Inside Domino’s recipe for success with ‘Stranger Things’ fanatics

    NEW YORK — With viewers ditching traditional ad-supported media in droves, brand integration and product placement are experiencing a wave of innovation. That said, measuring success in the streaming age requires a different mindset than the one that worked for set-top boxes. Connecting with a smaller set of super fans may be as fruitful as reaching an audience at scale. 

    During an Advertising Week panel Monday, Netflix, Domino’s Pizza and the quick-service chain’s agency, WorkInProgress (WIP), laid out the steps behind a long-gestating partnership for the fourth season of “Stranger Things.” While the show is an undeniable hit — the latest installment stands as the streamer’s most popular English-language program to date — the campaign resonated because it catered to series devotees with carefully researched Easter eggs and attention to detail in recreating the setting and vibes of Hawkins, IN.  

    “The strategy we set out in the beginning was to reach this new demographic: younger audiences, ‘Stranger Things’ fanatics,” said Kate Trumbull, senior vice president of brand and product innovation at Domino’s.

    Trumbull said that Domino’s rarely does media partnerships and has been “burned” by them in the past. Given that, the QSR took an incredibly deliberate approach to Netflix. The two held their first call two years ago and the campaign development process spanned 18 months. Speakers compared the slow-moving nature of collaboration to dating and emphasized it led to superior creative ideas. 

    “The beauty of giving yourself time is not only the time to build the right technology, it’s the time to build the trust, the time to have things go wrong and go right and really make it bigger than you ever thought,” said Trumbull. 

    The final result, which launched in May, centers on a “mind-ordering” app that leverages a mix of facial recognition, eye tracking and gesture control to let users role-play at levitating objects and eventually order pizza in the same manner as telekinetic protagonist Eleven. Unit 9, which has previously assisted Domino’s on gamified activations, tested the underlying tech. 

    Awareness was stoked by a national packaging play that deployed some 220 million retro-themed pizza boxes. Storytelling elements included a long-form ad featuring main cast members from the series, content bridging the ‘80s setting of “Stranger Things” to a modern-day app and a custom augmented reality lens on Snapchat.

    The three-minute spot starring Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo has drawn over 8 million views to date, while the broader push has generated over 820 million earned media impressions. The landing page saw 1.7 million visits, with help from QR codes printed on the pizza boxes.

    Despite touting those figures, presenters suggested they weren’t the point. 

    “We were really looking for a partner who could give us more than just media impressions,” said Aarti Thiagarajan, Netflix’s head of brand partnerships in the U.S.

    The right fit

    Netflix, famous for its data-driven decisions, identified three essential qualities to “Stranger Things”: friendship, nostalgia and the supernatural. Plenty of other brands have capitalized on these themes. Coca-Cola resurrected its infamous New Coke product failure from the ‘80s after it was referenced on the show’s third season.

    Not as many companies have tapped into the eerier aspects of “Stranger Things,” like the Hawkins National Laboratory that experiments on children with unnatural abilities. The Domino’s mind-ordering app goes there and doles out hidden surprises to users who are willing to fully explore its virtual recreation.

    “Especially when it comes to friendship and nostalgia, a lot of brands play in that space and they feel safe in that space,” said Thiagarajan. “What I think really made this program stand apart was Domino’s … willingness to actually go there with the supernatural and the darker elements of the show.” 

    One of the reasons Domino’s and WIP were able to accurately capture the series’ careful tonal balance was access. WIP received early copies of the season four script, which has a plot line surrounding a fictional pizza chain to rival Domino’s. WIP also delved into communities on websites like Reddit to get a sense of what fans were looking for. 

    “As far as we went, fans go much deeper,” said Thiagarajan. “If we don’t immerse ourselves in the IP and we don’t understand the fandom, they will be the first to let us know.”

    That might explain why Domino’s execution paid off despite some of the results not registering as gangbusters on a surface level. A Kantar analysis revealed a 30-second cut of the ad for broadcast, titled “Strange Order,” played as average among a general population of 18- to 65-year-olds. 

    “It didn’t necessarily land,” said Trumbull. “We had to step back and ask ourselves: Does that mean that’s a failure?”

    But the creative ranked in the top 20% of ads for 18- to 49-year-olds and the top 10% among “Stranger Things” fans.  

    “Given that was our goal and the whole strategy, we succeeded, but you wouldn’t necessarily see that if you’re just trying to be everything to everyone,” said Trumbull. 


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