STRANGER THINGS CEREAL HOTLINE
Concepting / Creative Direction / Copywriting
On November 6, 2018, Netflix rolled out a huge celebration of their breakout original series Stranger Things with a bounty of fan-focused experiences, branded merch partnerships, and big announcements about the show’s upcoming season. Marking the day of Will Byers’ disappearance in the show’s 80’s-set pilot, #StrangerThingsDay has since become a major annual event for both the streaming service and its top property’s passionate fanbase. In the summer of 2021, Netflix struck a deal with General Mills to get in on that year’s action with retro show-inspired takes on their most iconic brands of cereal. They tasked brand experience agency SGK Inc. with designing and producing these special limited editions of Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Cheerios.
By the time the project reached my desk, most of the stellar design work had already been approved. Each box featured a cover that played around with the iconic box designs in clever Stranger Things ways, while side panels provided fun call-backs to the show and a large flip-out panel challenged fans with two-panel puzzles stuffed with easter eggs. To cap it all off, the designers at SGK developed for the back of each box top-to-bottom artwork that glorified (in time period-perfect detail) one of three special series-themed prizes, complete with a phone number for redeeming the offer.
But there was a problem
Earlier in the year, COVID shut down production on the new season of Stranger Things, making even a firm release date impossible to share with fans. As a result, the pressure to satisfy fans’ thirst for anything Stranger Things fell largely on their external partners and projects like this. Everything related to that day had to keep the buzz going during an unprecedented lull. But filming wasn’t the only production process that the pandemic had tripped up. As November 6th crept ever closer, it looked less and less likely that General Mills would be able to produce the prizes promised on the box. They weren’t even sure if the boxes themselves would be ready for delivery on #StrangerThingsDay. Add to all of this the fact that each box would cost $19.86 (the year in which the show is initially set), and it’s easy to see why there was a strong sense that a box by itself just wasn’t going to cut it. That’s when SGK sent their box designs to me with one very pointed question:
What the hell do we do with the phone number?
Making up for the fact that there was no prize meant coming up with something truly out of this world. I couldn’t think of an idea more out of this world than diving into the sci-fi/horror world of Stranger Things itself. Drawing inspiration from Choose Your Own Adventure books, as well as PC and table-top role playing games of the 80s, callers were greeted by a fully automated journey that challenged them to help find and close an inter-dimensional rift wreaking havoc on General Mills’ corporate office. As they selected via phone keypad their path across three rounds of prompts, fans got to relive key moments of the hit series while exploring the Stranger Things world in a lo-fi way that was true to the time period but still felt fresh and unexpected.
With a wide range of potential outcomes, we were able to offer a mix of both successful and… not so successful endings. If callers got eaten by a Demogorgon or captured by nefarious government agents, they always had the choice to press 0 to try again. And many callers did, even if they happened to discover one of the more successful endings.
Once the cereal boxes showed up on shelves, the project proved to be a huge hit. It provided a fun, surprising experience that added a ton of value for fans investing $19.86 on a collectible. Unfortunately, the official number isn’t in service anymore. But who knows? Maybe operators are still standing by somewhere out there, patiently waiting for an unassuming caller to someday stumble onto another gateway to the Upside Down.