When Bozoma Saint John came to Colorado Springs from Ghana as a 12-year-old, she had to reinvent herself.
“I was trying to just be,” said Saint John, now the chief marketing officer for Netflix. “But my classmates were obviously so interested in where I came from.”
They only knew Africa from what they saw on TV — ads about poverty, distended bellies, and flies clustered around the eyes of hungry children.
“All these things that were not my reality in Africa. I knew the richness of the culture, the beauty of the language, the deliciousness of the food, the greatness of the music,” she said. “All of those things were a part of my experience but none of them knew that. So it fell on me to try and express it.
“Was I believed? Probably not.”
Now, she’s in a position to connect 12-year-olds with new things. And even if they have never met another person from anywhere outside of their hometown, she hopes they can be transported into a place where they will have a better understanding of the world around them.
Saint John spoke at Variety’s 2021 Entertainment and Technology Summit last week with Variety editor-in-chief Claudia Eller. With a long record in marketing for companies, including Apple and Uber, Saint John joined Netflix in June 2020 in the heat of the pandemic, a time when folks worked to find new ways to connect with one another and the world.
“In this moment, trying to find new ways to connect to people has been one of perhaps the greatest joys for me.”
It’s also central to her marketing strategy.
“It can feel very emotional,” Saint John said. “And that’s the thing about the strategy of marketing that I love the best. How can I help you to see yourself in the product or the service that I’m talking about?”
At Netflix, she has a lot of opportunities for helping audiences make those connections and expand them.
“I think this is the beauty of being part of a storytelling brand, that people can find all kinds of experiences, adventures, similarities, themselves, in the stories, and it is really beautiful to be able to continue to explore that,” she said. How much more diverse can we get in our storytelling? How much more adventurous?
“How do we just do a better job of connecting to people? How do we reflect them better?”
Saint John said that part of the magic is that there is no formula.
Sometimes, the old methods are as good as the new. Billboards still exist, and they’ve been around since ancient times. In Ghana, she said, talking drums are a way people have created and maintained connections over-the-air.
“The idea of it is to celebrate Blackness in all kinds of things, across borders. And so it’s about being able to elevate the storytelling of what is happening with characters who operate in Blackness, across all of our content.” she said.
“There’s lots of different types of audiences that we want to talk to and make sure that we’re also keeping an open dialog.”
It’s a way for the company to speak, but also to get feedback, ideas, criticism, and sometimes backlash.
“Sometimes you need that,” she said. “I don’t want to shy away from that at all. I think it’s really important for us to really hear what people think. Who wants to have yes-men all the time?…We want truth in that relationship, authenticity. And it’s a really great way to get that on social media, as long as you’re not afraid of it.”
In Mexico, Netflix aimed for a moment of widespread celebration to hype the launch of its series on Selena, the singer who died in 1995. The company coordinated with radio stations, having them play Cumbia music at 6:00 p.m. the night before the premiere.
“And we told people it was coming,” she said. “If you’re in traffic, or if you’re in your kitchen, or if you’re outside walking your dog, we want you to stop and dance to the Cumbia music. It’s a moment when everyone stops to celebrate.”
They also encouraged folks to dance to the music and make videos and upload them to TikTok. It broke the Mexican record for most videos uploaded in an hour, she said.
(You can see them on TikTok at #selenanetflix)
“I mean, what a privilege that is, to now be in a seat where I’m trying to do that for other people,” Saint John said. “So that’s the strategy. Connect people. Make all of our experiences better. And if I can do that I feel so accomplished, I feel great.”