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Inside Netflix's marketing strategy for 'Stranger Things,' the show that supercharged its work with brands like Lyft and Coca-Cola

Business Insider | Jun 25, 2019, 06.14PM IST

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  • Netflix has deals with dozens of brands including Coca-Cola, Baskin-Robbins, and Nike to spread the word about "Stranger Things," which returns for a third season on Jul. 4.
  • The show, created by the Duffer Brothers, leans on name-brands from the 1980s to capture the spirit of the decade, and lends itself to creative brand partnerships, like Burger King's Upside Down Whopper sandwiches and an H&M clothing collection.
  • Netflix's global partner marketing and consumer products teams are also reaching out to brands to promote other tentpole Netflix originals, through licensing deals or broader marketing partnerships. 
  • The collaborations are testing people's appetites for engaging with Netflix franchises outside of the streaming platform, as well as their willingness to accept Netflix shows being associated with brands, people close to Netflix's marketing efforts told Business Insider.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

It begins like any other Coca-Cola commercial. The soda brand's logo blares in the background as two teenagers buy a snack from a vending machine. A young couple shares a kiss near a Coke can. And a teenager sips from a refreshing soft drink on his way into a movie theater.

Only, it's 1985. The town is the fictional, Hawkins, Indiana. And the teenagers are characters from the Netflix original series, "Stranger Things."

 

Netflix teamed up with Coca-Cola on the commercial - playing in cinemas and online - for the return of its blockbuster original series "Stranger Things," which returns for a third season on Jul. 4. The ad was directed by the show's creators, Matt and Ross Duffer. The entertainment partnership - one of Coca-Cola's biggest - also included a limited revival of a defunct product, New Coke, which appears in the new season, as well as bottles, cans, and other elements inspired by the show.

Coca-Cola is one of dozens of brands that Netflix is working with to spread the word about "Stranger Things" through licensing deals or broader marketing campaigns. Baskin-Robbins has "Stranger Things"-themed ice cream flavors. Burger King has Upside Down Whopper sandwiches. H&M has a clothing collection inspired by styles from show. Nike released a special sneaker collection. 

Netflix said it had agreements with around 75 brands to promote "Stranger Things," the New York Times previously reported.

The deals are testing people's appetites for engaging with Netflix franchises outside of the streaming platform, as well as their willingness to accept Netflix properties being associated with brands, people close to Netflix's marketing efforts told Business Insider.

Netflix's pursuit of marketing partners also comes at a time when the streaming giant is trying to keep its 148 million paid subscriber base from flatlining in the US, and growing heartily abroad.

"It's not about the dollars," Stacy Jones, CEO of the entertainment-marketing agency, Hollywood Branded, said. "They're doing it to drive viewers to subscribe or sign up for Netflix."

Stranger Things major marketing partners

"Stranger Things" is one of Netflix's biggest hits and cultural touchstones. The show is also fertile ground for brand partnerships. It takes place in the 1980s. The creators - pop-culture aficionados, the Duffers - deploy a litany of products from the decade, like the Dungeons and Dragons table-top game, Polaroid cameras, Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, Eggo waffles, and Coca-Cola cans, to evoke the spirit of Eighties in the show.

After the first season of "Stranger Things," Netflix latched on to the opportunity to work with brands to get the show more exposure, and draw viewers and subscribers to the platform. The streaming giant is actively pursuing more of these kinds of deals to draw attention to tentpole originals, like "Stranger Things," "Glow," and, "Queer Eye."

Brands have a long history of sponsoring TV shows - dating back to the 1950s when soap makers like P&G sponsored daytime dramas, dubbed "soap operas."

But promotional partnerships, like the co-marketing deals that Netflix is cutting, are more common in the movie business. It's easier for brands to roll out a campaign around a theatrical release date than a full season of a show. And, with movies, there are no conflicts with network ad sales teams, which may have exclusive deals with brands that could preclude individual shows from partnering with competitors of those brands.

Streaming-video services like Netflix, where there are no ads and episodes are often released simultaneously, better resemble the movie business.

"Streaming is much more like movies than it is TV shows, to me," David Nagel, senior director of consumer engagement at Baskin-Robbins, said. "There's that moment in time, that launch period. And with the advent of binge-watching, people can watch entire seasons in one or two days. It creates much more of that movie feel."

Netflix has resisted advertising on its platform

Netflix, like other premium-entertainment channels including HBO, has often shied away from anything that would make its originals look too commercial. It doesn't show traditional ads, though other media execs speculate it's only a matter of time until Netflix gets into the ad business. The original productions that Netflix produces itself, like "Stranger Things," usually don't include paid product-placements - though other Netflix originals may.

Off of the platform, it's a different story. The boost in brand deals outside of Netflix's service come as the streaming giant is trying to continue growing and facing greater threats from rivals like Amazon and Hulu, and up-and-comers like Disney and Apple.

Netflix is spending most its eight-figure content budget on original series and movies, as it gets more expensive to license shows from outside studios, and companies like Disney, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal reserve more of their popular programming for their own services. 

Last year, Netflix spent $2.4 billion on marketing, about 65% more than the year before, as it released and promoted more originals. 

Read moreHow Disney's marketing advantage over Netflix will be its secret weapon in the streaming war

Marketing the Upside Down 

When "Stranger Things" debuted in 2016, Netflix did its own marketing to promote the show, including a four-hour Twitch livestream of influencers playing video games from the 1980s that ended with a clip from the first episode, as well as a 360-degree video experience of the Byers' home from the show.

The first season prominently featured name-brands like Eggo, but the Kellogg's-owned frozen-waffle company didn't pay to become character Eleven's favorite food. The Duffers wrote it into the show on their own. Eggo also didn't promote the series until after the first season premiered. Eggo shared recipes inspired by each episode of the second season and lent Netflix a clip from a 1980s Eggo commercial to be used in a Super Bowl spot, among other efforts.

 

Interest in "Stranger Things" exploded after the show debuted thanks to rave reviews and strong word-of-mouth.

About three months before "Stranger Things" was due to return for season two, the ride-sharing app Lyft reached out to Netflix's partner marketing team, led by Barry Smyth. The group was focused mainly on deals to promote the Netflix service as a whole with device makers and other partners.

Halloween is one of the biggest nights of the year for Lyft. And the second season of "Stranger Things" was scheduled for release over the holiday weekend. Lyft - which said it was introduced to Netflix by entertainment agency, United Talent Agency Marketing - saw an opportunity for the two companies to work together on an experience around the show.

"'Stranger Things' was one of the most-anticipated shows of the year," Austin Schumacher, head of culture and entertainment marketing at Lyft, said. "We wanted to give our community a unique experience. We wanted to tap into a cultural moment. And it sounded like it would also make sense for Netflix to leverage our audience."

Netflix told Lyft it hadn't really done anything like that around a show before, but was open to ideas.

Lyft's in-house creative team presented a few concepts for "Stranger Things"-inspired experiences that would live both inside and outside of the Lyft app. The creative teams from the two companies then worked together on the campaign. Lyft and Netflix shared the costs, Schumacher said.

lyft stranger things

The campaign included a "Strange Mode" in the Lyft app that offered users free rides in Los Angeles and Philadelphia during the weekend of the show's release, as well as a bizarre in-car experience for some riders.

The partnership with Lyft was one of the first major deals Netflix made with a brand to promote an original series. 

Since then, Netflix has cut deals with brands like Lyft on "Glow," ice creamery Humphry Slocombe on "Queer Eye," and the dozens of brands that have licensing or co-marketing deals tied to "Stranger Things."

The upshot

Netflix typically isn't being paid for these deals. The partnerships are getting the streaming service exposure in marketing channels, and with audiences, that Netflix couldn't buy itself. Coca-Cola, Baskin-Robbins, and H&M got Netflix into physical stores, for instance, and the Whopper partnership put "Stranger Things" in some Burger King restaurants.

"These moments and channels that brands own - and that advertising can't buy - are what these streaming platforms are looking to tap into," Julian Jacobs, co-head of United Talent Agency's marketing arm, said.

Amazon Studios has inked similar deals with brands like Maxwell House around originals like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." HBO also partnered with Bud Light to promote "Game of Thrones" in the Super Bowl in 2019.

As Netflix spends more on marketing to draw attention to its biggest originals, the deals are also tapping into dollars that other marketers are already spending. 

Summer is ice cream season and when Baskin-Robbins ramps up its marketing. Netflix reached out to Baskin-Robbins in April to talk about a potential partnership tied to "Stranger Things." The third season premieres in the middle of the summer and part of it takes place in a fictional ice-cream shop, called Scoops Ahoy.

netflix stranger things scoops ahoy

Baskin-Robbins spent a bit more than it normally does on marketing during the summer months to promote "Stranger Things" and itself.

"We did over invest in this property," Nagel, at Baskin-Robbins, said. "We knew [the show's return] was something that people were going to be really excited about, kind of like the lead up to 'Game of Thrones.'"

The ice-cream company, which has run promotions around movie releases before, also invested in "Stranger Things" with custom ice-cream flavors, products, and a TV commercial in the hopes of it "maybe making us a little bit cooler," Nagel said. 

Baskin-Robbins isn't the only brand hoping to tap into Netflix's zeitgeist-hitting originals.

"Every client that we talk with, every new sales conversation that we have, it is driven by them wanting to talk about partnerships in [streaming-video-on-demand] - and more so Netflix than other platform," Jones, at Hollywood Branded, said. "Time and time again, it's Netflix shows that pop up as being the primary water-cooler-moment types of content that brands know about."

The media spend for the types of co-marketing campaigns tied to movies or TV shows that Netflix is now making can range from $500,000-$5 million, Jones said, depending on how the content is tied into the brands' retail space, or TV, digital, and other efforts.

Netflix's partner-marketing approach

Netflix is approaching partner marketing a lot like a movie studio would. It's being selective about the movies and series it connects marketers to, and focusing on tentpoles where brands naturally tie into the content.

Netflix staffers are reaching out to more brands directly, instead of taking creative pitches from marketers like it did with Lyft.

Smyth has a small team of about five or so people, based in Los Angeles, who are developing partner-marketing ideas to bring to brands, which add to broader show campaigns. They also work closely with the global consumer-products group run by Christie Fleischer, who joined Netflix from Disney in 2018, to build on existing licensing deals, like those with Nike or Lego for "Stranger Things."

The Baskin-Robbins partnership started with the consumer products team, which reached out to Nagel at Baskin-Robbins through LinkedIn about a licensing opportunity tied to the Scoops Ahoy ice-cream parlor in season three.

Baskin Robbins Demogorgon

"I thought I was getting punked from somebody inside the organization," Nagel said, of when he was contacted via LinkedIn.

The deal grew from there. The partner marketing team got involved. Nagel and other folks from Baskin-Robbins flew to Los Angeles to read scripts from the new season of "Stranger Things" and see how Scoops Ahoy was being incorporated. Baskin-Robbins dug into its own archives to see how its ads from the 1980s were created and produced.

"It was kind of a labor of love with both us with more than just a business partnership," Nagel said, adding that the Duffers set the authentically Eighties tone. "We had a lot of fun with it."

Since Jun. 1, Baskin-Robbins "Stranger Things"-themed ad has aired 899 times on national US TV, a media buy worth roughly $1.4 million, estimated EDO, a firm that measures engagement with TV ads. The campaign runs through the end of July.

Netflix is certainly warming to working with brands outside of its platform, but on-platform is another story.

"The question is what will they allow on their platforms," a source who works closely with brands and entertainment companies, said. "The 'Stranger Things' efforts across these brands is a bit of an experiment. If the marketplace rejects this, they'll be done. But it seems like the marketplace is rejoicing in these efforts."

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