Sadly, fireworks weren’t on my mind this past Independence Day. The only thing I cared about was the premiere of Stranger Things season three, which was released the same day.
Aside from my genuine love for the show, I can only assume the anticipation was heightened by daily run-ins with dozens of Stranger Things-themed products and promotions in the weeks prior. In what seemed like the ultimate experiment in brand collaborations, Netflix partnered with everyone from Schwinn to Coca-Cola to promote this season, causing many fatigued consumers to dub the show “Sponsored Things” before it had even aired.
The collaborations were unimaginative and unengaging. For example, the fast-fashion house H&M used its license to release a “capsule collection” with an ‘80s aesthetic. Although campaign photos featured the recognizable Hawkins community pool, storytelling was minimal, and there wasn’t a lot of buzz about it. I glazed over gimmicky promos from Burger King and Baskin Robbins for similar reasons—an “Upside Down Burger” wasn’t creative enough for me to go out of my way to try.
So when rumors about a potential Stranger Things collaboration with Nike leaked, my hopes weren’t high. I figured this was another opportunity to slap a TV logo onto an unrelated product and call it a “collaborative effort.” After all, what do sneakers have to do with a TV show about monsters invading a town?
Turns out, Nike executed a far more compelling campaign than other brands when it came to telling a convincing story, engaging the show’s fanbase on social media, and creating demand for its licensed product. Here’s what we can learn from its successful approach to collaboration:
• Tease out the launch. Nike’s campaign all started with a mysterious June 10 tweet that referenced missing shipments from 1985 (the same year in which the show is set). Inevitably, this prompted fans of both Nike and Stranger Things to speculate about the collection on social media. Nike responded to tweets stating that “things are about to get strange” and 🔜🙃, which alludes to the show’s “upside down” universe.
A week later, Nike made the announcement about its collaboration with Stranger Things, stating that missing shipments were popping up piece by piece. The retailer then rolled out three different lines of products on a biweekly basis (before, during, and after the show began streaming), which continued to generate conversation about the collection several weeks beyond the season premiere.
• Make it interactive. When fans called the phone number listed in Nike’s teaser tweet, they encountered a pre-recorded message hinting at an upcoming date (June 12) and geographic coordinates (which turned out to be in Los Angeles) for a top-secret meeting with various Stranger Things characters. By throwing consumers into a real-world tangent of the fictional plotline, Nike stayed true to the show while also putting its own creative spin on the story.
• Make it authentic. Unlike most other collaborative products we can’t seem to avoid at the grocery store (Why do Game of Thrones-themed Oreos exist? Do dragons like Oreos?), Nike’s collection was perfectly designed as a modern take on the 1985 styles glorified by Stranger Things. In addition to three iconic sneaker models, the collection features “Hawkins High” shirts, hoodies and sweatpants that look as if they’re taken straight out of a scene from the show.
Although eMarketer reports 17% of consumer brands rely on partnerships as a leading channel for customer acquisition (making it more common than both paid advertising and influencer marketing), it takes careful planning and execution to make the most of a licensing investment. Nike’s collaboration—which authentically appealed to fans’ obsession with both 80’s pop culture and suspense—was masterful enough to make even the most monstrous Demogorgon swoon.