As fans prepare to return to Hawkins, Indiana, with the upcoming release of the fourth season of “Stranger Things,” arguably one of Netflix’s most anticipated premieres of the last three years, the streaming giant’s approach to world building could provide a road map to how it plans to lean on its marketing machine to remain dominant in an increasingly competitive streaming landscape.
Netflix upended the TV model when it began rolling out its own original content a decade ago. But what had previously made it an existential threat to TV incumbents, has become commonplace, as mega-brands like Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and NBCUniversal create streaming destinations with their own vast content libraries. And now, Netflix finds itself facing down a veritable army of competitively priced streaming rivals armed with decades worth of fan-favorite franchises as well as fresh originals—not to mention the myriad other platforms Netflix competes against.
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“The competition is for attention, and FASTs [free ad-supported streaming] and YouTube are making a strong play for audiences now,” said Andrew A. Rosen, a former Viacom digital media executive and founder of consulting firm Parqor.
As Netflix is thinking about its business strategy moving into its second decade in the original content business, it's also facing new challenges. The company recently reported a subscriber loss for the first time in roughly 10 years following a prolonged period of slowed growth. In order to continue growing its subscriber base, Netflix has begun experimenting with ways to crack down on password-sharing. And after years of publicly balking at the idea of ads on its service, Netflix is gearing up to introduce a cheaper ad-supported model that could arrive as soon as the end of this year.
At the same time, Netflix is nearing the end of the run of what is, by many metrics, its most successful title to date. "Stranger Things,” which will release its fourth season in two volumes, on May 27 and July 1, respectively, will be followed by a fifth and final season. While Netflix may very well decide to expand its “Stranger Things” universe to include spin-offs or video games, the supernatural mega-hit has undoubtedly reached a crossroads.
The “Stranger Things” phenomenon—driven primarily by a rabid fan base who can’t seem to get enough of it—has culminated to date in two mobile games; multiple immersive fan experiences; and innumerable brand collaborations. For Netflix, worldbuilding for its biggest franchise titles is something it has been steadily leaning into—and a strategy for which it will need to be decisive and aggressive if it hopes to hold its streaming throne against competitors including Disney, whose own Marvel, Star Wars, and other properties have fostered some of the most dedicated fan followings in history.
“The entertainment industry has been doing this primarily with theatrical motion pictures for decades,” said Eric Frankel, a former Warner Bros. TV executive who now runs marketing company AdGreetz, a marketing services company. “It's only brand new, I would argue, in the streaming business because we haven't seen a lot of this yet.”
To be sure, Netflix has developed mega-hits beyond the “Stranger Things” universe—particularly in “Bridgerton” and “The Witcher,” each of which had fervent communities in place prior to their adaptations at Netflix. But “Stranger Things,” the third season of which ranks number three on Netflix’s list of most popular English-language TV shows, is a master class for how the company should be driving fanfare around its biggest releases moving forward—particularly up against legacy industry Goliaths who’ve been in the TV and movie hype-machine business for longer than Netflix has existed.