Inside the Delicate Mechanics of Marketing Mr. Robot’s Second Season

USA finds 'authentic' partners for anti-brand phenom

USA Network used to be best known for "blue skies" procedurals. But the network's signature show is now Mr. Robot, its Golden Globe-winning dark drama about a group of hackers (led by Rami Malek and Christian Slater) intent on bringing down one of the world's biggest conglomerates. "It's been a brand builder for us and really points to where our characters have evolved," said Chris McCumber, president, entertainment networks for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. As the show returns for Season 2 on July 13, he said, "We have a high demand from our ad clients, which is why we are in the business of trying to build out this franchise beyond the 12 episodes that are going to be on this summer."

That also requires a delicate marketing and brand blitz for Season 2, as the network tries to nurture the audience for its critically acclaimed freshman sensation while remaining faithful to Mr. Robot's anti-corporate, anti-establishment message. "At the core, everything has to feel authentic, and that's always our barometer for everything we do as it relates to Mr. Robot," said Alexandra Shapiro, evp, marketing & digital for NBCU's cable entertainment networks. "Is this appropriate? What would [Malek's character] Elliot say about it? Staying true to that, it allows us to play in spaces, that even if Elliot doesn't like them—for example, social media—the way in which we operate is as authentic to him and the show as possible."

This season, USA is amplifying those efforts by partnering with The Verge. Vox Media's technology-themed site is producing and hosting a live weekly digital aftershow, which will stream on both The Verge and USA's Mr. Robot site, starting in the second week. (A linear aftershow, Hacking Robot, will air on USA after the two-hour season premiere and could also air after the season finale.) Three Verge hosts, including editor in chief Nilay Patel, will "talk about what you're seeing on the show from a fan perspective, but also from a technology perspective. What's realistic about these exploits, and is this something you should worry about in real life," said Chad Mumm, vp, Vox Entertainment. "It's much deeper than a surface-level, lip-service thing."

While this collaboration is an extension of NBCUniversal's $200 million investment in Vox Media last August, "I could see us doing this without the partnership," said Mumm.

The Verge partnership also includes a Hewlett Packard Enterprise linear and digital integration, in which an HPE-security expert will discuss the reality of hacking (the spots will air during Mr. Robot, as well on The Verge and the Mr. Robot site). "If there are ways in which we can find a partner who can align organically and we can monetize it, that's a win for everyone," said Shapiro.

The network also partnered with Story, New York's concept store, for the Mr. Robot-inspired Disrupt Story, which runs through July 24. "Everything—the curation of the store, the point of view of the store, the pairing of the products, the experience—is a different form of storytelling," said Shapiro.

Show creator Sam Esmail has helped guide USA's marketing and branding campaign. "He looks at Mr. Robot and sees other ways that we can get out to the audience," said McCumber. "He's involved in many different things beyond just the show, so having him as a partner and as somebody who can be a real barometer for us on what's authentic and what isn't is key to our efforts."

As USA tries to expand Mr. Robot's audience for Season 2—it averaged 1.2 million viewers 18-49 last season in live-plus-3—advertisers are also eager to reach its millennial audience, despite the show's anti-brand mantra. "We're constantly seeking environments where we can find smart content. And if you're trying to reach that millennial audience, many of whom are probably light TV viewers, it's fantastic," said Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation, Mediahub. "But, if your message is light and fluffy, it probably won't play well."

This story first appeared in the July 11, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
Click here to subscribe.