Today, what you watch can say a lot about who you are.
In our era of Peak TV, you can tell a lot about someone if they’re a Game of Thrones fan vs. a devotee to Netflix’s “Strong Female Lead” category. And the design for TV has the power to shape cultural moments: the costumes from The Handmaid’s Tale became a symbol for health care bill protests, and a simple typeface used in Stranger Things spurred inter-generational nostalgia. Many might say that the rise of streaming has not only led to better writing, but better branding, than ever before.
For the second edition of our Summer Salon webinar series, we brought together a panel of industry experts to discuss what it means for a TV show not just to be entertainment but a brand in its own right. Moderated by Lola Landekic, editor in chief of Art of the Title, we sought to explore the cultural significance — and ramifications — of branding in the age of streaming.
⭐Lauren Hartstone is the executive creative director at Sibling Rivalry, NY. Her clients have included Apple, HBOMax, FX, and TCM — and she has worked on art for TV shows such as Ted Lasso, Legendary, Broadwalk Empire, and Hysterical.
⭐Natalie Bronfman is an internationally renowned designer for theater, film, opera, and more. She is known for her costume work on Apple TV+ See, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Most Dangerous Game.
⭐Alexis Ong is a freelance culture journalist based in Singapore. Most of her writing focuses on games, science fiction, weird tech, and internet culture. Bylines include The Verge, PC Gamer, Polygon, and The Washington Post.
Lola Landekic: To what extent has television really become a marker of people’s personalities or identities today?
Lauren Hartstone: I have two opinions here. On one hand, shows and characters influence us so deeply — from how we think, to what we wear, to how we talk. There’s an incredible selection of content out there and what you subscribe to certainly speaks to your personality and interests. But that being said, it feels like people are now constantly asking each other: “What are you watching right now?” You’re watching Succession one night and then the next you’re watching House of Cards. Earlier on, people were inclined to use a show as a marker of their personality, but now there’s just so much to watch.
Alexis Ong: The extent that TV has become a marker of people’s personalities is linked to the rise of social media. Back in the day in the ‘90s, you had sites like Geocities and webrings where people tied their identities to pop culture markers. I was part of an X Files webring in high school and it was a big part of my life. I just wanted to talk to other X Files fans and be stupid online together. Then when early Facebook came out and you could add your interests to your profile, that was a big part of what we’re talking about. Social media made personal branding a lot more distinct.
Lola: And what does that mean for us as a culture? We’re all looking at ourselves as brands, tv shows as brands… What does it mean to attach ourselves and align ourselves to a brand?
Alexis: It’s really easy to hate on branding until you’re trying to sell something of your own, and then branding becomes really important. I have mixed feelings about it all. Game of Thrones, for example, has become such a juggernaut in terms of high fantasy HBO branding. When you say you love GoT, you’re saying something about your personal interests and the way you like stories being told.
It’s really easy to hate on branding until you’re trying to sell something of your own, and then branding becomes really important.
Lola: Lauren, as a builder of brands, can you talk about how you approach creating a brand for a show?
Lauren: First of all, there’s a very big difference between your personal brand and a television brand. While I believe that personal brands shift, a brand for a television show is actually incredibly important. For a lot of reasons. Content is so splintered today and people often don’t even know where to find a lot of things. You might forget the show that you started watching or you can’t remember where to continue it. Therefore it’s very important to think about branding as soon as you start building a show — it’s ultimately in service of making sure it gets out there.
Branding could mean the title sequence, but it also extends to the show’s packaging. Or the things that come in-between content, to help tell the story. Or it can be the consumer journey on Apple TV+, when you go on the product and see the artwork. Or it can be the end titles. It can even be the cinematography and the color grade. All of that contributes to making a brand sticky for people. And the more branding extends into marketing, the better.
Lola: Natalie, how do costumes blend into the branding of a show? How do you make a show feel sticky with your work and connect with an audience?
Natalie Bronfman: Essentially you’re creating a fantastical story, whether that’s in See and its dystopian world, or Handmaid’s Tale, which reflects a big political problem right now. I am ultimately one of the enablers of the writer’s room’s vision. So, it becomes a whole discussion with all the departments put together, and it all works together to create the thing you want to market.
There’s a few examples of costume seeping into marketing in a big way. For example with Mad Men, they ended up creating a Banana Republic collection with Gap Inc. The Hunger Games did a collaboration with NET-A-PORTER. So there are these ways that costume bleeds into the public. That’s the end goal often — because in the end, the marketing will create more money for the production and the show.
Lola: If costume is powerful enough, it creates more brand awareness.
Natalie: Absolutely. And again, people will purchase this said clothing in the stores because they identify with it. Or they want to escape into being part of it. “Clothes make the man” is the quote; it’s part of our shell. It’s part of our armor. It’s part of people’s perception of who you are in society.
Lola: And I know for The Handmaid’s Tale there was an established aesthetic based on the book, and what was described within it. How did you build off of Margaret Atwood’s world?
Natalie: Well, once the story was developed and after the first season, there was no book to continue to follow. It became something where we could create new worlds. Often what I’ll do is I’ll take elements of clothing and see if it evokes an emotion, and that’s what will stick in people’s mind. I’ll give you the example of the hooks in the back of the mouth vales — they snap shut. So it’s an auditory sense that you’re playing with. Not just a visual one. Things like that is how I morph costume into helping layer the brand, I suppose.
Lola: That’s an element of branding that we often don’t talk about – the audio. With television, the heavy lifting for a mood is often done through audio.
Lauren: Yeah, audio immediately sets a tone in a way you can’t do with visuals. It’s a very powerful combination. For certain shows where you’re trying to get a sense of time or nostalgia, audio plays a very significant role and can go a very long way — think about something like Stranger Things.
Lola: We’ve lost the television jingle over the years, but when we have a strong opening song, how much does that determine the trajectory of a show?
Alexis: The first example that jumps to my mind is Peacemaker on HBO. It has an amazing opening dance sequence with John Cena and the cast. It’s super meta because, for me, I think this show is about using music as a way to explore the character’s journey. I never skip the intro for Peacemaker, that’s just a no no.
Yellowjackets also did a really good job with their intro music, I did not skip it. For shows like that, which become the new appointment viewing in the streaming age when we don’t have cable TV anymore, I think that’s very important. Also the absence of music and audio queues have a big impact as well: I recently binge-watched Hulu’s The Bear, which I loved, and there is nothing. There is no title sequence. You don’t get that until, I think, the penultimate episode. That speaks a lot to the story they’re trying to tell, which is about a brand, a restaurant, trying to build a brand of its own.
Lauren: In terms of shows with strong audio, I was just thinking of Succession. It’s not the visuals that brought me there, I think that music that threads throughout the title sequence and throughout the entire series is incredible. It sets the entire tone and brings it all together.
Lola: That music has been made into such a meme, such a cultural artifact. That’s what we mean when we talk about brands, it’s not just about visuals — we need to be paying attention to the audio and how we’re interacting with it. Natalie, what would be a pick for you?
Natalie: The one that stands out to me that combines the two is Game of Thrones — the opening sequence, the board unfolding and growing.
Lola: GoT is an interesting example because it has such a concrete brand that we all understand visually, but in the title, what’s notable is it’s so elaborate and changing from one episode to the next. There’s damage, and there’s an evolution that we see. Bob’s Burgers also has little things to look at in each intro, and you don’t want to miss it because you want to catch those jokes. Lauren, what is the process of making a title sequence like for you?
Lauren: I’ll use Legendary as an example, a show about voguing on HBO Max. When you begin working on something like it, you’re first immersing yourself in the content. Who are the people on it? What is the intent of the show? For Legendary, I needed to figure out: Ok, these people that are coming into this voguing competition, what is their story? What is their intention? What are they about?
The way the show works is that there are eight houses competing against one another, and each house is very different. I sent all the talent surveys to better understand what their backgrounds were. What we then thought was: Well, what if we create these doorways as the main artwork, because the groups are called “houses”? So what we created are these really iconic, beautiful graphic doorways that could represent each “house” in the competition, and then we dived into the world of those homes for the sequence, bringing to life all the different personalities. It gave us an avenue for marketing: The doorway silhouette is on billboards etc. It clearly was an idea that had legs, and that is so essential when you’re coming up with the title sequence. It needs to be something that can build out into a greater identity.
Lola: Thinking about “an idea with legs.” How does this extend to immersive experiences? We had the Stranger Things experience for example, which became this big touring show.
Alexis: I used to live in LA and a few years ago, there was one of these experiences where they recreated the diner from Twin Peaks and were serving cherry pie and stuff like that. I wanted to go but the line was around the block. It was like a 3 hour long wait to just get in and take your Instagram picture with the pie. And as much as I love twin peaks, I was not ready to wait for an entire day to go in there, so I took a picture outside and left. I don’t think that necessarily that these events attract new fans… They’re for existing fans to enjoy. Because what are you going to do when you go to these events? You’re going to buy merchandise, because you already love the show.
Lauren: I feel like they’re best when used in connection with something greater. Maybe there is a movement that is happening. Maybe there is some other cause. If it can relate to something bigger that extends into our culture, that’s a certainly better way to go.
Natalie: Adding to that, with the first season of Handmaid’s, when we started working on it, it wasn’t planned with all the politics that was going on in the United States in mind. We didn’t know it would coincide so seamlessly with all of that. It was eerie how that happened.
One of the biggest feedbacks I still get in terms of my costumes extending into a cultural moment, is people asking if they can buy these costumes from me so they can wear them to protests. And then once, thinking about when marketing goes bad, the red dresses were transformed into a very horrid Halloween design that became a huge deal; there were these cute, short mini-skirted versions. There was a huge backlash to them, because the subject matter is not something that’s funny at all.
Lola: That’s so interesting to hear about the protesting that was going on at the same time that The Handmaid’s Tale was on. How did the cultural moment affect the look or feel of the show? Was it deemed necessary to change the costumes in one way or another?
Natalie: The biggest criteria that I had to work with — and we all had to work with, specifically the writers — is being mindful of how much torture is inflicted on women. A lot of it had to be modified and pulled back from because when you think about your fantasy of what the worst possible case scenario is, it’s pretty horrific. And so often, we had to pull back. So for instance, with the hook veils, there were many ideas that were tossed around — that was just one of many, many prototypes we made; and basically, I was told at one point, make it less torturous. You take those things, and the global psychology of what was going on, and you had to make it utilitarian — putting a point across — but while still creating a fantasy.
Lola: Moving back to issues of marketing, how do you all think we should consider online communities and engagement when tackling that side of broadcast projects?
Lauren: This is what we were talking about when we said a brand that has legs… if it’s a thing that you’re passively watching, it’s not going to stick. So every television show experience needs to go beyond just the screen. So that means you engage people in conversation, whether it’s on social media, on Instagram, or Twitter. We’re always trying to think of how we’re going to make a bigger conversation that goes beyond the screen.
Alexis: I think what Lauren said is spot on. A lot of the more traditional companies or brands try to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to social media and new media, which doesn’t work. You’re not going to put out the same marketing campaign as you would on Facebook. This is sort of tangential, but I do think that how communities and fans behave can sometimes have a huge backlash. You need to have people moderating these spaces, especially because there is so much poor behavior going on online, and its’ to the detriment to the show that you’re trying to promote.
A lot of the more traditional companies or brands try to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to social media and new media, which doesn’t work.
There was some of that with The Handmaid’s Tale as well. There was backlash not just against the sexy costumes because those were just tacky and in poor taste, but there was some backlash against the over saturation of the costumes being used as a symbol of resistance — because some people felt that it represented a very fixed view of feminism.
More generally, online moderation is something I think a lot of brands and streaming companies underestimate. And I don’t think brands in general have really nailed how to speak to online audiences well yet. I think it has leached a little into the content itself. There was that adaptation of Jane Austen, Persuasion, that went on Netflix, and you can see the Fleabag-ification effect of the way that the entire movie is made to be meme-ed. And you can tell that speaks to a certain audience who will respond to that in a specific way online.
Lola: That’s a great point actually. Because when we’re talking about building brands, there’s a drive to make something go viral. To make it have that effect. But it’s such a fine line, especially when we talk about something like Persuasion and the Tumblr-ification of TV series and cinema, where you can feel like show runners and creators are getting into a realm where they’re thinking of shots and dialogue almost as if they are waiting for it to be screenshot.
Alexis: I hate it, because you literally can’t screenshot anymore either. So, why? Netflix is fumbling here. If you’re going to do something for the sake of vitalness and meme-ry, you’re kind of messing up here guys…
Lola: That brings us to another really interesting point, which is how there are all these functions added to streaming services like this not being able to screenshot. Another is the skip intro button. How do these new functions affect brands and our ability to connect with this content?
Alexis: For me, I use them. I don’t like using them, but I do. I recently went on a huge Law & Order binge, I don’t know what possessed me. I started from 1999, season one. They’re now on season 23. But I skipped every single intro, I mean there’s no point.
There are people out there that complain about credits. I saw someone complain the other day, about why do people even watch the end of the movie credits, what’s the point? And I was like, you can just get up and leave, man. No one is making you stay. There are so many options these days that it’s become a talking point for a lot of people, and it just really doesn’t need to be.
Lauren: At the end of the day, you’re competing for someone’s time, and that time isn’t necessarily just that of another show. You’re competing with Instagram and Twitter and the Metaverse and Facebook and so on. And some shows are just more successful than others. If there’s going to be a title sequence, it must be additive for it to be watched, right? I’ll forever reference Mad Men because that theme at the beginning set the tone for the entire show, and it wasn’t just what felt like a montage of what you’re about to see. It’s giving you a separate experience. A metaphor for what’s to come. But not all shows are going to achieve that. And those are the ones that are going to get skipped.
At the end of the day, you’re competing for someone’s time, and that time isn’t necessarily just that of another show.
Natalie: People’s attention span has gotten smaller too, so if it’s something they’ve seen already, they just skip over it. We’ve seen it with TikTok and all the short videos and reels.
Lola: For people looking to enter the field, to get into working into TV, motion branding, broadcast branding, what would be your advice for people either trying to transition from an existing design practice or just getting into it?
Natalie: I came from theater and opera. Ours is a very technical field, it’s like construction, it’s a hands on job. You should get in first and do all the jobs. Start from the bottom. So when you do hit head of department, you have a very good understanding of the time everything takes to make, the collaboration that it takes with the crew above and below you. I think the more knowledge you have, the richer and rounder you can be. Learn it all — and don’t just want to come in at the top. Then, you’re missing the bricks that build that house, basically. You need a sturdy foundation.
Learn it all — and don’t just want to come in at the top. Then, you’re missing the bricks that build that house. You need a sturdy foundation.
Lauren: Adding to that, there’s a lot surrounding television shows. If you think about Netflix and Hulu and Peacock, all of these companies require really important brands themselves. I personally work on that as well as the content, and for me, that’s super important. Because you learn from both. Because one is influencing the other. And be open: You’ll never just be designing title sequences. No one does that. Those are your favorite projects and they are so fun to do and they are awesome, but they make no money. So I urge you to think about all aspects of this industry and really try and get in there and be open to working on different parts of it.
Lola: To close up, what do we hope to see more of, in how people engage with this content moving forward?
Lauren: I think it’s about making an experience memorable. In order to reach people, it needs to go deep and beyond the show itself. I do think there is a problem right now, and we all know it, and that is that things are so hard to find. I’m hoping that we can solve that. In the meanwhile, the stickier, the more memorable, the more evocative, the more true to the story we can be in branding, the better.
Alexis: I think something to remember is that design and branding decisions don’t exist in a vacuum. Be aware of history and the cultural contexts of what’s going on in the world right now when you make specific decisions for your show.
I know that there is a lot of talk about design decisions for the major superhero shows at the moment, with regard to unions and the fact that a lot of CGI animators work in bad labor conditions. It’s important to keep those things in mind. It branches out to behavior like not watching the credits, not caring about all the work that goes into how these shows are made.