Netflix's 'Strong Black Lead' Marketing Team Shows the Power (and Business Benefit) of Amplifying Black Voices

Strong Black Leads -graphic- H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

The streamer's growing library of Black programming has led to spinoff projects (the #HeyQueen video series and 'Okay, Now Listen' podcast) and necessary conversations on race in the industry: "It's time to shift the narratives in Hollywood."

On June 28, 3.7 million people watched as the BET Awards went virtual amid not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also uprisings for racial justice happening daily across the country. The show (largely) successfully closed in around a tagline — "Our culture can't be canceled" — and struck a harmonious balance between the gravitas of the Movement for Black Lives and the need for celebratory entertainment.

Two years prior, in that very awards ceremony, Netflix's Strong Black Lead marketing team premiered its "A Great Day in Hollywood" commercial, tying the current wave of reinvigorated interest in Black stories to an iconic 1958 photograph by Art Kane, which captured jazz greats from Thelonious Monk to Dizzy Gillespie, in Harlem during the genre's golden era. With 47 Black actors, writers, showrunners and producers across 20 shows, the spot aimed to bring a message into sharp focus: "This is not a moment, this is a movement." It wasn't merely a response to hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite, but rather a harbinger of what was to come as SBL worked to establish a cultural resonance, combining marketing and editorial in a concerted effort to shift the ethos and culture within the Netflix brand.

"You know it was special when you started going out to talent, and everybody was like, 'I'll drop everything, just tell me when,' " says Maya Watson, Netflix's director of editorial and publishing. Reflecting on "A Great Day," she says it was almost like they sensed today's zeitgeist coming, "It was like a little whisper that I feel people felt: It's our time. It's time to shift the narratives in Hollywood. It's time to have more representation."

Strong Black Lead is a sub-brand of Netflix that amplifies content specifically targeted to various slices of the Black experience. While it has its own vertical on Netflix, boasting the deepest bench of Black programming among the top streaming services, it has also become a popular brand outside the platform at the cross-section of technology, culture and community-building.

"A few Black [staffers] were like, 'Hey, we want to start prioritizing and talking to the Black audience,' " says Watson, who, before moving to Netflix, worked for Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama. "Our colleagues were like, 'Cool, what do you need from us to get it done?' "

Since then, the team has worked to establish SBL as an integral part of Netflix through editorial content and original programming created exclusively for the brand. With almost a half-million followers on Instagram and 163,000 and counting on Twitter, successful initiatives include the #HeyQueen shortform video series featuring such celebrated Black women as former first lady Michelle Obama and Angela Bassett reciting affirmations, the Strong Black Legends podcast and video series where stars of classic Black movies are interviewed, and #BetweenTwoFaves, which highlights conversations among icons across the Black diaspora in entertainment. (One of the most popular was a chat between Phylicia Rashad and Cicely Tyson timed to their latest film, Tyler Perry's A Fall From Grace.)

Myles Worthington, who worked for Netflix PR before joining the SBL team as a director, says one standout has been the biweekly podcast Okay, Now Listen with Sylvia Obell and Scottie Beam. Close friends, the two Black women discuss what they're dealing with at any given moment — from belting out gospel to speaking candidly about sex — with a firmly Black cultural frame of reference (Nora Ephron, in one episode, is referred to as "the white Terry McMillan").

Obell says working with SBL gave her the budget to do Okay, Now Listen properly and an all-Black team supporting her on a day-to-day basis. "It's empowering," she said, adding that it's a "safe space for Black women to create something dope."

Jasmyn Lawson, a manager on the team who also produces its podcasts, says that at the beginning of SBL they weren't sure what to post. Netflix had original series like critical darlings Dear White People and She's Gotta Have It, but their programming needed a broader voice, so they turned to data to find out what else resonates with viewers.

"Ninety percent of the time the things that would perform well and things people were responding to were things where we were celebrating Black culture," Lawson recalls. "We homed in on what we were great at."

In the broadcast TV eras of the '90s and early aughts, entire programming blocks were built around shows with majority Black casts. UPN evenings were anchored by Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris. Fox's North Star was In Living Color. But when the rubber met the road, consistent marketing dollars were not given to shows with majority Black casts and audiences. Now, with Netflix's marketing budget growing to $2.6 billion in 2019, the opportunities are plentiful for a team like SBL and its sister verticals (NetflixIsaJoke, theMost and Con Todo) to build out their content and reach.

"Being able to aggregate content, voice, style and design toward any particular demographic, in this case people of color, is just smart online community-building," says Richard Lachman, associate professor of digital media at Ryerson University in Toronto. "These sub-brands can be empowered to build relationships with press, creators and audiences on their own."

Defining "Black content," however, can be a bit nebulous. For example, does Shonda Rhimes' programming count, even when she has majority white casts? The answer may come down to how the consumer engages with it.

While some Netflix titles like Dear White People are no-brainers, Lawson notes that what the SBL audience sometimes wants to talk about isn't so obvious. "One of my favorite shows on Netflix is Sex Education, which isn't a Black show. It isn't even a U.S. show," she says. "But there's a character named Eric played by Ncuti [Gatwa] that the audience has loved and is obsessed with. I think it's something really rare. He's not just like the Black best friend. You get to explore his queer identity, his religious identity, his African [identity] as well as his Britishness in the show."

Celebrating legacies is also a priority for the brand, especially through the Strong Black Legends podcast. The series aims to give beloved performers their flowers while they can still share in the moment, and one of those moments went viral in a very bittersweet way. Just a few months before his death, actor John Witherspoon was interviewed by host Tracy Clayton. A Netflix promotional photo of the Friday star was widely shared upon news of his passing, and was even displayed at his funeral. 

“People only really see the final output, you only see that wicker chair photo, you only hear that interview," says Netflix community manager Dani Howe of the image. "But. in my head, I thought, 'Wow. Jasmyn worked her ass off and a Black woman did that. A Black woman gave us that final moment.' "

These moves have not inoculated Netflix from growing pains when it comes to addressing diversity and inclusion. In 2018, former communications chief Jonathan Friedland was fired over his repeated use of the N-word. In November 2019, comedian and Oscar-winning actress Mo'Nique sued the company, alleging race- and gender-based discrimination over the pay she was offered for a stand-up special. Most recently, British multihyphenate Michaela Coel revealed that her critically acclaimed series I May Destroy You didn't land at Netflix, despite a $1 million offer, because of the company's unwillingness to allow her to retain a share of the copyright.

The streamer's public U.S. workforce demographics also show there's still work to be done: Only 7 percent of the staff is Black (although that is almost double the reported figures from 2018).

Lachman says it's important that offering inclusive content doesn't distract from fixing those underlying issues. "Inclusion can't only be marketing," he says. "It needs to reach the level of the senior executive and the key decision-maker." (Tendo Nagendo is vp original film and in July, Netflix hired Bozoma Saint John as chief marketing officer.)

Adds TimeJump Media CEO Larissa Lowthorp, "A market vertical, or niche focus, will backfire if the audience perceives that it's been done solely to capitalize on current trends, consumer sentiment or tragedy. In order to be successful, and also ethical, the marketing niche must be driven by a genuine need to serve and represent a specific audience, use their core data, test viewership and [use] feedback to better the brand."

The SBL team isn't shying away from those tough conversations. "We're at a time now where people are being very critical and should be very critical of the companies that are creating our content," says Lawson. "I want our audience to respect us for listening to them, [and know] that we are giving opportunities to Black directors and Black folks behind the scenes."

That Black content is currently trending isn't good enough for SBL's team. They want it to be sustainable. With Netflix's marketing machine at its back, and direct, authentic interaction with their audience, they're able to understand what people want.

"We have super insights sitting there in the comments," says Worthington. "Here's the storylines, the characters, the creators that really resonate. They can use this as a way to deeper understand the audience and they can make better choices on product content decisions."

Investments of this sort recently paid off in a significant way. After Netflix acquired seven classic Black UPN shows, including Girlfriends and Moesha, SBL turned the news into a viral moment for the company with a tweet that nabbed 170,000 likes and prompted the approving hashtag #okaynetflix to trend.

"You can't make a campaign like this," Watson remarks. "It comes from a deep place of understanding the void in the marketplace. And then saying, 'This needs to exist.' "

SHAMIRA IBRAHIM is a Brooklyn-based freelance culture writer and essayist.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.