When the content streaming service iflix entered the Brunei market in November 2016, it was with relatively little fanfare and virtually no brand recognition.

But that all changed when the Kuala Lumpur-based company formed a partnership with DST, Brunei’s biggest telco, offering its 400,000 subscribers a free one-year subscription to the service.

Customers could suddenly access a library of on-demand content that included thousands of titles from Hollywood blockbusters to Korean dramas, and the entire back catalog of the much-loved sitcom Friends.

And all for free.

A RELUCTANT COUNTERWEIGHT TO NETFLIX

Photo: Digi

iflix has positioned itself as the streaming service for emerging markets, focusing on high-volume, low-cost subscription accessed primarily through smartphones.

“We don’t consider Netflix rivals as we focus on very different market segments,” a representative for iflix told The Scoop.

“We created iflix for the more than four billion people in emerging markets… who may not have consistent access to internet and/or a credit card; who probably can’t afford pay TV or other premium TV services, but do have access to a mobile phone and want the best entertainment content available.”

iflix is weary of comparisons to Netflix, saying their customers don’t consume content in the same way, using their mobiles as their primary entertainment device as opposed to big screen TVs.

“We’re not redefining TV, we’re redefining mobile entertainment,” Patrick Grove, one of the company’s founders, told CNNMoney.

Unlike Netflix, the iflix service is designed to allow users in the developing world to stream or download shows at low internet speeds. A monthly iflix subscription in Brunei costs just BND$4, while Netflix’s service is aimed at a more affluent market, with a basic plan starting at BND$11.

And true to iflix’s mobile-first model, you pay through your mobile phone bill.

“Many consumers [in emerging markets] don’t have bank accounts, access to credit, or IDs. There is often no history of subscription,” said Mark Britt, co-founder and CEO of iflix. “That means video films must work closely with mobile telecoms firms.”

And metrics show that iflix is outperforming Netflix in Southeast Asian markets. Data from analytics firm App Annie shows iflix way ahead of Netflix in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand in app rankings for Google Play.

In Brunei’s Apple app store, it is more downloaded than its American rival, ranking number 16 in the entertainment category ahead of Netflix at 19.

GOING LOCAL

The streaming service has just renewed its partnership with DST, extending the free subscription for DST customers until November 2018.

The deal is also a boon for the Bruneian telco, who is counting on increased data consumption to boost revenue. iflix users are binge watchers, with each visit typically lasting 105 to 150 minutes.

While the company remains tight-lipped about the number of Bruneian subscribers, it claims that its global subscriber base has grown three-fold in the past year, bringing active paying subscriptions to 6.5 million. Of those the majority are in Asia, with roughly 500,000 in the Middle East.

iflix prides itself on locally-curated content for each country market, saying it is “respectful to cultural standards and preferences”, adding that they create subtitling, marketing, and pricing unique to each of its 24 territories throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

In the years since the Internet revolutionised the way we consume content, entertainment norms are still largely dictated by Western perspectives. Britt said while iflix set out to create more diverse libraries, they “massively underestimated” how much non-English content could scale.

Among Brunei iflix subscribers, Korean dramas are streamed far more than English-language content. iflix has exclusive rights to serials from Korean content makers KBS Media, iMBC, SBS, and CJ E&M.

The video-on-demand (VOD) provider also recently struck a windfall deal with Disney to bring the Marvel and Star Wars films to their subscribers, just as Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits cinemas this weekend.

ORIGINAL PROGRAMMING

Raising US$220 million in capital this year from investors such as U.S. media group Hearst and the UK’s Sky PLC, iflix has said that this round of funding will be used to develop its local content strategy.

That includes the inevitable move into original productions. Oi Jaga Mulut, a Malaysian stand-up comedy series, is the company’s first foray into original content and is now the leading show on the service.

iflix also recently commissioned a drama series with Kris Aquino, the queen of Philippines media; unveiled its first Arabic series Tough Luck; and struck a co-production deal with Indonesia’s Screenplay Films.

“The productions are almost an extension of our marketing, helping people understand what iflix is beyond being just a VOD service,” the company told The Scoop.

While it is positioning itself as a potential platform for Asian filmmakers and content producers, iflix said it aims to lift the bar above what’s being offered by local free-to-air channels.

“That doesn’t just mean having a higher production budget, but also authenticity and originality of content… It has to dare to be different, while having a familiar appeal,” its rep said.

While ifix has been the biggest success story in Southeast Asia’s increasingly competitive VOD market, rival services such as Amazon Prime and the Singapore’s Hooq are also making a play for the region.

Whether iflix continues to remain at the front of pack depends on how successfully it builds relevance in the diverse cultural and linguistic landscape of the region.