A Suspenseful Barista Class? How HBO Max Is Promoting The Flight Attendant

Streamer uses actors and data to surprise guests during a virtual coffee-making experience 

The barista leading HBO Max's Coffee-ology experience is interrupted by a surprise intruder. HBO Max/Tool of North America
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

Since launching in May, HBO Max has explored everything from virtual workouts to date packages and physical drive-ins to promote original content during the pandemic.

For its new limited series The Flight Attendant, the streaming service faced the challenge of not only creating excitement for the dark comedic thriller starring Kaley Cuoco, but also delivering an activation that most consumers probably hadn’t partaken in before. The plot of the eight-episode series, based on the novel of the same name by author Chris Bohjalian, centers on flight attendant Cassandra (Cuoco) who wakes up in a hotel room next to a dead man with no recollection of what happened—and a feeling that she might be the killer.

HBO Max landed on Coffee-ology: a virtual program that was part coffee-making class, part murder mystery event.

The invite-only, live experience took place Nov. 13 with three, 1.5-hour time slots for influencers, press and fans. The experience was billed as a barista class led by Aran Saeli, who’d teach guests how to make three international coffee beverages at home.

HBO Max mailed participants coffee-making kits that promoted the series.HBO Max/Tool of North America

HBO Max mailed branded kits containing the equipment and ingredients needed to follow along during the classes, hosted on videoconferencing platform BlueJeans. What most guests didn’t know, however, is the tutorials would come with some twists meant to create unease and shock in line with the show’s tone.

HBO Max partnered with creative production partner Tool of North America to develop the script and execute the experience. Andrew Meengern, director of HBO Max originals marketing, told Adweek that to market a series that doesn’t have a following or distinct brand yet, the goal was to remotely immerse folks into the show’s world in a way that felt organic and relatable.

“We wanted to play out the escapism, focusing on international locations in the series like Bangkok, Rome and Seoul [with coffee],” Meengern said. “There was also this idea of crafting a surprise-and-delight experience that tapped into the theme of a murder mystery, giving people unexpected moments of levity and danger in line with the series.”

Each session began with the barista teaching guests how to make an Italian cappuccino without a milk steamer, Thai iced coffee and Korean Dalgona coffee. As the class progressed, the situation for participants became eerier: the barista revealed himself as a clairvoyant, performing tasseography (coffee cup readings) and guessing personal information about guests.

The barista appeared clairvoyant thanks to an earpiece. Producers, who gathered some personal information about attendees based on their social media posts beforehand, fed him the lines. HBO Max/Tool of North America

Then, a surprise intruder kidnaps the barista, while other attendees also get kidnapped in their homes. The sequence of events, of course, was a product of in-studio and actors at home following a script. For an in-person touch, select attendees received knocks at their doors, where an unseen delivery person dropped off a parcel containing information about the series.

Tool of North America worked with HBO Max to remotely to craft around 40 minutes of script for the experience, particularly for the two actors filming in Tool’s production studio (the barista and his kidnapper) as well as attendee “plants” who were in on the plot via BlueJeans.

“Just like the show, we didn’t want the audience to see any of these twists coming,” said Hal Kirkland, innovation director at Tool of North America. “We wanted to use this medium, which people are now familiar with, and flip the tables on it.”

ian.zelaya@adweek.com Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.