When it came to launching Emmy hopeful Genius: Aretha, which tells the story of legendary singer and activist Aretha Franklin, Nat Geo pulled out all the virtual stops. And with a year of virtual production behind the Disney-owned network, it has honed its ability to pull off attention-grabbing events even though they all still must be socially distanced.
“Aretha is such an icon and her music just resonates so broadly,” said Chris Albert, executive vice president, marketing strategy and global communications, Nat Geo. “We’re doing all the normal things you do—TV, print, even some billboards in Los Angeles, but we didn’t want to do just a standard campaign. We knew we needed to break through the clutter to get noticed, and with the pandemic, the competition is as great as ever. As a marketer, I find it really exciting because it’s forcing us to think differently, come up with new ideas and work with new partners.”
To kick off the campaign, Nat Geo first sent out a press mailer that included a record player and an Aretha Franklin LP. Many of the media and influencers who received the mail posted about it on Instagram and other social media platforms, giving the event a boost prior to the virtual premiere.
On Thursday, March 11, Nat Geo hosted a virtual and real-life premiere at invite-only drive-ins in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, where the show was shot, and Franklin’s hometown of Detroit, which offered a free public event on the following Saturday as well. In Los Angeles, the event was held at the Rose Bowl, which held drive-ins even before the pandemic, with an assist from local events company The Firm.
The event started with a pre-show that opened with trumpeter Marquis Hill playing Franklin’s “Rock Steady” alone in front of empty chairs at the storied Apollo Theater in Harlem, and included performances from several of the cast, as well as a spoken word reading by showrunner, executive producer and lead writer Suzan-Lori Parks.
At the conclusion of the special, star Cynthia Erivo sang three of Aretha Franklin’s hit songs, with Erivo joined by a pianist and two on-stage audience members at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. The performance, which was pre-recorded, was produced by events company Little Cinema.
“You’re not supposed to honk when you’re at the Rose Bowl, but at the end of Cynthia’s performance, everyone honked for about five minutes,” Albert said.
After the pre-show, Nat Geo screened the first hour-long episode.
To attend the drive-ins, invitees drove up and were sent through a drive-through line that allowed them to pick up their complementary food and drink, take a photo at the drive-through step and repeat and then find their parking spot to enjoy the show.
The event was so well received that Nat Geo offered it again virtually on Sunday, March 14, with an accompanying chat.
“All told we had more than 10,000 people attend,” Albert said, including such celebrities as Spike Lee and Joni Mitchell. By comparison, a gala live event might only reach about 1,500 people. As a result, Nat Geo is thinking about how they might extend their events virtually once live events become available again, Albert said.
“We’re really thinking about what the virtual component of our events will be so that those who are not in Los Angeles can also be part of the premiere,” Albert said. “We had people from 30 or 40 different cities attend this. When we go back to live events, what is the virtual component that can live beside that?”
Beyond the virtual premiere, Nat Geo ran a Genius: Aretha spot in the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, March 14, right after Taylor Swift’s performance, which was the most-viewed commercial break in the awards show. That marked the first time Nat Geo had ever bought time in the Grammys, but when the music awards show moved from February to March 14, Nat Geo knew it needed to take advantage of the opportunity. Similarly, Nat Geo also will air a spot in ABC’s American Idol on Sunday, March 21.
Nat Geo also is partnering with national event company Live Nation to rent theater marquis in 20 cities across the country—including Detroit’s Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre and the Filmore; New York’s Gramercy Theater and Irving Plaza; and Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater and Hollywood Palladium.
Each marquis posts the message that includes the campaign’s tagline, “All Hail the Queen,” the clever hashtag #GeniusAF, and the show’s premiere date. The marquis are up now and will run through the weekend, with the idea that people will be able to post photos and videos of them across social media.
As part of that activation, Nat Geo is making a donation to Crew Nation, a global relief fund launched by Live Nation and powered by nonprofit partner Music Forward Foundation that provides financial support for live music crews impacted by the global pandemic and beyond.
Nat Geo also reached out to four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—Alabama A&M, Alabama State University (featured below), University of Arkansas and Kentucky State University—to compete in a virtual Battle of the Marching Bands. Members of the cast and the producers will watch the videos, select a winner, and award one of the schools $5,000.
In addition, Nat Geo is offering screenings at 10 HBCUs, such as Morehouse, Spellman and more, on Thursday and Friday, March 18 and 19.
Genius: Aretha debuts in a two-hour premiere on Sunday, March 21 and airs for four straight nights in two-hour blocks on the network. On Thursday, March 25, which happens to be Aretha Franklin’s birthday, the show will be available in its entirety on Disney-owned Hulu.