Netflix, the Zealous Rebel - an Archetypal Journey
I first started studying Archetypes a few years ago after reading The Hero and the Outlaw — Building Extraordinary Brands through the Power of Archetypes. The topic fascinated me on so many levels because it offers such a dense and profound examination of our psychological and cultural structures — or “management of meaning”, as the book’s authors suggest — in the context of our everyday modern life. And because Archetypes are such universal manifestations, they show up in individuals, organizations and brands, as well as countries, religions and the natural world.
While I was excited about discovering this whole new perspective through which we can better understand our daily interactions, I was also troubled by the apparent tendency to vastly reduce the true essence of Archetypes to a superficial labeling method, especially when it comes to the marketing community. Conversely, one of the things that inspire me about the CultureTalk system is that it fosters a deeper, more thoughtful and authentic approach.
For starters, there is no such thing as “being” one particular Archetype. No culture, organization or brand is merely one thing, just like no person is merely one thing. Oneness, in the realm of Archetypes, is actually a much larger concept because it involves a systemic and integrative view of the various universal forces at play. Without this basic knowledge, we run the risk of dumbing down the amazing depth of insight that Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Carol Pearson and Caroline Myss have so generously made available to us.
We are all multi-dimensional and multi-faceted beings, which is why we experience life with so much richness and complexity, and it is the same reason why companies and brands have their own idiosyncracies. Do all Innocent organizations behave in the same manner? Do all Jester brands see the world alike? Certainly not.
It is the combination and interaction of Archetypes that brings nuance, rhythm, tension and conflict into our existence. It’s what makes life interesting and storytelling a vital instrument.
For the sake of illustrating this point, I’d like to look “under the hood” of an organization that has captivated the imagination of tens of millions of people around the globe, including myself: Netflix.
Netflix started as a DVD-rental-by-mail service and played a big role in the demise of brick-and-mortar chains like Blockbuster during the late 90’s. In 2007, it broadened its market reach with the introduction of online video streaming, and in 2012 began commissioning original film and TV productions, debuting its first series, House of Cards, in 2013. This bold and aggressive move paved the way for Netflix to double its global audience in three years and surpass the mark of 100 million subscribers worldwide just last month. Within two decades since its foundation, the company’s core operating model expanded from home delivery to digital distribution to content production. It has not just disrupted the video-on-demand category but has also gotten into the habit of challenging its own status quo in a way that few other companies have done.
How did the masterminds of Netflix do it?
Some of the leading business publications and tech executives attribute the company’s success to its compelling organizational culture and pioneering HR practices. The no-frills 127-slide powerpoint deck that was circulated a few years ago by Patty McCord (CTO) and Reed Hastings (CEO) became one of the most influential documents in Silicon Valley.
Here’s an excerpt of what is unique and special about Netflix:
encourage independent decision-making by employees
share information openly, broadly, and deliberately
are extraordinarily candid with each other
keep only our highly effective people
When it comes to Archetypes, the phrase “avoid rules” kind of gives it away, doesn’t it? The Revolutionary energy emanates from Netflix so strongly that they’ve even been vocal about the bureaucracy and inauthenticity which tends to prevail in most corporate environments.
Netflix has a distinct ability to do things on its own terms and get rid of anything that stands in its way, such as elaborated vacation policies, performance improvement plans and yes, people whose skillsets are not longer useful (in which case they offer generous severance packages). They are also quick to change course or revert business decisions that prove unhelpful in achieving their goals, such as new pricing structures or new divisions. In a nutshell, they are unafraid of identifying what’s not working and tearing it apart, while keeping their higher ideals clearly in sight.
Another manifestation of the Revolutionary is that Netflix doesn’t only compete against the likes of Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus but has opted instead to become a major player (and challenger) in the whole media entertainment industry. It already surpassed some of the top-rated primetime networks in Emmy nominations, and is currently defying long-standing giants like HBO head on.
However, this would have been very difficult to pull off without a vibrant Creator Archetype driving the company’s capacity to pursue artistic expression and generate breakthrough drama. In fact, the innovative and constructive approach of the Creator helps develop a healthy counterbalance to the ‘terminator’ tendencies of the Revolutionary. As a result, they’ve become a production-hungry machine and the quality of their work is usually outstanding.
But what about Netflix as a customer-facing entity? Here’s where it gets interesting … Until 2012, any person would have probably recognized Netflix as a company that focused on offering a better process, but it didn’t have a product. Up to that point, the Revolutionary had been driving both, the company’s internal culture and the customer experience.
This changed very significantly when it completely broke out of its own mold and introduced us to Frank Underwood and Piper Chapman. From being an essentially operational and transactional company, Netflix began developing a much more intimate relationship with subscribers through the incredible mosaic of characters portrayed in its shows.
Brand transition aligns with an Archetypal shift
Making all season episodes readily available at once was another way of breaking the rules, for sure. But it is critical to distinguish between the effect this had on the entertainment business and the audience. Binge watching deepened the level of emotional connection, commitment and even devotion of subscribers, which are key characteristics of the Lover Archetype. And just as importantly, viewers were effectively awarded greater freedom over when to watch the next episode at their own pace, which brings some Explorer energy into the equation.
Nowadays, Netflix is jockeying for position amid the ‘world wild west’ of the attention economy, therefore it’s constantly fighting to keep users on its platform for as long as it can. And yes, as we witness so many companies playing the same game, it’s easy to see the Lover/Explorer shadow emerging across the board, in the form of self-indulgence. But Netflix seems to be intentionally tapping into a growing appetite for intensity.
First of all, its rebranding in 2014 emphasized the red color mark even further while simultaneously making the letters thicker and unabashedly more attractive than before. Secondly, although the brand makes sure to stay away from what would be normally considered pornography, it definitely does not hold back on sensuality and eroticism (nor violence for that matter) when it comes to the content of its shows. And one of the genres towards which it seems to heavily gravitate is psychological thrillers.
It could be argued that the combination of these factors places the brand right on the edge (or more likely over the edge) between simply winning people’s hearts and actually hooking them.
The silver lining to this seems to be Netflix’s Explorer-like enthusiasm for variety, authenticity and meaning. The company is willing to invest billions of dollars in producing content across many diverse fields of interest such as science, comedy, nature, history and sci-fi — which is definitely a riskier proposition as they not always guarantee a high return.
After all, striving to achieve harmony between freedom and responsibility is at the very core of its philosophy. The archetypal profile of Netflix, as I’ve tentatively examined here, seems to provide a solid platform for maintaining that balance, albeit a delicate one.
This year Netflix was welcomed into the coveted list of the 100 most valuable brands in the world (source: Kantar Millward Brown), a tremendous feat that must have brought a great sense of pride to its 4,500 employees. And although I probably rank far lower than the average subscriber in number of hours-spent-per-week on the platform, I am rooting for them to continue breaking barriers and setting the tone for what television (and perhaps media in general) will look like in the future.