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Netflix is missing one big thing. It just added it with its new superstar hire

The streaming giant has always led with data, but with new CMO Bozoma Saint John on board, expect her to bring emotional pop-cultural prowess to the big red N.

Netflix is missing one big thing. It just added it with its new superstar hire
[Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch; rawpixel]

When you think of the strength of Netflix as a brand, it’s rarely anything to do with the streaming giant’s actual marketing and advertising. It’s the platform’s own content and sheer cultural ubiquity that has helped its “N” logo signify content comfort food among TV and movie junkies. Even the “N” itself is what my colleague Mark Wilson called “a masterpiece of ambiguity.”

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Every few months or so, Netflix is able to release a show or film that catches our collective attention in ways many can’t, because our media landscape has become a fragmented mess of a bajillion different things to watch all at once.

For most of the past decade, the company’s marketing and advertising has been used to promote specific shows or films. Witness the sponsor-stravaganza connected to last summer’s season launch of Stranger Things. Even then, Netflix content is in a fight among itself for our attention. In July alone this year, there are 59 new øriginals—films, specials, and TV seasons—hitting the platform.

Last week, the company announced that it had hired Bozoma Saint John as its newest chief marketing officer, marking a new era just more than a year after Jackie Lee-Joe joined from BBC Studios to be CMO. In 2019, Netflix spent upwards of $2.65 billion on marketing, and yet it’s a company that isn’t exactly known for its brand marketing. It feels like I should be awash with ads or promos for things like The Old Guard (starring Charlize Theron and debuting this Friday on the service) or Kissing Booth 2, a sequel to one of its popular rom-com properties coming later this month.

But I’m not.

Netflix has a well-documented foundation of success as a digital marketer, particularly on social media through its primary channels, as well as spin-off feeds such as Strong Black Lead and NX. The company is renowned for how much it spends on content every year, yet it has not been able to build out successful franchise properties at the rate one might expect tens of billions of dollars invested to yield.

In January, there were reported layoffs in the marketing department, which were said to coincide with a general strategy shift towards the overall Netflix brand. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the platform’s desire to market the service as a whole doesn’t necessarily mean less project-specific marketing but more of a focus on making sure those titles reflect and clearly tie into the larger company brand.

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Since then, we’ve all been in lockdown amid a global health crisis, with Netflix becoming more essential service than entertainment option, while adding more than 15 million new subscribers in the first three months of 2020.

But we haven’t seen much of that larger company brand sell.

Enter the Boz

Saint John is a larger-than-life executive, one of the few in the business world who’s become a name themselves beyond the company they work for. She first garnered notice in marketing circles for her work as Pepsi’s head of music and entertainment marketing, where she landed a $50 million deal with Beyoncé, sponsoring the artist’s 2012 tour and her legendary 2013 Super Bowl halftime show.

She extended the sugar water’s celebrity endorsement roster to include Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and Eminem. For a 2012 Katy Perry show in Hollywood, Pepsi became the first brand to live-stream a concert on its Twitter page, giving fans incentives to get involved. On top of the Super Bowl, she managed brand integrations with other cultural touchstones such as the Grammy Awards, MTV VMAs, and CMA Awards.

It was a natural move then to Beats By Dre, just before it was acquired by Apple. After the deal closed, she became the head of global consumer marketing at Apple Music and iTunes. There, she worked with Beats cofounder Jimmy Iovine and head of content Larry Walker to translate Apple’s already strong marketing culture to its new streaming service, creating epic ads like The Weeknd’s 2015 VMA ads and Taylor Swift singing Drake on a treadmill. Plus, she got Kerry Washington, Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson, and Mary J. Blige singing Puff Daddy and air-drumming to Phil Collins together. To cement her celebrity-executive status, she turned heads at Apple’s 2016 WWDC, then appeared in an Apple Music ad herself with James Corden.

What they all have in common is taking something that was largely marketed as an algorithmically driven service (Spotify) and positioning Apple Music as a human-powered passionate alternative. She told Fast Company in 2016 that Washington-Henson-Blige spot largely defied traditional marketing. “You have these three Black women who are mature and who are listening to music much in the same way you do with your friends, and you don’t look anything like them,” she said. “The passion and the emotion of that interaction is universal.”

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In 2017, Saint John became the chief brand officer at Uber, as the company was mid-crisis. (“Is this the woman who will save Uber?” asked The New York Times.)

About a year later, she moved on to become CMO at Endeavor, the parent company of super talent agencies WME and IMG, as well as brands like UFC, The Miss Universe Organization, and the Professional Bull Riders. So basically, for the last few years, Saint John has been at companies that either have a high cultural profile for all the wrong reasons (Uber), or for a business more behind the scenes than other major consumer brands (Endeavor).

It’s tough to see the work from Uber at her time there without the caveat of that company’s overall troubles. And at Endeavor, she actually worked on another crisis brand in Papa John’s, which hired the company in 2018 to help it navigate out of its founder-led PR nightmare.

In both cases, whether it’s Uber’s “Moving Forward” spot with CEO Dara Khosrowshahi essentially apologizing for the company’s toxic culture, or Papa John’s using angry customer tweets to say sorry for John Schnatter’s racist missteps, the work was largely overshadowed by each company’s self-inflicted wounds. That said, in both cases, she made an emotional appeal.

Netflix is going to let Saint John do what she does best

By taking the top marketer job at Netflix—a company not currently embroiled in a scandal—we’re finally going to see again what she does best. Given that Netflix is at a point where it is trying to amp up its marketing around the overall brand, when you consider Saint John’s bona fides at Pepsi and Apple, perhaps the timing is perfect.

While Saint John didn’t give any preview of what her approach and strategy at Netflix might be, her work has always been rooted in pop culture, and she’s often talked about the importance of listening to figure out what’s coming next.

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At SXSW in 2019 she said, “Put your hand in the air and feel the wind. Start paying attention to what people are talking about—what they’re emotionally reacting to.”

In a 2017 interview with Recode, just as she was starting at Uber, she said she wanted to help people develop brand love for the company, instead of just seeing it as a utility, something it has in common with Netflix. “I do drive from the gut. I really do. You start to make mistakes when you just do the math and start to look at research and say, ‘Okay, well, this demographic says this, and that demographic says that,’ it’s too robotic . . . . For me, I want to think about what is happening at the time. What are people thinking about? What’s driving them? . . . . It’s important for people to understand how you feel (as a brand) . . . . It’s not about the facts and the figures, even though at the end of the day it really is. Point is, you want to tell the story from a point of emotion.”

Netflix loves to tout its viewership numbers, like the 65 million households it says watched Spenser Confidential (thinking face emoji) or the 64 million people who watched Tiger King (more believable). We’ve all long had it in our heads that it knows what we want to watch when we want to watch it, which is why if you watch Peaky Blinders, the app will soon suggest Ripper Street. Magic!

Saint John will likely aim to balance some of that algorithmic wizardry by telling stories of why we like these shows—and why so many see that red N as a beacon in the entertainment wilds. And there’ll be no surprise if she does it with some celebrity style.

Last year, WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt said, “Netflix doesn’t have a brand. It’s just a place you go to get anything—it’s like Encyclopedia Britannica.”

Now it’s Saint John’s opportunity to take Netflix’s encyclopedic library and create some brand emotion to go along with it.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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