Rhapsody Is Taking on the Name of Napster. Is the Move Brand Suicide?
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This week, in a brief announcement on its blog, music streaming company Rhapsody announced it will become Napster -- the music industry-hated service that allowed users to download songs for free and was first shut down in 2002.
"No changes to your playlists, favorites, albums, and artists. Same music. Same service. Same price. 100% the music you love. Stay tuned!" the announcement read.
Even amid a restructuring, why would a streaming platform in 2016 take on the name of a music sharing startup that was at the height of its powers around 2000 and is still best remembered by many for its legal woes and the record industry consternation it caused?
Back in 2011, in an effort to grow its subscriber base, Rhapsody bought Napster from Best Buy, absorbing not only the platform's users, but also the name and logo, to be used at its discretion. Two years later, Rhapsody relaunched Napster as a streaming service with more than 20 million songs for 9.95 euros a month in 14 European cities. It seems that it made enough of an impact overseas that Rhapsody decided to make the change permanent for its global business.
But in a crowded field, will this rebrand even make a difference? Some analysts, such as Oliver Marks, the research vice president of digital and internet of things for HfS Research, take a dim view of the move.
"I think it's a really bad idea. That smacks of desperation to me," he told Entrepreneur. "They're losing traction in the marketplace to competitors and the name recognition of Rhapsody is pretty poor. But to rebrand themselves as Napster is basically aligning themselves with very old-fashioned technology paradigms. It doesn't do a great job of defining the attributes of the streaming service that Rhapsody runs."
But even if there is no such thing as bad publicity, the attention may be fleeting without a concrete strategy going forward. "They're going to have to spend an absolute fortune to reposition the word Napster to mean something in 2016 and 2017, because it's got so much baggage around it," Marks says.
Karen Leland, president of Sterling Marketing Group and author of The Brand Mapping Strategy, says while that baggage is there and comes with a variety of connotations, it's up to Rhapsody to not just rest on those laurels, for good or ill.
"As they become one brand that's being promoted, they can't just go from where they are. They can’t just do business as usual," she says. "Now that they are combining, this is their opportunity to really launch that brand in a big way and in a positive way, and actually turn it around and make the Napster name a positive name. That's the opportunity that they have with this change."
Leland says that now is the time to overhaul the perception of the name altogether. She even recommends updating the logo to reflect the next generation of Napster. "They have an opportunity to say 'hey, with this change, we're the new Napster," she says.
Branding expert and marketing consultant Laura Ries agrees. She thinks it could be a positive step forward for Rhapsody, in part because it doesn't have that much to lose.
"Napster was the original brand in this space [and] they have a long history. So I think there is a nostalgia about it. People tend to forget the bad things and remember the glory days. I think there is an ability for the Napster brand to be welcomed back, if you will," she says. "But that's not to say it will be a big winner. The reality is that the Rhapsody name was going nowhere. This is a name that could better resonate with people."
She thinks that the recognition of the name and the memorable Napster logo -- that headphone wearing cat -- might end up being a bit more culturally sticky, and easier to understand, than Rhapsody. And, as Ries notes, it wasn't the consumers that weren't fans of Napster, but the record companies.
That sentiment is one that Dr. Peter Fader remembers well. Fader, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was an expert witness on behalf of Napster during its 2000 trial. He takes a more regretful view of the rebrand.
"It's a sad move. I look at Rhapsody and Napster as being so small and inconsequential compared to what the original Napster was and what Rhapsody could have been," he told Entrepreneur. "To me, the biggest part of the story is that the music industry missed such an amazing opportunity, back when they could have owned streaming. And they could have really reshaped the world to have customers more engaged and to have the industry be more profitable and to have far less unauthorized file sharing."
Fader continues, "Now this is too little too late, that's the bottom line. They had their chance when they could have blessed Napster or kind of promoted Rhapsody. Now it's kind of game over. The branding itself I'd say is quaint."
Fader says he isn't all doom and gloom. He's excited to watch the growth of other services and platforms -- he's a fan of Spotify in particular -- noting that's where he thinks the future of streaming lies because of both business savvy and consumer appeal. He thinks that ultimately while he'd love to see Rhapsody/Napster give Spotify a run for its money and raise the level of the industry, he doesn’t see it happening.
But he does want Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker's creation to be remembered for more than just its court cases.
"The original Napster was the first social network. That's what made it so powerful. It was the first social network on a broad scale. It did more to promote broadband adoption in households than anything else," Fader says. "A lot of it was obviously the ability to get music. But a lot of it was the ability to connect with large numbers of people without having to be a real techie to do so. Napster was an amazing thing and the music industry, of course, killed it just because they were too shortsighted to see how good it was for them."
If nothing else, we welcome the return of Napster's headphone-wearing cat.