A Hulu exec details how elaborate partnerships ‘surprise and delight’ audiences and boost followings for big releases like Oprah-produced ‘Black Cake’

  • Hulu is leaning on Barnes & Noble and HBCUs to make Oprah-produced drama series “Black Cake” a hit.
  • Promotional partnerships play a critical role in driving awareness of new streaming releases.
  • A Hulu exec described her approach to partnerships for shows like “Only Murders in the Building.”

“Black Cake,” Disney’s Hulu’s adaptation of Charmaine Wilkerson’s New York Times bestseller that centers on a Black family and spans decades and geographies from Jamaica to Scotland to California, has a lot riding on it. The adaptation, from creator-showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar (“Women of the Movement”), Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, and Aaron Kaplan’s Kapital Entertainment, sparked a bidding war before being picked up by Hulu in 2021.

Hulu collaborated with Barnes & Noble to give the book’s fans a sneak peek of the first two episodes around the series’ November 1 premiere — the first time the streamer has offered such a perk. Several Caribbean bakeries across the United States will distribute free samples of black cake, the rum-soaked treat at the heart of the story. Historically Black colleges and universities, including Spelman College and Howard University, will promote the book during homecoming and parents’ weekends.

With promotional partnerships becoming more common in streaming, Adia Matthews, VP of Partnership Marketing at Hulu, and her four-person team are responsible for ensuring that Hulu’s efforts have the greatest possible impact. And, with Hollywood actors still on strike and barred from promoting any projects distributed by the major entertainment companies, such collaborations are more important than ever in spreading the word about new releases.

“Partners are very important in terms of building awareness among broad audiences and especially specific audiences that we want to target — not just so that someone knows that a new series is about to release, but allowing people to understand this story is for them or it’s going to resonate,” Matthews said in an interview with Insider. “We really see them not just as collaborators, but also storytellers alongside us.”

Hulu’s collaborations begin with the audience.

Matthews and her team put together about a dozen partnerships tied to major releases each year. They begin by learning about the specific series or film and its intended audience. They determine which categories, such as retail or beauty products, share that audience and look for specific brands or companies that might be a good fit for a collaboration as vibrant as the entertainment itself.

“I’ll watch screeners while the team reads scripts.” We’ll really immerse ourselves in figuring out what the hooks are that we can lean into, what the elements are that will really resonate with an audience.” Matthews explained. “It’s also important to consider who the audience is. What is our positioning, what are our insights telling us, who are the key demos we want to target, and how will a story resonate with those key audiences?”

For “Black Cake,” Hulu focused on the book’s fan base and defining themes.

“The fanship around the novel was definitely a pillar that we wanted to lean into,” Matthews went on to say. “However, there are other factors to consider, such as the fact that this is an authentic representation of a Caribbean family and a Caribbean lived experience.” And it’s set in Jamaica, the United Kingdom, and Southern California, and it depicts intersectionality in a way that you don’t always see on screen.” She also thought the intergenerational theme of the story would appeal to HBCU students and their families.

Other recent collaborations have leaned toward humor and retail while remaining true to a show’s audience and relevant partners.

Hulu collaborated with Mexican-American actor Danny Trejo’s LA shop Trejo’s Coffee and Donuts to create custom donut flavors inspired by the show and give them away on the season’s opening weekend to raise awareness of season 2 of “This Fool,” a Hispanic-aimed comedy set in Los Angeles. Hulu enlisted Postmates as the exclusive delivery service for the donuts to amplify the campaign.

In order to promote season 3 of the comedy-thriller “Only Murders in the Building,” Hulu collaborated in a few ways with star Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty makeup line. At Comic-Con, Hulu had an activation where a vending machine dispensed products from the season. “It was a kind of surprise and delight,” Matthews said. “You didn’t know what you were going to get.”

An Instagram Live video of makeup artist Cynthia Di Meo recreating Gomez’s look as the character Mabel Mora was also included in the effort. Influencers were treated to makeup demos at a Sephora location in Hollywood before watching the season finale.

Partnerships need to drive results for both parties

According to Hulu, the program resulted in extensive press coverage for the show as well as a significant increase in social media followers to over 1 million. Samba TV, a TV data company, tweeted at the time that viewership for the season 3 premiere was up 14% from the season 2 premiere.

Getting partners on board necessitates ensuring that the deal also meets their objectives. Customers must be Premium Members of Barnes & Noble ($39.99 per year) to view the “Black Cake” sneak peek, which allows the bookseller to promote its rewards program.

According to Matthews, one of the company’s priorities is B&N’s premium membership, and “there’s certain ways that they look to engage their members, and it aligned with how we were looking to drive awareness for the story.”

Matthews has been with the Walt Disney Company for eight years, and she has been in her current position for two. She began her career working on marketing partnerships to promote Disney film releases before moving on to roles focused on loyalty and fan engagement, which she now brings to Hulu across a variety of programs.

“Some are going to be really broadly appealing, some are going to be really fun, some really need to be treated with nuance and care because they’re important stories to tell,” she told me. “And how you tell them and how you tell them with partners is really critical.”

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