“Qwikster,” Meet the Mailster.

In a refreshingly humble– almost supplicant– blog post, Netflix has finally explained the logic behind their unpopular and seemingly unsuccessful rate switch this July:

…we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. It’s hard for me to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary and best: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”.

We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming.

…At first blush, the logic of splitting DVD delivery from streaming makes sense to me: licensing for streaming and DVD rentals are two different beasts. I think they may have made this decision looking forward toward their recent parting of ways with Starz.

Even if it’s not the right decision, it will take a little while to shake out. But I can tell you, with twitter still reeling about Netflix’s announcement, one thing they definitely got wrong: the Qwikster branding.

The name is silly. I personally find the spelling painful. I doubt I’m alone in either of these opinions. But there’s also a really powerful historical echo to the name, that dates back to the 1950s. And it’s not a good association.

Let’s say you’re trying to think of a brand name that evokes the speed and efficiency of your service-by-mail. Is this the first thing you want (some) people to think of?

Photo courtesy National Postal Museum
The Mailster -- courtesy National Postal Museum

Qwikster, meet the Mailster.

Netflix, please note, the Mailster was one of the biggest flops of American postal engineering. It had trouble going up hills. Mail carriers complained of them filling with smoke. It couldn’t operate in three inches of snow. Some reported it could be knocked over by a large dog. And they had a high rate of injury. But the Post Office Department continued to produce more and more for over a decade, seemingly driven by a sunk cost fallacy.

The Mailster, simply put, was a bad idea, and a giant lemon.

Now, I’ve spent the last year of my life researching postal engineering. I’ve met USPS engineers– they’re a talented, intelligent bunch. And I have a lot of affection for the goofy little Mailster. It’s a great reminder that engineering successes are built on trial and error, that we learn what works by seeing what does not. And more likely than not, most of the people who will see “Qwikster” and think “Mailster” are big old Postal geeks like me, and not the general population.

But the fact that the names are so similar doesn’t bode well. Branding 101 tells you to avoid names that are going to evoke pricey, colossal mistakes of the past. Netflix is already skating on thin ice, PR-wise— which is why their blog post has the apologetic tone it does.

Beyond the question of whether consumers really will respond positively to having two URLs and potentially two bills for what was once one service, this echo across time of the two names points– in my opinion– to a major business decision being made somewhat hastily, and unveiled while still half-baked. And that makes me worry for Netflix’s future.


ETA:

The twitter account for “Qwikster” likewise suggests insufficient vetting by PR. SRSLY.