How ‘Cobra Kai’ is kicking butt at storytelling, marketing, and business
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
Article originally published on LinkedIn (click here to view)
“You trust the quality of what you know, not quantity.” -Mr. Miyagi
Before you go any further, and if you haven’t already, watch ‘Cobra Kai.’ It’s ok, I’ll wait.
Last fall when news circulated that ‘Cobra Kai,’ a sequel to the movie ‘The Karate Kid,’ would premiere as a new series in 2018, I got excited. I watched the press conference with Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, the two actors from the original film and I couldn’t believe that they were making a 34-year-later continuation to the original story.
Did I mention I love ‘The Karate Kid’ films? Although the sequels gradually diminished in quality, they were a special part of my childhood and those VHS tapes ran a lot of miles in playback.
But as news continued to trickle out about this series, I got a little worried.
First, the writing team behind the series, Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, were mostly known for their work on comedies, including ‘The Harold and Kumar’ series and ‘Hot Tub Time Machine.’ While I enjoy those films, they are tonally very different from ‘The Karate Kid’ and I was dubious as to how they would approach the mythology. Of late, ‘The Karate Kid’ has undergone a cheeky nostalgia. Notably, the sitcom ‘How I Met Your Mother’ had an episode where one of its main characters revised the narrative so that antagonist Johnny Lawrence was the hero and protagonist Daniel LaRusso the villain. In addition, there have been countless YouTube videos and other media that have “flipped the script” so to speak. Knowing this, it would have been easy for the writers to fall into this trap and make the series a gimmicky turn-on-its-head comedy.
Second, it was announced that the show would air on YouTube Red (soon to be YouTube Premium), a subscription service. This was a head-scratcher. Reportedly, all of the major streaming services including Netflix and Amazon Prime were interested in developing this series. So why go with YouTube Red?
Finally, would anyone care? I’m a diehard fan of this franchise but I’m not the target demographic that would make this show successful. For this show to succeed it would need to bring in new viewers from a new generation.
The show had a lot of odds stacked against it. So how and why did it succeed and succeed big?
The Miyagi Do School of Storytelling: “Lesson Not Just Karate Only. Lesson For Whole Life.”
Reviving a beloved franchise is a very dicey proposition that requires a lot of balance between appealing to your original fans and cultivating new ones. Nostalgia is a powerful lever but it comes with high expectations and a lot of baggage. The diehard fans of a franchise know every blink-and-you’ll-miss-them detail, down to the minutiae that only comes from having watched a show or movie a double or triple digit number of times. These are the fans that will be the first to watch a revival show but will be the first to abandon it if there’s even a hint of disrespect for the source material.
You also have to attract a new audience. A series like ‘Cobra Kai’ can’t rely on original fans alone. Nostalgia might muster enough attention for the first episode but by itself, cannot sustain a show for the long haul. This means expanding the lore with new characters that viewers care about and feel invested in.
The odds of pulling this off successfully are very slim. Most series or movies that attempt this fail, alienating one group or the other or worse, both.
What ‘Cobra Kai’ does so well is that it puts the focus on telling a great story. The original ‘Karate Kid’ was a pretty simple narrative. A teenager from New Jersey moves to LA where he doesn’t fit in. He falls in love with a girl only to get in trouble with her ex-boyfriend and his friends, all of whom are karate experts. He meets a sage old man who teaches him karate and some important life lessons. The movie escalates to a showdown at a karate tournament. It’s a very simple retelling of the hero’s journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell. What makes this movie so special is that it tells its story with heart, sincerity, and confidence.
‘Cobra Kai’ could have easily been self-referential or meta, making itself into a parody. YouTuber Michael Mercy explains that revival shows and movies often fall into this trap of bathos. I admit I wasn’t familiar with the term so I looked it up. Here’s a basic definition:
As Mercy further explains, ‘Cobra Kai’ avoids bathos by being absolutely sincere in its storytelling. Its characters, old and new, are relatable and unapologetically truthful. There’s no bait and switch, no wink to the camera, no “gotcha” moment. Everyone, from the writers to the actors, are confident in the story they’re telling. It takes a lot of guts to do this. Being earnest means being vulnerable and I believe it’s why the show has resonated with so many viewers.
For more on this, I highly recommend you check out Michael Mercy’s full review. It’s one of the best I’ve seen on the show:
While a good story is an essential ingredient, it’s the characters and the actors who portray them that bring that story to life. Here, ‘Cobra Kai’ succeeds in paying homage to its original characters while introducing us to new ones.
I first tuned in to ‘Cobra Kai’ because of the characters from the first film. But what amazed me was how much and how quickly I came to care about the new ones. Too often, franchises treat their characters like a zero-sum game. They feel the need to sacrifice original beloved characters in order to make way for new ones and for reasons I’ve never quite understood. Here, ‘Cobra Kai’ treats its storytelling canvas like a huge Thanksgiving dinner of abundance, not scarcity. The storytellers know that original fans revere the characters of Daniel, Johnny, Mr. Miyagi and Kreese from the first film. But they also know that to grow the audience they must add new layers to the mythology. The characters they introduce are logical extensions of the original. They’re different from the original characters, as they should be, but they aren’t pitted against them. Both Daniel and Johnny take on mentor roles to new students and yet the story never forces us to sacrifice one generation for the other. And like the original characters, the producers have cast actors who are sincere in their performances. In particular, Xolo Maridueńa, Mary Mouser, and Tanner Buchanan are standouts. The wonderful casting also applies to the supporting characters including the other students and Daniel’s wife. They each have an arc which the actors portray confidently and sincerely, enhancing the existing lore.
The Miyagi Do School of Marketing: “If Do Right, No Can Defense.”
‘Cobra Kai’s’ success is also a great case study in the most effective “marketing judo” I’ve ever seen. Take a look at the trailer for the original ‘Karate Kid,’ which came out in summer 1984:
Now, compare it to the first trailer for ‘Cobra Kai:’
They couldn’t be more different. The showrunners know that to appeal to a wide audience, it can’t use the same marketing tone from three decades ago. Instead, they created a marketing strategy that ended up being a great head fake. They took clips from the show and packaged them to make it look like a goofy comedy. Predictably, this caused some moans and groans; fueling the skepticism of original fans, while piquing the curiosity of those who had never seen the original movie.
Many people shared this trailer on social media, complete with “I don’t know about this” and “this looks so bad” disclaimers. The marketing became the butt of jokes while at the same time people continued to talk about it with an “I’ll check it out but …” attitude.
Meanwhile, I imagine the writers sitting in a room, smoking cigars, chuckling as their world domination plan unfolded exactly as they predicted.
We bought into it.
When the show finally premiered, we got a big swift crane kick to the face. Like the original movie’s protagonist, we completely underestimated the show. We went in with low expectations and what we got was a beautiful tapestry that sucked us in with sincere storytelling, respect for the mythology, great acting, and characters that we care about.
YouTube Red is owned by Google and could have easily dumped millions of dollars worth of ads on us as its sole marketing strategy. But that alone would not be enough to sustain it or drive subscriptions if the show turned out to be crappy. While there were plenty of YouTube ads for the show, I believe it succeeded because of something far more powerful.
Word of mouth.
I saw the first two episodes at a movie theater for a one night only screening along with the original film. I was hooked and before the series officially premiered, I started telling everyone about it. I tweeted out my reaction, tagging some of the people who were involved in the show and the film.
Within the next few hours, my tweets got liked by the official ‘Cobra Kai’ twitter account, ‘Karate Kid’ actors Martin Kove, William Zabka, and Pete Mitchell, lead singer of No More Kings, the band behind the song ‘Sweep the Leg.’ I even got retweeted by ‘Karate Kid’ actor, Rob “get him a body bag” Garrison.
An experience like that transcends traditional marketing. No amount of marketing dollars, no amount of Google ads can replicate this effect. This was a moment of pure fan appreciation that was acknowledged by those who are a part of the franchise’s legacy. Their enthusiasm got me excited to watch more.
Once the show was out, I posted the link to the first episode on social media and texted it out to almost everyone I knew.
I started following the ‘Cobra Kai’ fan page on Facebook and when I posted how much I loved the first two episodes, the page replied back. I saw they were doing this with all of the comments. A very smart move on their part.
After watching the entire series, I even started posting 15-second clips on Instagram stories, tagging the Cobra Kai Instagram account.
I became a ‘Cobra Kai’ PR person, all without being on their payroll.
This is what Gary Vaynerchuk calls the “right hook” following a “jab, jab, jab.” You engage repeatedly with your audience, especially your most enthusiastic fans, and then follow up with the “hook,” the ask. ‘Cobra Kai’s’ social media marketing timed its strike perfectly. They got me and a whole lot of other people to watch the show and evangelize it.
The Miyagi Do School of Business: “First Learn Stand, Then Learn Fly.”
So why YouTube Red? Why not go to Netflix, Prime, or Hulu. This was the last piece of the puzzle that baffled me until I saw writers Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald interviewed on Collider’s YouTube channel.
Currently, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu dominate subscription-based entertainment. YouTube Red was launched to capitalize on its billion+ worldwide viewers of free content. Thus far, it hasn’t gained nearly as much traction with its premium offerings. ‘Cobra Kai’ shows that YouTube is serious about capturing a big slice of this market.
In the Collider interview, the writers explain that their first pitch meeting was with the executives at YouTube Red. They reveal that initially, they didn’t take it seriously; seeing it as a “practice run” for later meetings at more established networks.
However, three factors led the writers to sign with YouTube Red:
The executives were extremely personable: they understood the concept and were very enthusiastic about the project.
YouTube Red would make ‘Cobra Kai’ a flagship program instead of letting it get lost in a sea of shows and content.
Finally, YouTube Red, like ‘The Karate Kid,’ is an underdog with a lot of promise for future growth.
And, like ‘Cobra Kai,’ YouTube Red was really smart with its marketing. They knew there was as much skepticism about their premium service as there was about the show. So, they released the first two episodes for free and are allowing people to sign up for a 30-day free trial to try YouTube Red and watch the entire series.
You may be wondering, what’s the point? Doesn’t this mean that a lot of people will sign up, watch the show, then cancel before the trial is over?
Yes, and they’re probably banking on it.
YouTube Red could have easily made a quick buck. They could have trickled out its season over several months or they could have restricted its trial. They could have set up any number of paywall “trip wires” to earn a lot of money in the short run. And considering the cost of an average movie ticket, its $9.99 monthly price tag is more than reasonable to watch all 10 episodes of the first season.
But instead, YouTube Red is allowing consumers to try its service for 30 days, binge all 10 episodes, and cancel with no strings attached. They know that people are going to share this tidbit when talking about ‘Cobra Kai.’ They’ve even included this information in all of their own marketing.
I believe they are playing a long game.
‘Cobra Kai’ is their first step to becoming a real player as a subscription platform. Because of its success, millions of people now know what YouTube Red is. It has become part of a larger conversation. But as great as the show is, it’s probably not enough to justify a long-term subscription …
YouTube has a real success with this show but the stakes and expectations are much higher going forward. ‘Cobra Kai’ has been renewed for season 2. If the show continues to deliver -and- if YouTube continues to produce more high-quality original content, then its gamble may pay off in a very big way.
And if this seems like an unwinnable fight, YouTube Red has one more kick that may be its most lethal weapon. It has YouTube. ‘Cobra Kai’ can leverage YouTube user content including positive reviews and reaction videos. This kind of organic grassroots marketing is far more powerful than a star rating, a few blurbs of text, or even mainstream media headlines. ‘Cobra Kai’ smartly compiled many of these fan reactions into a video for its own channel. This engine provides real-time market feedback with built-in accountability. Simply put, deliver great content and be rewarded with glowing customer videos. Traditional advertising can’t replicate the power of this. Moreover, neither Netflix nor Amazon have this capability on their platforms.
‘Cobra Kai’ is a rarity. It’s a perfect storm of nostalgia, relevance, marketing savvy, and really good storytelling that knocks it out of the park. Its success is a feel-good story about a feel-good mythology. But it’s also a great lesson on looking towards the future while embracing the best of the past.
[UPDATE: Cobra Kai is now streaming on Netflix. Check out my follow-up article here.]
Check out ‘Cobra Kai’ here. The first two episodes are free and the rest can be viewed with a 30-day trial subscription to YouTube Red.
John is the host of Moving Forward, a weekly podcast featuring today’s most inspiring entrepreneurs, leaders, and artists. John is also a TEDx speaker and has been featured in Cracked.com, Authority Magazine, and two pieces for Inc. (‘Find Your Voice‘ and ‘Love of Pie Formula‘). He is the co-author of the adult coloring book, ‘Corporate Cliches.’