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Beyond the Binge: 4 Business Lessons from Stranger Things

Beyond the Binge: 4 Business Lessons from Stranger Things
Netflix’s hit series, Stranger Things, may tap into everyone’s inner '80s fan, but there’s also some great business advice to be taken from the land of the Upside Down.

SPOILER ALERT - This post contains spoilers about season one of Stranger Things. If you haven't yet watched it, get binging, and I’ll meet you back here.

Full disclosure: The '80s were my time, the cast of every Steven Spielberg /John Hughes/Rob Reiner movie were my people. The music, the hair, the clothes, the food, the bikes. I lived it in real-time, un-ironically.

Case in point: the doomed BFF character, Barb from Stranger Things, setting of 1983:

Barb from Stranger Things in the setting of 1983


And this is me in real-life, 1983:

Jennifer in 1983

I wasn’t kidding when I said the '80s were my time, my people. I’m just glad I stayed clear of Steve’s pool.

So not surprisingly, I loved season one of Netflix’s nostalgic and creepy series, Stranger Things, set in 1983 Middle America. I watched the entire season twice last year when it first came out, and I'm waiting with bated Gen-X breath for season two to air on October 27th.

While there were a lot of things I thought the creators got right about season one of Stranger Things from an entertainment perspective, I couldn't help but think about some of the takeaways from a business perspective.

Maybe I’m trying to justify my binge watching by turning it into a clickbait, work-related blog post. But there are aspects of the show that resonated with me in terms of managing a business, creating ideas, and marketing it all back to the people.

Make an emotional connection

If you’re in marketing or sales, you already know that you need to make an emotional connection with your audience, regardless of what you’re selling. It’s like the golden rule. The stronger, the better. Emotion is what moves people to buy, sell, change their behaviour, and do what you want them to do.

There are always skeptics that say, “Well, I didn’t buy my bathroom cleaner based on emotion.”

Yes, you did.

You bought that bathroom cleaner because the spokeswoman reminds you of your beloved grannie, so you trusted that when she said in the ad, “This will take the stank out of your sink,” it was true.

Or maybe cute baby ducks always make you go ‘awwwwwwww’ so you were drawn to that particular cleaner’s label. But the bleachy smell of a different cleaner reminds you of that university summer job as a chambermaid. Not a pleasant memory so there’s no way you’d choose THAT product.

We are emotional drama queens all day long, even if we’re not conscious of it.

And that’s where Stranger Things starts off on just the right note. It uses nostalgia marketing as its secret weapon.

I knew nothing about Stranger Things before I watched the first season, other than it was rumoured to be very authentically set in the '80s. My people, my time. Just that tidbit alone was enough to pique my interest.

Then I heard there were a lot of influences from, and nods to, classic '80s movies like E.T., Stand By Me, Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movies of my time as a teenager when I didn’t just watch a movie, I consumed it, I felt it.

That’s about all I knew when I started binge-watching Stranger Things.

It’s also why on any given night last summer, the streets were swarming with people bumping into telephone poles. Pokémon GO was another brilliant, albeit short-lived, example of nostalgia marketing.

But Pokémon GO is not part of my nostalgia. I was well into my 20s when Pokémon came out the first time; I was off chasing boys and bears in the wilds of Canada’s Yukon (you should go, BTW), not playing with a Game Boy. So I wasn't as ‘touched’ by the resurgence of Pokémon’s popularity as my younger Millennial co-workers who relived their childhood fun.

Different generations have different feelings about the same events or cultural symbols and even within demographic groups there can be a lot of variation.

With nostalgia marketing, you need to be very clear who you’re marketing to, and how you want them to feel in association with your brand.

And just because someone didn't actually live through a particular generational event, they can still have a nostalgic relationship with aspects of that time.

Think of fan-obsessed shows like Mad Men or Downton Abbey. Only a small percentage of the viewers of those shows would have personally experienced those times and situations (even less so in the case of Downton Abbey), but most viewers felt a connection based on their perception of those eras.

With nostalgia marketing, you usually you want to focus on happy, more idealistic times in your target audience’s past – or at least what they perceive were happier times.


Maybe Don Draper explained nostalgia marketing the best during the Kodak ‘Carousel’ pitch:

“Technology is a glittering lure. But there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”

Be authentic

If you’ve watched Stranger Things, you know about the set design. Your mind has been blown by the set design. Authenticity is a critical part of getting nostalgia just right.

The Stranger Things set doesn’t look like someone is trying to recreate the '80s in a goofy Halloween costume kind of way; it actually feels like the real '80s. The phones, the hair, the clothes, the houses, the cars, the music, the decor. It IS the '80s, not a parody of it.

Just after Stranger Things first launched last year, I heard an interview on CBC Radio’s Day 6 with the prop master, Lynda Reiss. Reiss talked about the crew’s commitment to authenticity and how props played a powerful role in achieving it.

For example, the Dungeons & Dragons figurines the boys play with throughout season one:

"I didn't want to put plastic and have it painted. Even as far as sound goes, when the boys clunk those characters down on the board, there is a different noise a lead character makes than a plastic character." - Lynda Reiss
some of the authentic props from Stranger Things
Some of the props from Stranger Things. Check out the tin can of chocolate pudding!

This level of authenticity helps deepen the emotional connection viewers have with Stranger Things. It evokes feelings of respect and admiration for the show’s creators for committing to this level of authenticity and for treating the viewers’ memories with care and attention to detail.

Everyone talks about the importance of being authentic, but what does that mean for your business?

Being authentic in business is about doing what you promise, whether that’s in relation to your customers, your employees, your product /service, or your community.

It’s about defining your mission and goals, or brand, in a way that connects with all your stakeholder groups, and in a way that you know you can follow through on.

Rustin Hanks, the CEO of TapInfluence says authenticity works for businesses because:

  • It elevates your business above the competition
  • It builds your identity and image into something influential
  • It gives substance to your business, services, and products
  • It enables people to relate to your business
  • It helps people understand how what you offer is of benefit to them
  • It tells people that what you offer is of high quality
  • It marks you out as a reliable, trustworthy company
  • It encourages engagement and can turn audiences into advocates

The key to authenticity isn’t just being real; it’s being consistent.

As Seth Godin puts it:

“If it acts like a duck (all the time), it's a duck. Doesn't matter if the duck thinks it's a dog, it's still a duck as far as the rest of us are concerned.”

If Linda Reiss had spent all that time sourcing just the right metal Dungeons & Dragons pieces but then had Steve and Nancy making out to a song released in 1988 instead of 1983 when the show is set, it would have annoyed viewers like me who know the difference. We would have lost trust in the show’s authenticity and as a result, weakened our emotional connection with it.

So if one of your company values is about committing to environmental sustainability but the manufacturing of your product contributes to the poisoning of local wetlands, you’ve got an authenticity problem. We did a great podcast interview with Organik SEO about this very topic.

If you say on your website you’re committed to customer service but don’t train, empower, or invest in your customer support team, you’ve got an authenticity problem.

Do what you say you’re going to do. Consistently.

Be who you say you are. Consistently.

Remember:

Friends don't lie in Stranger Things

Sometimes, we all need the Upside Down

OK, so maybe your business doesn’t need the terrifying, goopy, evil, dark, monster-ridden alternate reality that is the Upside Down of Stranger Things.

The Upside Down from Stranger Things is like a different perspective

But what you do need, what we all need sometimes, is a different perspective.

I love that the Upside Down isn't a faraway planet or an evil lair. Instead, it's the same place - Hawkins, Indiana - just a different version of itself. The woods, Will’s fort, Joyce’s house, the bathroom.

Creepy evil stuff aside, it made me think about the importance of looking at a situation from another angle, or using a different lens.

It can be easy to get caught up in seeing things the same way all the time; how you approach problems, ideas, business opportunities. It can be stagnating, frustrating, and detrimental to business growth.

And yes, there are times when the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may be true, but something doesn’t have to be broken to make it BETTER.

So how do you get that new perspective on something you look at every day, like your company, your product, your sales process, your team?

Get outside inspiration

Although businesses vary, they often share the same kinds of challenges, and in turn, solutions. Expose yourself to industries different than your own, in other countries, and to people using a different model. You may discover a solution you hadn’t considered.

My version of this is often my husband. At first blush, we had very different careers. Me in marketing, he in the Canadian military, and a good chunk of his military career was in intelligence.

When we first started dating and I would tell him about what I was doing at work - developing messages for a client, trying to find the right tone, trying to convince or influence behaviour, creating key messages - surprisingly, he could relate.

Some of his team’s intelligence work involved developing messages that would resonate with people in other countries and cultures; to earn their trust, gain their confidence, to win “hearts and minds” as it were. We had different terms for things but we quickly realized how much crossover there was.

And although there were a lot of particular details he could never divulge, it was interesting and helpful to me at times to hear about different general approaches they used and challenges they encountered. For example, how a symbol of a dove on a postcard was supposed to represent peace but the locals mistook it for a chicken and thought NATO was going to hand out free chickens.

Talk to your customers

There’s no better way to escape the ivory tower of your stale perceptions about your business than to talk to your customers.

We do that here at Proposify. Part of our onboarding process after signing up for a paid plan involves asking each of our customers for a 15-minute phone call either with our CEO, Kyle Racki, or our chief product officer, Ricky Ferris.

Not everyone takes us up on the offer but a number of our customers do, and we are grateful for the frontline feedback. They tell us about their experience with our product and also about their particular business, their challenges, their opportunities.

These conversations allow us to recognize any false assumptions we might have had and help us stay focused on creating a product and service that is actually valuable to our customers.

So don’t leave feedback to just impersonal surveys and the customer support team. Get on the phone, have coffee, fly out to see them. Find out directly what they think and what their business challenges are. It could lead to a new service, redesigned feature, or an improved process.

Ask your team

This seems obvious but it’s amazing how often owners can overlook the rich resources and fresh perspectives right under their noses: their team.

Your employees aren’t there just there to crank out stuff; they’re your team. Meaning, you’re all working together toward the same goal.

If you’re the company founder, it can be an easy habit to get into of trying to do everything yourself because you had to do that in the early days of your company.

But that’s why you now have a team; to help share the load, and to bring diverse experience and perspective. So open up discussions, and not just with people in one particular department, ask everyone. You may be surprised by the innovative approaches that rise to the top given a supportive environment.

You don’t have to be big to be mighty

It’s not the CIA, or the cops, or the adults who save the day in Stranger Things. It’s the kids.

Yes, the adults get involved later on but really it’s the kids who figure out there’s something very wrong in Hawkins and are very determined to start putting plans into action.

And then there’s Eleven, a small, young, waifish girl who wields incredibly strong and special powers. But nobody would know by looking at her.

Like eleven from Stranger Things, you don't have to be big to be mighty
I’ve been practicing, but I still can’t do this.

It can be easy when you’ve got a small business, or you’re just starting out to feel like you can’t make an impression until you’re bigger, you have more money, more clients, or a larger team.

But sometimes being small means you can be agiler than a large company. You can change direction quickly, you can try new things because you haven’t yet been pigeon-holed, or you can create a new brand because you’re not locked into an old stale and crusty one.

You can experiment and fail because not everyone’s looking at you so it gives you time to learn and gain more experience before you have to perform on the big stage. You can fly under the radar and then take your competition by surprise.

“Your business has to work when it’s small in order to survive to the point where it gets big.” ― Seth Godin

Not the Harvard Business Review

Let me be clear that I’m not suggesting Stranger Things is The Harvard Business Review or Gary Vaynerchuk.

It’s a fun, well-done show, and I do think there are keys to its success that can offer real-life business lessons to all of us.

And if that helps assuage your guilt for binge-watching the upcoming season two of Stranger Things, I'm not one to judge. I’m just not sure you can claim it as overtime.

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