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How Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ brand partnerships can turn its fortunes upside down

The brands promoting ‘Stranger Things’ season 4 tie-ins offer a glimpse into its future.

How Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ brand partnerships can turn its fortunes upside down

Right now you can order a Domino’s pizza with your mind (sort of) on the fast-food chain’s Stranger Things-themed app extension. You can buy a Stranger Things Timex watch, and then try not to get any spicy ranch dust on it while eating your 3D Doritos out of a limited-edition Stranger Things bag. Maybe you carried that bag to school or work in your Stranger Things Jansport backpack. If snack food isn’t your thing, you can just lay back in your Stranger Things Quiksilver T-shirt after putting on some Stranger Things MAC Cosmetics, and toss a Stranger Things waffle toy with your pooch, whom you maybe named Hopper. Just don’t spoil season four’s plot for yourself by playing Stranger Things Monopoly.

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These are just a few products and brands tied to the new season of the hit Netflix show, just before the first batch of episodes drop on May 27. (Part two of the season drops on July 1.) Back in 2019, for the show’s third season, Netflix worked with about 75 different brands on Stranger Things merchandise and product tie-ins, and it all added to and built upon the cultural momentum behind the show and the overall feeling that this was a unique collective event. The series successfully replicated the feeling—and commercial licensing roster—typically reserved for the biggest blockbuster films. There was also a vibe that, because the Netflix business model relied on its massive 150 million-plus subscriber base at the time, it was the brands that needed to live up to the streaming giant’s standards, to prove themselves worthy of association with Netflix’s most popular show.

On the eve of season four, that dynamic has changed significantly, as have the stakes for these brand partnerships to add to the show’s—and ultimately Netflix’s—cultural footprint.

In its most recent earnings report last month, the company said it had lost about 200,000 subscribers, the first such drop since 2011, which saw the stock drop 37% that week, capping off a drop of more than 60% over the past year. Although Netflix still leads with more than 220 million subscribers worldwide, it is fighting to maintain that long-held streaming dominance as more competitors raise their game, whether it be Prime Video, Paramount Plus, HBO Max, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, or another upstart. In years past, Stranger Things largely had the streaming zeitgeist all to itself. Now it’s forced to face-off against Obi-Wan Kenobi, which launches on Disney the same day.

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More of a good thing

Jason Harris, CEO and cofounder of award-winning creative agency Mekanism, says that the stakes for this season’s brand collaborations are significantly higher. He isn’t concerned about the quality or the reach, however. As Netflix execs have, for the first time, publicly acknowledged the need for it to have an advertising-based streaming offering, Harris says that the platform should use some of its (up to now) massive content budget to make more brand-friendly hits. “The challenge for Netflix is there are only so many big hit shows that brands will be all over,” says Harris. “Stranger Things has nostalgia, which is super hot with younger audiences right now. But there aren’t that many shows on Netflix that are massive enough that brands would want to be associated with them.”

For Stacy Taffet, Frito-Lay North America’s vice president of marketing, the decision to be associated with Netflix and Stranger Things was easy. She had seen how Doritos had made subtle (and unofficial) past appearances in Stranger Things, and that the year in which season four takes place, 1986, is the very same one during which the brand rolled out its legendary Cool Ranch flavor. That made a tie-in pretty much a no-brainer. “On top of that, Stranger Things appeals to many different generations, especially Gen Z, which is one of Doritos’ core audiences,” says Taffet.

The chip brand is staging an online concert event on June 23, a week before the fourth season’s second installment drops, featuring throwback favorites The Go-Go’s, Corey Hart, and Soft Cell, along with contemporary hitmaker Charli XCX.

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That same young audience was also core to why Domino’s signed on. As Kate Trumball, the pizza giant’s senior vice president of brand and innovation, told Fast Company, “This is a play to reach a younger audience, and their expectations are higher. They don’t want to be advertised to in obvious ways.”

There are no Ozark-themed Doritos. That’s not to say Republic of Tea’s Bridgerton-themed tea or a Top Boy-inspired jacket from Nike haven’t been popular, but they’re just not hitting the same scale as the kids from Hawkins.

Proof is in the partnerships

It’s perhaps no coincidence that, in rolling out Stranger Things in two segments, Netflix is forcing fans to stay with the platform over at least a couple of months—and across two financial quarters. In fact, the second drop lands on the first day of Q3. The subscriber lift, or at least the lack of attrition, will certainly sound good on earnings calls. But the importance of pushing the Stranger Things brand partnerships, and finding a way to scale that across more properties, is a crucial long-term play.

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Back in 2013, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos said the platform’s goal “is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” The game has changed. With new competitors steeped in brand advertising, and especially Disney’s merchandising and brand partnership machine, its brand work with Stranger Things needs to be a proof point that Netflix can rival the House of Mouse and be that kind of brand partner. With its dedication to data-driven decision-making, the platform may be the content creator best situated to figure out, as Harris suggested, more broad-based, brand friendly shows to pair with brands. If Netflix can produce more mainstream shows that stretch across months and years, that creates more opportunities for IRL experiences, video games, and, yes, pizza. That’s what brands want when they’re looking for advertising and sponsorship deals.

And that is what will eventually help turn Netflix’s current subscriber trajectory upside down.

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About the author

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

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