Netflix logo on large TV screen

Netflix PR: How the Streaming War Was Won

Very few brands hold a candle to Netflix. As CEO Reed Hastings said, their biggest competitor isn’t YouTube or Amazonit’s sleep. You don’t get 200+ million paid subscribers by accident, so studying the Netflix PR team’s strategy is worthwhile for any brand that wants even a tiny slice of their success.

Let’s take a look at how Netflix has achieved incredible market dominance through the lens of excellent PR. So, sit back, grab some popcorn and read on.

Netflix uses creative partnerships to engage fans

A smiling girl in glasses wears a Stranger Things T shirt

The Netflix PR team is never content to stay in its lane. Rather than using traditional advertising, the streaming service has used partnerships with other platforms to expand their reach.

Their sci-fi show Stranger Things is often praised for its 80s-inspired soundtrack. To capitalise on this ahead of the show’s second series, Netflix worked with music streaming site Spotify to create official playlists with the favourite tunes of the main characters.

Netflix also partnered with UK fashion retailer Topshop to produce an exclusive line of 80s-style clothes and accessories, due to the popularity of the characters’ retro outfits. Fans could even watch two episodes of the new series early at a Stranger Things-themed cinema in Topshop’s Oxford Circus store.

And the partnerships don’t stop at Stranger Things. For drug-cartel-drama Narcos, Netflix joined forces with language-learning app Babbel to help fans learn the decidedly non-textbook Spanish of the main characters.

Partnerships like these are great PR, and not just because they make for memorable stunts. When fans engage with shows they love outside of watching videos on a website, they can turn their enjoyment of Stranger Things or Narcos into something concrete that they can share with friends and family.

For more on brand partnerships read: The PR Power of Brand Partnerships

Netflix brand ambassadors

Even outside of partnerships, Netflix is great at turning fans from passive consumers into active brand ambassadors.

In 2014, they released a photo-sharing app themed around Orange is the New Black to coincide with the launch of its second series. The app made it easy to create personalised content using images or phrases from the show and share them on social media.

This was a clever tactic as it encouraged fans to rave about the show online: essentially doing Netflix’s PR for them. This is noteworthy as, according to a 2019 Edelman report, over 60% of millennials ‘trust what influencers say about brands much more than what brands say about themselves.’

Netflix uses comedy to turn potential setbacks into ace PR

Building at sunset with large Netflix sign on it

Netflix has always had a rebellious streak. As director Duncan Jones said in 2018, support from studios for smaller-budget films has ‘just disappeared. It’s gone. Dead.’ As a result, streaming sites ‘have started to pick up the slack’. This has put Netflix at loggerheads with the established media industry. Just look at Netflix’s long-running feud with the Cannes Film Festival, the exemplar of high society cinema.

Obviously, this only helps with Netflix PR. Everybody likes an underdog. Accordingly, they play up their image as a renegade.

This is evident from the way they handled the 2019 release of Narcos. If you’re not familiar, Narcos is a gritty, adult Netflix original filled with drugs, sex and violence. Netflix wanted to bring it to Thailand, but knew they’d have trouble getting it past the country’s infamously strict censorship board.

Since 2001, the government has required TV shows to block out scenes which show characters smoking. So you can imagine their attitude towards a series about Pablo Escobar.

Netflix could either give up on the Thai market entirely or let censors butcher their product. They chose the latter — but turned it to their advantage.

The Censor’s Cut

Working with PR firm Wunderman Thompson, Netflix released a trailer for a ‘Censor’s Cut’ of Narcos. Rather than removing offensive scenes, the trailer crudely scrubbed out risqué elements like guns, gore and genitalia. With the outlines left behind, of course, anybody could easily tell what had been removed.

The result was a hilarious parody of censorship and a biting take-down of the censorship board. The campaign reached 34 million people, almost half of Thailand’s population.

The Censor’s Cut worked so well because:

  • It played on Netflix’s image as tongue-in-cheek rebels who were willing to push the envelope.
  • The trailer was simple but visually distinctive. Hearing someone else discuss it wouldn’t be satisfying, and it pushed people to watch it themselves.
  • Netflix could position themselves against things nobody likes, such as censorship and government interference, without it seeming phony.

Rather than being self-righteous, Netflix handled things with comedic flair. Disarming humour is often more memorable than moral preaching.

In short, the Censor’s Cut was original, cheeky, designed to go viral and based on a core aspect of Netflix’s image. As a result, Narcos landed like a bombshell and Netflix PR saw a significant boost.

Netflix embraces memes like ‘Netflix and chill’ to broaden its reach

Netflix HQ sign doubled with 'and chill' underneath

If Netflix is famous for one thing besides midnight binge-watching, it’s the phrase ‘Netflix and chill’.

A euphemism for casual sex, the phrase was created by fans and has become a piece of pop culture. Numerous artists, TV shows and other brands have referenced it, including Ariana Grande and ice-cream confectioners Ben & Jerry’s. In 2015, one person even spray-painted the Netflix HQ’s logo to add ‘and chill’.

When Hastings launched Netflix in the late 90s, there’s no way he expected his brand would end up being linked to sex. It could have damaged the brand. Thankfully, it hasn’t.

This throws up a key point. PR is about you controlling how the public see your brand — not the other way around. If you lose control of your brand’s image, it can be hard to get it back again. One way brands can respond is to fight these changes, either by ignoring what people are saying, or silencing anyone who brings them up.

Hitachi’s Magic Wand

An example of this is Hitachi. The company’s Magic Wand device, originally intended as a therapeutic device for relieving muscle stress, quickly took on another life as a sex toy for women when it was released in America in the late 60s. It quickly become one of the most famous sex toys on the planet, and has even been called the Cadillac of vibrators.

But Hitachi, a traditional Japanese business founded in the early 1900s, wasn’t happy about it. Not wanting their name attached to a sex toy, they’ve continually asserted that the Wand is meant for healthcare, and even stopped producing it in 2013. When they brought it back in 2014, they left ‘Hitachi’ out of the product name altogether.

Did it help? Let’s just say that not many people buy a Magic Wand for muscle pain.

Hitachi is a perfect example of the Streisand effect, where trying to hide something from the public rarely helps at all.

Rather than ignoring ‘Netflix and chill’, the Netflix public relations team have embraced it. Unlike Hitachi, they have never spoken out against ‘Netflix and chill’, nor stopped anyone using the phrase — even when they’ve blatantly copied Netflix’s logo.

Netflix were delighted when, in 2016, Teen Vogue released a study showing the importance of movies and TV to couples. One of the great statistics is that for 51% of couples, sharing a Netflix password means a relationship is serious.

Netflix correctly saw that ‘Netflix and chill’ reflected positive associations with their brand. Every time someone referenced the meme, it was free PR for Netflix. And capitalising on it with the 2016 study made Netflix seem modern and ‘with it’.

There’s a lesson here. Any interaction with the public is a back-and-forth. If your audience gives your brand a new dimension that you’d never considered, think twice before fighting it.

Consider embracing the meme like Netflix — and chill.

Netflix handles a PR crisis well…

One of the best ways to measure the effectiveness of your PR skills is how you respond to a crisis.

A recent blog post, covered how the BBC has historically responded poorly to PR crises. Despite their world prestige, the broadcaster has tried to sweep bad news under the rug and ignore their problems until they burst on to the public stage.

Read more here: The BBC and PR: Why it’s a World Icon, and How it Can Stay That Way

In contrast, Netflix handled a potential PR crisis expertly. In 2018, Jonathan Friedland — ironically, their head PR spokesperson — used a racial slur in a private meeting. While abhorrent, the natural response of many companies would be to keep the incident quiet and move on. After all, Friedland held a lot of influence in the company, and had worked there for six years.

Netflix’s response was swift and decisive. Friedland was immediately fired, and Hastings sent a long, heartfelt apology to all company staff.

This is the right way to handle a potential crisis. Rather than waiting for an intern to go to the press, Netflix got ahead of the story. They washed their hands of Friedland’s awful language and demonstrated a proactive zero tolerance policy towards racism.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

PR crises almost always happen because a brand is slow on the uptake. If you can jump on potential issues right away, you’ll save yourself a lot of reputational damage.

…except when they don’t

Netflix app on tablet screen

Of course, the Netflix PR team hasn’t always been so adept at dealing with a crisis. The best example of this was in 2011, when they revamped their pricing plan.

This was back when they distributed DVDs (remember those?) alongside their streaming content. Offering both had become too expensive, so Netflix broke up their previous ten-dollars-a-month-for-everything plan into two deals: eight bucks for DVDs and eight bucks for streaming. DVD services would also be delegated to a new company, called Qwikster.

Fans were furious. They found the scheme confusing and resented the price hike.

To make matters worse, the @Qwikster handle on Twitter was already taken by a weed-smoking high-schooler. Netflix clearly didn’t do their homework.

The final blow came when Netflix spokesperson Steve Swasey admitted the 60% price increase was ‘a big number […] we’ve gone from extreme terrific value to a terrific value.’

Admitting your brand represents worse value-for-money isn’t great PR.

Unsurprisingly, this comedy of errors slashed Netflix’s reputation. The service lost 800,000 subscribers and nearly 80% of its stock price as a result.

To their credit, Netflix didn’t let this sink them.

Qwikster cancelled

They cancelled Qwikster and focused entirely on streaming content, including original series like House of Cards, Arrested Development and Stranger Things. As these shows took off and DVDs fell out of fashion, Netflix streaming-only plan was vindicated.

In many ways, the radical shift laid the groundwork for the company’s current dominance. However, they utterly messed up the execution.

Here are some lessons to take from this Netflix public relations blunder:

  • Timing is everything. It doesn’t matter if your great idea will revolutionise your business if your audience won’t keep up with you. Netflix should’ve waited a year.
  • Keep things simple. Splitting half of their business into Qwikster was always going to be unpopular, because Netflix’s key selling points were simplicity and convenience.
  • Do your due diligence. Netflix should’ve snapped up @Qwikster accounts across the net before making any big announcements.

While Netflix has had minor bumps and scrapes since, nothing has compared to 2011. As the Friedland incident shows, they’ve learnt from past mistakes and can now diffuse a potential disaster before it happens.

Get more advice on handling a PR crisis: Crisis Management in Public Relations

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