Marketing Lessons from Orange is the New Black

When the critically acclaimed show (now Emmy-nominatedOrange Is the New Black premiered on Netflix last July, it broke new ground. More than proving that audiences are hungry for “binge worthy” content, it moved characters of diverse identities and cultural backgrounds from the periphery of television drama to center stage.

Beyond the show’s provocative storylines, the way Netflix has marketed the series has been equally compelling. Netflix has illustrated, once again, that the right marketing mix and choice of channels are only as powerful as the brand and stories behind them.

Netflix took traditional marketing by storm in New York City (where the story takes place) covering city buses, subway station platforms, and telephone posts with OITNB advertisements—even blanketing the entire front façade of a SoHo building with video advertisements.

In a more strategic—and cause-related—effort, Netflix partnered with member-shopping site and the non-profit organization, Dress for Success, to provide professional attire to disadvantaged women. Drawing inspiration from an OITNB episode when a rep from Dress for Success offers wardrobe advice to the inmates, the real-life partnership featured the OITNB cast posing in chic workwear, offered at Gilt’s discount designer prices. For every item it sold, an item was donated to Dress for Success.

Netflix and OITNB then partnered with the radio-streaming platform, Pandora. Instead of just streaming the show’s soundtrack, Netflix went a step further by curating individual character stations, giving listeners the chance to customize various character playlists. For example, Piper Chapman, the character at the center of OITNB, favors the avant-garde and gloomy sounds of artists such as Lana Del Rey, Billie Holiday, and Nada Surf. The result? An authentic and inspiring expression of a character sentenced to 15 months in a women’s federal prison, reflecting Piper’s distance from the privilege and comfort of her pre-prison Park Slope lifestyle.

While brands are continuing to crack the code on “native advertising,” Netflix & OITNB’s sponsored ad in The New York Times garnered plenty of positive attention. Integrating video and interactive charts, it leveraged the narrative and landscape of the show to open up a broader discussion about female incarceration in the U.S. According to Professor Mike McKean at Missouri School of Journalism, what set the piece apart from other native advertising campaigns is its quality. McKean says, “The likelihood of clicking away before you scroll down and read much content is a lot higher than the average piece of native content. This is not average.”

So, what can brands learn from the sum of Netflix’s efforts?

Strategic brand partnerships are a powerful way to extend the reach of your story.

Smart use of platforms and channels hinge on the clarity and authenticity of a brand.

Going against the grain can be a good thing. Strong brands aren’t afraid to take the lead, but always invite the consumer into the brand experience.

Content is still king: unearthing the core of your brand story and learning to tell it in ways that move and excite new audiences is vital to success. 

From bringing characters of diverse walks of life into the mainstream, to placing bold bets on branded-content, OITNB has been a trailblazer in more ways than one. It has illuminated injustices and humanized the stereotyped as effectively as it’s won over countless viewers—and, for all its impact, it might just win an Emmy, too.