uh, initially, uh, obviously the logo, the design, the intuitiveness of the, the platform, when you do log in all those, those things help reinforce that, that, that initial impression. Uh, but, uh, it was definitely just like, you know, when you're looking, uh, to get lunch, you go to places that provide a lot of good food or stuff a box. And I felt like for us and me and my friends, uh, Netflix was like, hey, for $8, you get all this value.

(03:10): And it's like, yes, I must go to it and try it out. And you don't have to worry about late fees or dropping your DVDs back or be gouged, uh, from, uh, the competition at that time. And for us, I was like, yes, this is a no-brainer. Although the programming and the, the amount of, um, you know, uh, the, uh, content that's there now was nowhere near what it is now, because it wasn't, it was just starting out, but for the value and for the entertainment, uh, and, and, and the price value, it was just phenomenal.

Sam Thorogood (03:40): Have you seen it change a lot, you know, so comparing it now to, to what it was when you first came across it, what's, what's changed?

Usman Sheikh (03:48): Oh, it's, it's grown so much, and I've loved the journey that it's been on, it's, you know, from something that was a DVD rental company in a mail order company that would, you know, you would get a DVD mailed to your door, and it would say, okay, you would have some time to return it. And if you can't return it, we'll just charge you 10 bucks and you can keep the DVD. That in itself was a very innovative concept to becoming a streaming app in a time when there weren't a lot of companies that were even considering in fact, a lot of company companies and it's competition and category, uh, discounted this, uh, business model altogether. It took so much guts to take that leap saying, Hey, we're gonna become an internet company that only provides, uh, uh, you know, this form of entertainment online while everybody was doubling down on, you know, doing DVD rentals and hardware and have, and Blu-ray were still a thing at that point and DVDs.

(04:46): And they said, no, we're gonna get away from all that. And we're gonna go in a subscription model only, and we're gonna get away from this DVD. That milestone was like, you know, I was like, wow, somebody has so much guts, cause they're gonna go through and literally shed the skin that they were born from and start something completely different yet still providing the same end goal to the user, which is great entertainment. Uh, and that milestone to where they then grew into, um, you know, uh, providing and building original content. And I think at one point they introduced something called 'House of Cards'. And, uh, at that point, obviously, uh, we didn't know Kevin Spacey was a predator and, you know, um, and, and unfortunately, um, you know, he ended up, uh, being very, uh, bad human being, uh, and, uh, obviously he's done, but at that point when it was introduced and that character development, that original story and content production, uh, it was in line and, and, uh, and as good as HBO content or content that requires a lot of scaled armies and very specialised people to produce and develop.

(05:56): And Netflix came about instead of becoming a streaming device to a production powerhouse. So they continued evolving and growing over the years, and now they're growing even more and they're exploring, innovating into new territories, new areas and new experiences. That's what I love about the brand. It's so about the customer, it's all about being ahead of the game and providing so much value that others don't see and it's okay to learn and it's okay to fail. Uh, and it does fail. It does see setbacks. And there were times when Reed Hastings, the, the founder and CEO of the company struggled and was the brink of bankruptcy because of the guts. And, uh, they even went and asked Blockbuster to buy them out because they were struggling so much and Blockbuster said no. And imagine where Blockbuster would be here to if they ended up saying yes, but it took guts and it took courage. And that's what I love about the brand. It's, it's always about the customer. And it's always about the innovation about originality.

Sam Thorogood (06:54): Have you always been a film fan?

Usman Sheikh (06:57): I love good storytelling. You know, I love storytelling so much that I actually write stories. Uh, I create a lot of social content and campaigns for our clients, and that's why I kind of fall in love with the career that I'm in. Um, I love design. I love, uh, you know, um, um, any kind of, uh, ways where you can showcase and engage an audience and obviously a platform that provides original content or provides, uh, ways to kind of absorb you into a story is phenomenal. And obviously I'm, I gravitate towards it, uh, into stories so much now that I actually watch stories outside of like the English language I, I played around with, you know, Korean dramas. I do a lot of Japanese anime. I've done, you know, Bollywood, uh, and, and, and South American films. So it's because the story is so important and there's so much can be taken absorbed from the story, uh, that sticks with you and leaves such a memorable impression. And the beauty of that, all that is all those categories that I just mentioned are available in one platform, which is pretty powerful.

Sam Thorogood (08:05): What emotions does it evoke when you think of Netflix as a brand?

Usman Sheikh (08:09): Leadership? Uh, and I think about, uh, awe, uh, you know, I think about revolutionary-ness, uh, you know, I think about, uh, grit, I think about, you know, surprise and I, I do, you know, those are the things that, those are the words that jump out that evoke, uh, a certain sense of appeal towards this, um, uh, uh, this brand it's, it's all the powerful emotions and, uh, characters, characteristics that, uh, help me gravitate and keep me, uh, grounded and stay, uh, as, as loyal fan as I am with this brand. Right. So you definitely do, uh, feel like it's a strong, happy content feeling that yes, someone is doing the right things, that they have the right management, right. Engineers, right. Team members, right. Social and ground team that is really interested in providing unparalleled experience that leads the industry and, and, uh, and, and has done that for a long time and continues to do so.

Sam Thorogood (09:20): And off the back of that. Talk to me about the visual identity, um, and how you see that working in, in the broader picture of, of Netflix as a brand.

Usman Sheikh (09:28): Yeah. I mean, I think if you think about it, uh, I mean, we do design and development and, and local design at Web Worx Labs, uh, for a lot of our clients. So, you know, we study, uh, logos, um, and it's such a simple logo, you know, um, and the name itself is such a simple, you know, it's internet and it's movies. So flicks, you know, it's, it's, uh, and, um, the, the logo is intuitive, you know, it's Netflix because it's the N there. And, but I love the logo reveal and it makes sure it takes its time to emphasise that, especially when it's original programming is there, where that, you know, that awesome logo reveal that, you know, it's unique to the brand and they've, and emphasised it consistently in awesome manner with intuitive design. Um, they've evolved there with some colour differences and different palettes before it was white and it became black.

(10:20): And what have you, but the N has stayed there. The, the music and the audio cues are always consistent and, uh, just overall the design and feel the colour palette and, and the experiences are consistent, over the last 20 years, whether that red, that a shade of red and that hue in saturation has been consistent. And they've worked really hard to maintain that in every touchpoint they've had, whether it's through the social media, whether it's through their website, whether it's through the user experience within the app. And that says the commitment to good design and visual identity systems.

Sam Thorogood (11:51): We'll be back with today's guest in a short moment. I wanted to just jump in to say thank you. Thank you for, for listening, for choosing to listen to this podcast, um, above all of the other ones that you could be listening to right now. And also wanted to say that the podcast is released on the 14th of every month. There's a new episode that goes out on the 14th of the month. And normally it's just one episode, but this month there is more than one episode. So do check out what else has been released today, um, if you're enjoying this one, listen to the others and um, and, and do share the podcast with, with friends, with family, with colleagues, with cats and dogs and people in the street that you wander past, just, you know, spread the word about Branding Love Letters. Okay. Let's get back to the conversation.

(11:56): What has Netflix done that has really surprised you?

Usman Sheikh (12:00): Yeah, that's a great question. So, you know, to me, it really is, uh, the amount of programming that they've committed to, you know, they do continue to surprise every few years they do take big bold steps. And I think that's in the nature of the industry, or, you know, uh, now that before they had the first move advantage, so, and they took the lion's share of market share, but now because other competitors, including Prime, including Hulu, including YouTube and so many more different subscription, uh, services out there, uh, and even the traditional TV programming such as HBO and HBO Max, they're all going to, to online streaming, uh, solutions. In fact, the channels are becoming obsolete, it's all online streaming channels, but they continue to invest in new ways to, uh, keep their, uh, their consumers happy and ultimately deliver on a subscription platform that's unique and different.

(13:02): So right now, like, uh, initially I had mentioned, you know, they got into original content, became a production company. They had enough subscription, enough cash that they actually started producing their own content. They got the, you know, equipment, they got the environment, they got the actors, the writers, what have you, uh, and, and they produce art that was original. And that was revolutionary at the time for streaming companies to do. Now, they're getting into different types of experiences, and I'm sure with artificial intelligence and VR and AR, then again into even more, uh, more different types of experiences, they've gone ahead. And, you know, a place started playing around with, uh, new games, uh, and ways to create now the games aren't working out from what I have been able to research and have tried out their games, but I like the fact that they're doing it, right.

(13:47): I like the fact that they're experimenting and finding new ways to keep the experience different and unique and engaging on their platform. You know, I also do like the fact that they invest because they're producing so much content and there's so much need and hunger for good content. They're investing in local communities in the arts sectors to bring in original programming. A lot of the shows are coming from, you know, independent films that Netflix has subsidised or invested in sponsored in, uh, to build a unique, so 'Stranger Things' was an example of this, right? There was, uh, the two brothers that really did, I forgot their names, but they didn't really have much going for them. They did some indie films and basic screenwriting, and it gave them a platform. And to go ahead, explore, create something beautiful. And how powerful was that for the brand. And there's been a lot of different types of programming like that. And, and, and, and story building that they've been able to do because it's taken such a collaborative approach in creating great art. That's powerful.

Sam Thorogood (14:49): Do you have any particular favourite kind of Netflix originals that have come out over the past few years?

Usman Sheikh (14:54): That's I dunno if I have a favorite, because there's so many bloody good stories.

Sam Thorogood (14:59): There's so many right? They just keep chucking them out.

Usman Sheikh (15:00): And how they've really, yeah. They keep chucking them out and it's hard, uh, to in fact, I, I can't even keep up with how, and I think that's a good problem, but it's, uh, you know, um, it definitely, there are too many, uh, I wouldn't be able to name them if I could say that I had one, but I know the, you know, uh, uh, what really solidified it was that first season of 'House of Cards'. It, uh, that work was very, very, uh, powerful and pivotal and, uh, really bringing in and I'm like, OK, this is HBO quality. What have I just witnessed? And there's been a lot of series like that. There's been so many.

Sam Thorogood (15:40): I still remember seeing that first poster for 'House of Cards' on the Tube in London. And I just remember it, you know, vividly the, you know, him sitting on the chair with like the blood running down the sides and the Netflix logo at the bottom. And I was just like, what is this? You know, how, how are, how has this online platform funded this? You know, I just remember being, it was so exciting at the start.

Usman Sheikh (16:01): And, but there was so much depth to the story, you know, it was, it was insane. And like, everything from what they created was just so detailed.

Sam Thorogood (16:11): Yeah. Ha have there been any times where it's been quite hard to love the brand, maybe they've made decisions or put things out that you you've disagreed with, that you thought was the wrong, the wrong path. You talked about the games that they've been experimenting with and haven't quite landed. Are there other areas where you sort of feel?

Usman Sheikh (16:28): Yeah, so, you know, um, you know, I know, um, they're, they're working really hard to kind of feed this in, you know, not sustainable appetite for content, and we have become such consumers of content, original programming and storytelling. And there's so many vast differences in audiences. I do find that over the last couple of years, and I think they're making a turnaround again, where they produce way too much quantity and focus on quantity or quality. I do hope that they go back and really understand that, uh, quality is a lot harder to produce, and it comes in a lot less quantity because it's just so much more focus and, and so much more depth. And, but that's what brings in the folks. That's what brings in subscriber base. That's what brings in loyalty. Right. And I do find that, uh, when I did watch them, hey, you know what?

(17:22): This quality could have been better. There wasn't enough character development. So they've, they've come to expect them as a production house instead of streaming service. And they do produce an original programming. But if they, I feel like if they go for quality over quantity and they stay down this path, which I know they're reverting back, cuz over the last few times that I've, uh, spent a lot of time on Netflix, their quality's improved again. And I'm seeing it go back to the eight outta 10 on IMDB, what have you. And if they stay down that path, I think that's where they're gonna continue maintaining their loyalty and uh, top tier market share in the industry.

Sam Thorogood (17:59): How would you summarise your personal journey with, with Netflix?

Usman Sheikh (18:04): So I'm a lifer if, you know, if they keep innovating and delivering, it's hooked me since I was an undergrad, my family, and now all my friends and uh, uh, folks that I know anybody, they know Netflix, whether you, uh, want to, or not, Netflix is a, a household brand and for the right reason I was hooked early on. And, uh, they haven't given me, uh, a reason to, to switch out and it's been 20 odd years. That's a long time, I can't remember. And that's part of their reason. Uh, this is I'm here in the brand love letters. I don't think I can remember a brand, uh, that I've stuck with for maybe 20 years. Maybe even the exception of, yeah, I don't know. Um, like there aren't, and maybe there's in my, there's a handful of brands that I've stuck with that long.

Sam Thorogood (18:53): Usman, tell, tell people about where they can connect with you, find what you're doing and, um, yeah. Find you online.

Usman Sheikh (18:59): Yeah, absolutely. So, uh, I am a founder of a digital marketing company that we started about eight years ago. We do predominantly design, development, social media, and now we're really being into video video production, video editing with storytelling is part of the storytelling element that my team and I love, um, and we can be found on Web Worx Labs, W E B W O R X L A BS, uh, dot com. Uh, we can also be found on all more social media platform, whether Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, and stuff, Facebook, what have you and YouTube, um, do check us out. And if you're, if you know a friend or family, or if you need help from a design development perspective, we're always a call or a quick chat away.

Sam Thorogood (19:47): Fantastic. And then finally, I'd love for you just to share the, the love letter that you've prepared for, for Netflix.

Usman Sheikh (19:54): I've been on a couple of other shows I've seen, uh, a couple of other shows, uh, episodes of your podcast. There's some definitely very intimate ones. Uh, I'm not sure this will hold the same level, but, uh, I'll give it, thank you. It is what it is. Okay. Uh, dear Netflix, uh, thank you for coming into my life when I was in university and holding my hand and staying with me throughout my journey for the last two decades. Thank you for being reliable. Thank you for being there when I was bummed. Thank you for being there when I'm happy. And thank you for being there when I'm just bored. For me, you're been able to create so many memories with my loved ones. My wife, my kids, my parents, my brothers and sisters, and my friends. That's saying a lot. I don't know a lot of other people or brands that can say that.

(20:44): Thank you for being there and understanding what I like and what I don't like and sharing those things only. I notice you try new things every now and then, and I also see you trying to keep others happy in other industries and other taste as well. It's not a simple task and I commend you for taking it on, but most importantly, thank you for continuing to grow and thank you for allowing me to stay with you. Um, by keeping your promise day in, day out, everyone in the team at Netflix, from the management to the social team, to the brand team, to the leadership, to the engineers, to the back office, accountants, you know, I mean the operations team. You're an awesome company. And you took so, so many challenging decisions that took guts do something that was so disruptive in a very saturated industry that had thought excessive fees. Gouging is customers. Thank you for changing that industry and making it better for, for everyone. Keep going and keep taking me with you. I'm a lifer.

Sam Thorogood (21:48): Well, Usman, thank you very much for letting us hear your branding love letter.

Usman Sheikh (21:53): Oh, no worries. I know it wasn't as, as good as some of the, especially I think the lady, Instant Pot, that blogger was phenomenal. I think, uh,

Sam Thorogood (22:01): Well, yours, yours was excellent too. Thank you very much for, for sharing and coming on the podcast. We appreciate it.

Usman Sheikh (22:05): Hey, no problem. It's been, been a blast.

Sam Thorogood (22:09): You've been listening to Branding Love Letters and I've been Sam Thorogood. I'm on a mission: equip pioneers like you to bring others onto your journey. Come and find out more at Thanks for listening. Oh, and big thanks to Thomas Thorogood for the music. Take it away, Tommy boy.

Sam Thorogood | Pilgrimage Design