Netflix made sure that viewers had ample opportunity to learn about “Wednesday,” the macabre hit starring Jenna Ortega.
You might come across this when in an airport security line, they toss their belongings into a tray and ask, “What would Wednesday do?” Or check out the title character on the Uber app when they’ve ordered a ride. Or they might bump into him on TikTok, where it seemed like everyone from the Ukrainian soldier to the hip granny performed the title character Arm shaking, addictive dance set to the song by Lady Gaga “Bloody Mary.”
Whatever the case, the marketing resources Netflix devoted to the series helped make it a worldwide sensation. The push involved shifting Netflix’s social media resources from sites like Twitter and Instagram to TikTok after the amateur dance videos went viral. There was also a campaign where local markets around the world adopted the slogan “What would Wednesday do?”. correspond to the taste and culture of their country. (Billboards in Los Angeles cheekily read, “I’ve read your script. It’s time to reconsider your writing career.”)
According to Netflix, the series’ eight episodes were viewed for 1.24 billion hours in the first 28 days they were available. This makes it the streaming service’s second-most-watched English-language series, right behind Stranger Things season four.
The film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery had a widely promoted (including TV commercials) week-long theatrical run on Thanksgiving that reportedly generated $15 million in ticket sales. After that, an escape room in Los Angeles and a handful of crime dinners across the country — and more commercials — helped keep word of mouth alive until the expensive, star-studded sequel premiered at church services around Christmas time. In the first 28 days, 279.7 million hours were watched, making it the fourth most watched English-language film on the service, according to Netflix.
Netflix’s marketing tactics are a testament to an evolving strategy for a company that faces a much more competitive streaming market — and is trying to cater to an increasingly capricious audience. Struggling with a maturing US market, Netflix has introduced an advertising tier and is cracking down on password sharing. Also, the company has essentially replaced its original creative team, opting for executives with broader tastes to serve a global market.
To sell this evolution of the world’s largest streaming service, the company is relying on Marian Lee, its third chief marketing officer in three years.
“I’m trying to enable creativity because I want to bring all of this content to more people around the world,” Ms. Lee said in an interview at Netflix’s Los Angeles headquarters. “I also want the rest of Netflix to understand what the marketing strategy is: we support the content organization.”
She stayed up late the previous night to finish watching the reality show Full Swing and said she cried in her bathroom when it finished.
“I’m watching everything and I’ll tell you where I think that’s really going to show up,” she said.
Despite Netflix’s years of success, the company never really took off in marketing. That’s largely because the streaming service itself is the biggest marketer, and spending on expensive commercials or ads doesn’t always improve viewer retention.
In 2019, the marketing department was moved under Ted Sarandos, who was previously head of content and is now co-CEO. He hired BBC Studios’ Jackie Lee-Joe as Chief Marketing Officer. She left the company after just ten months when Mr. Sarandos surprised many at Netflix by naming Bozoma Saint John as the new CMO
Ms Saint John used her impressive social media presence – she has 424,000 followers on Instagram – to host her own lifestyle events under the nickname @badassboz while also leading the Netflix marketing team, but her influence on the series and films from Netflix proved less fruitful.
Ms. Lee was the Global Co-Head of Music at Spotify when Ms. Saint John hired her in July 2021. She was promoted to chief marketing officer in March 2022 after Ms Saint John left. Unlike her predecessor, Ms. Lee’s Instagram account is private, and when she was offered Ms. Saint John’s office, she declined, opting to remain in the office she held, which was closer to her staff.
Netflix’s marketing budget has remained fairly constant, growing from $2.2 billion in 2020 to $2.5 billion in 2022. But Ms. Lee’s 400+ strong global team has a subtle shift in strategy made, in which many of those dollars were shifted to focus on individual titles as opposed to the branding of the streaming service itself.
Still, the amount of money allocated to marketing remains relatively small considering that Netflix spends $17 billion annually on its programming. And when filmmakers and showrunners complain about working with Netflix, the complaints are often directed at the marketing department, which they say can be constrained by their budget. Traditional studios have tried to capitalize on this problem, arguing that they might pay less upfront for a project but invest more in marketing to let people know when it’s coming out.
“The old studios spend more on marketing,” said Tripp Vinson, producer of the Netflix films Murder Mystery, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. The first film came out in 2019 and the second became available to Netflix subscribers on Friday.
“But what interests me as a producer?” he added. “They think the more you spend, the better chance you have of reaching your audience with this tried and true, traditional marketing tactic. Well, I know from Murder Mystery 1, whatever Netflix did to market this movie, the number of viewers I’ve had, that’s what matters to me. And they were amazing numbers.”
For “Murder Mystery 2,” the streaming service added a second premiere at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, international billboards, and commercials during the National Football League’s divisional playoffs. It has also teamed up with the social media star Mr. Beast offering an unknowing couple a surprise trip to the Paris premiere. The first film landed back on Netflix’s top 10 list a week before release, and the company’s expectations for the sequel are high.
Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s chief content officer, dismisses the notion that the company has not aggressively marketed certain series and films in the past.
“I think the tension is that people feel like there’s only one traditional way to do it and they don’t realize that we market in so many different ways,” she said, pointing out that the service’s social media channels reach 800 million people worldwide.
However, filmmakers have noticed a difference in Ms. Lee.
“As soon as she arrived, she would come down to see what we were doing and visit the set often,” said Debbie Snyder, producer of the $80 million sci-fi extravaganza Rebel Moon, on which her Directed by husband Zack Snyder .
The film, scheduled to premiere on December 22, is planned to be the first in a trilogy. Did Ms. Snyder receive the same personal attention when the Army of the Dead movie debuted in 2021? “No,” she said. “Not at all.”
Netflix film chairman Scott Stuber said the marketing department under Ms. Lee is more aligned with the company’s content side. He noted that he was particularly impressed by her nimble approach, such as her ability to keep the excitement for Glass Onion post-launch.
“I like someone who actually knows the old playbook but is also very interested in rewriting the rules for the new playbook,” he said.
In February, members of Ms. Lee’s brand marketing team crowded into a conference room to discuss, among other things, “The Marquee,” a handful of high-tech billboards with succinct messages that rotate weekly and appear in strategic locations around the world like Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Times Square in New York and Les Halles in Paris.
She listened carefully to the presentation: The plaque at the Trevi Fountain will be moved to a different location in Rome, to a location that’s less of a tourist destination and more of a place local Netflix subscribers can get to; Times Square is getting an innovative billboard that’s easier to program and still looks like the physical one on Sunset Boulevard. A marquee is coming to Warsaw soon.
“The point of the board is to have fun, be nervous and push to the edge,” said Ms. Lee.
“I know it’s a lot of pressure because they have to come up with a new message every week,” she added, “but if they’re just using it for something lame, I’d rather not do it.”