100 Days of Pop: Epo

Just 4 days after it’s 4th of July release, Stranger Things 3 had over 40 million households tune in to the series with almost 18 million of those watching all 8 episodes in that time.  That’s 8 hours of attention in less than a week.  

Stranger Things 3 shook on deals with 75 brands within the 8 episode season. 75! From Coca-Cola, Levis, H&M & Baskin Robbins and Fortnite, Stranger Things 3 is current paragon example of what the future of branded partnerships will look like, which ‘spoilers’ will open the door of opportunity for many brands that until now haven’t had the budgets or access to this kind of marketing. 

On today’s Pop100, we’re flipping Netflix’s 80’s pop culture phenomena upside down to see how its brand partnerships tick and ask if it’s a strong enough strategy to keep traditional advertising away from the streaming giant’s future. 

Brand partnerships and product placements are nothing new to popular culture, the 1927 film Wings that went onto win the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture had a paid plug for Hershey Chocolate. But shows like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones are getting the kind of big brand partnerships that were once only reserved for blockbuster movies and that’s a BIG opportunity for brands as streaming gears up for a huge boom in the next couple of years.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention and this seems to be the case with Netflix as a key reason that they’re ahead of the brand partnership game is the fact that they’re unable to lean on the traditional fat wads of cash that traditional advertising creates, making them more creative with how they generate revenue. 

Netflix has always been commercial-free, meaning that unlike streaming sites like HULU, that still sell commercials for income, Netflix relies completely on the influx of new users and the monthly fees people pay to generate cash. And they need a lot of cash. This year, it’s projected that Netflix will spend $3 billion on advertising to scoop up new users and $15 billion on content to keep people watching. This has created a tension that is now leading to some smart innovations in generating revenue, including brand partnerships.  And This isn’t speculation, one of my favorite entertainment journalists, Michelle Castillo who writes for Cheddar, broke the story back in March that Netflix was creating a brand partnerships division where they were bringing in the Zac Eller from Fox and they began poaching a bunch of agency talent to fuel this new brand partnership team. You can see the effect that that team is having by looking at the sheer scale of the brand partnership game in Stranger Things 3, compared to anything else Netflix has done in the past. 

Which brings me to how this brand partnership thing works in Netflix or how it’s worked so far, and here’s the place where it’s probably smart to start out by saying that Netflix is adamant that they did not SELL ANY product placements that appeared in Stranger Things 3 and that all product appearances were written by the show creators and they aren’t shilling the art to pay line their pockets. Paid for or not, the product placement is pretty blatant but the devils in the details and since it wouldn’t look so good if the platform built with no advertising suddenly starts cramming it into the very content people are there for, we are going to go with the product placements as being a current ‘free to play’ strategy for Netflix. 

What NETFLIX IS able to do is that now that Stranger Things is a highly anticipated sensation, they can sell brands licensing deals (since Netflix owns and therefore has complete control over the Stranger Things license) where the brand may get highlighted for “free" but the brand pays to use the license in products and promotions. This is a great Pop-Marketing™ tactic because the brands get to bank off of the rising anticipation of the upcoming season, while Netflix gets not only free marketing but marketing that they get paid for.  

You can really see the machine being built through each season of Stranger Things. All starting with Eggo Waffles. In season one, Eleven had a special infatuation with the popular 80’s frozen breakfast food. Netflix went to Eggo to get their permission for the usage of their product which cost Eggo $0 and gave them a 16% increase in sales that year after the incredible success of the show in popular culture.  Netflix then used the momentum of that success to go to multiple brands in season 2 and begin negotiating larger partnerships with brands with a bit more reserves in the marketing budgets like KFC, but it’s Season 3 that took things to a new level. Although Netflix states that the placements in the series weren’t paid for, the brand's ability to utilize the license for their own products and campaigns certainly were and those ranged from $300k to over $1million a pop. Multiply that by 75 and it adds up to a nice chunk of change.  

Stranger Things is a series almost entirely fueled on 80’s nostalgia which is why I called my friend and 80’s pop culture expert, Chris Clews who wrote this book right here “What 80s Pop Culture Teaches Us About Today’s Workplace.” To ask him what he thought of the partnerships and why this show seems such a perfect fit for brands. Chris says that nostalgia is here to stay and specifically 80s nostalgia works so well right now because for a large part of the viewing public, this was their childhood or an approximate childhood of their own and it feels like a collective reawakening of memories of youth. When asked why it also works for kids that didn’t grow up in the 80s or even the 90s, Chris says that the internet and the sheer amount of access to these “new for them” pieces of culture including music, events, movies, and brands become fresh places for youth to get inspired and since the main characters are mostly kids, it makes it a shorter leap for teens and GenX to see through their eyes. 

Netflix knows that brand partnerships are exactly that, partnerships. That means that both parties see value in the relationship so that’s why Netflix isn’t just taking brand’s money but instead working with them to develop ideas that will resonate with the existing fan base and amplify out to attract those no yet familiar w/ the series. 

The standouts this season were, of course, Coca-Cola bringing back New Coke which got a crazy amount of buzz and showed that Coke doesn’t take themselves as serious anymore.  Baskin Robbins who took on the persona of Scoops Ahoy which played a key role in the show, and the ridiculousness of Burger King’s upside down whopper idea where they literally just turned a Whopper upside down to serve it to you, but still an idea but Chris Clews and I agree that the big winner here was the return of the lost 80’s mall culture where retail brands like Levi, Nike, Target sold out instantly on their takes on fashion pieces from the show, yes, even Hopper’s Hawaiian shirt.  

For brands looking to integrate with a part of popular culture can learn a lot with Stranger Things. The more you put into the partnership, the more you get out of it. Don’t confuse brand partnerships with celebrity promotions. If you want your partnership to work, start with an idea. How are you going to stand out? How do you fuel the current fandom and add to their experience?  With Disney and HBO jumping in the game with Apple and others joining the streaming game, you’re going to see an influx of opportunities so now’s the perfect time to get really good at Pop-Marketing. 

That’s the Pop100 for this week and to catch some more Pop-Marketing goodness, you can visit pop-marketer.com and signup for our emails to get all of the fresh case studies and insights coming from the integration of pop culture and brand marketing.  And please, if you don’t mind, for the sake of your poor old dad, keep the door open 3 inches.  

Joe Cox