How Fox’s Marketing Fanned the Flames of Empire, One of the Biggest New Shows in Years

The strategy behind a breakout hit

Headshot of Jason Lynch

Nothing takes the sting off a lackluster fall season like a big midseason hit. And that's exactly the situation Fox is in with its new show Empire, which after a month on the air is the season's top series among 18-to 49-year-olds.

The hip-hop soap opera's Jan. 7 debut rated a 3.8, and in its second week jumped to a 4. This week's episode, the fourth, scored a 4.3 rating, with a total audience of 11.4 million.

Empire has connected powerfully with African-American viewers, who make up 61 percent of the audience. But the show's success wasn't random. It has been, in fact, the result of Fox's elaborate, months-long marketing campaign. "I've never seen anything like it," said Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken, referring to the marketing strategy behind the series. "It's been pretty thrilling."

The people behind the marketing, led by Fox COO Joe Earley, walked Adweek through how they pulled it off—and how it's still evolving. Here's what they had to say:

Midseason's top priority

As incoming co-CEOs of Fox Television Group, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, tried to piece the network back together late last summer, they decided that Empire would be the focus of its midseason efforts, just as they had centered on Gotham in the fall. "When they started, Dana and Gary immediately made it the No. 1 priority for midseason," Earley said. "They authorized augmenting the marketing campaign because, honestly, it was underbudgeted. They said, 'It's too important; we have to do it right.' That allowed the really creative marketing team to do execution they couldn't have otherwise."

Market it to everyone in completely different ways

"This was a show for everyone, but we knew we were going to have to sell the show to targeted audiences," Earley said. And importantly, they needed to do so without using the term "soap opera."

"It's a big, broad soap, but you don't sell a soap as a soap, though that's what we know that it is," he said.

Instead, they played up the family drama and the music aspects, and they targeted the African-American and LGBT communities (one of the main characters is a gay singer), along with the fashion world. "There's even a little Sex in the City in Empire," Earley said.

"As we moved forward, everything we created had to fall into multiple buckets," said Earley, who crafted promos that would target audiences who liked scripted dramas, as well as ones centering around Taraji P. Henson's breakout character, Cookie, which would appeal to Real Housewives fans.

The result was a layered campaign that included print, radio, online, cable, broadcast and partners like Fox Sports and FX. "Even our theatrical side, they put our trailer in front of their word-of-mouth screenings for their movies," Earley said. "So everyone knew this was a worthwhile project." 

The right key art and music are everything

For Walden, one of the most vital components of Empire's campaign was the key art, featuring a two-shot of stars Henson and Terrence Howard. "There were a lot of different ways to go," Walden said. "You could have gone with the family. You could have gone with hip-hop. Our decision was two Oscar-nominated actors. Visually that billboard was so captivating, but it said three things: music, family, power. So you got the sense of what the show was about, and you couldn't not look at it again and again."

And as they searched for the best music to promote a series about the music industry, they ultimately settled on a mixture of popular artists (including Kanye West) and an original song from the series, "No Apologies," which "was really hard because it's new music," Walden said. "So you can't instantly create a tone with the music because people aren't familiar with it."

Pile on the tie-ins

Beyond its many on-air promos, Fox distributed gold Empire tote bags to Black Friday shoppers in 10 malls across the country, and it targeted 450 barbershops and hair salons in 10 markets with print ads and promotional items. The network commissioned an Adidas shoe from JBF Customs and created custom-made jewelry tied to the show.

Fox also courted male viewers by sponsoring the Manny Pacquaio-Chris Algieri pay-per-view boxing match on Nov. 22. "We've never done that before," Earley said. Fox also advertised heavily during football games. The result: Empire's audience has been 37 percent male.

Make one last premiere push

With Walden and Newman's approval, the Empire marketing campaign swelled to the same size as Gotham's last fall (and Sleepy Hollow's the previous year), but it felt bigger than those, Earley said. They followed a two-week holiday lull with "a really intense media spend between New Year's and the premiere. That's why it felt like more," he said. "I would get emails from friends at other networks who would say, 'Can you please stop running Empire ads?'"

Increased ratings, increased spending

When Earley saw Empire's debut ratings, "we increased our spend for week two," he said. That pattern repeated itself after the second week. "We all absolutely, 100 percent believed [ratings] would go down 20 percent because that's what new shows do," Earley said. Instead, ratings jumped 8 percent, which meant that the week three marketing spend would go up as well. The same thing happened again this past week as the ratings jumped.

As word of mouth spreads, direct viewers to VOD

Earley doesn't think Empire's ratings increases are finished yet. "There is real opportunity for this show to grow because there are still really large amounts of people who hopefully are going to catch up with it on ," Earley said. They put video on demand (VOD) front and center in the promotion between episodes one and two. "If you saw any messaging from us, it was: Catch up on the hit and watch the new episode because we knew there would be really positive word of mouth," he said. "And I credit the growth from week one to week two, not to the marketing campaign, but to word of mouth, to the show. So if we did our part to get people to watch it, they talked about it."

The VOD push seems to have paid off: In its first seven days, the debut episode averaged 3.2 million views across VOD, FOX Now and Hulu.

Make sure potential new viewers can watch the whole season

Often, when a freshman show takes off in the middle of its run, audiences are prevented from watching its first episode because of in-season agreements that restrict a network to streaming only the most recent five episodes of a series. (The CW is struggling with this issue with its Golden Globe-winning Jane the Virgin.) But Fox and 20th Century Fox made a stacking agreement that will enable the network to stream all episodes.

"We thought stacking was imperative for Empire because it's hyperserialized, and I believe word of mouth will continue to spread," Earley said. "We were really concerned that at episode six, if someone couldn't watch the pilot anymore, we wouldn't be able to keep drawing audience.

"I think word of mouth is going to continue to spread even when it's off our air, and we're going to see a very healthy consumption of it digitally," he said.

Take advantage of social media (but not too much)

"Social has been huge," Earley said, citing the efforts of star Henson and her 3 million Twitter followers and 2 million Instagram followers. "On social, Taraji P. Henson is a master. And it's genuine."

Praise from another television titan with a big following helped, too. Shonda Rhimes tweeted shortly after the premiere, "So now I am all about Empire. ALL ABOUT ‪#EMPIRE‬, tweeples." Fox was giddy to have the endorsement of a major rival showrunner, but opted not to include it in the marketing. "Of course there was immediate discussion of 'How do you take advantage of that and use that to do more?'" Earley said. "And I said, 'We need to be nothing but respectful of that.' She did that on her own and she speaks to a very large audience."

Let viewers buy the music

With several new original songs each episode, the music is more integral to the series than any Fox show since Glee. Replicating its successful Glee approach, Fox made Empire's music available on iTunes. "As is typical with television, sales of it started shooting up once the episodes aired," Earley said, who pointed to "Good Enough" and "No Apologies" as early successes. "And there are more hits coming. I think the music will probably be slower growing than Glee because Glee was covers, but you're going to see that these actors are also artists.

"They are going to have very, very healthy careers of their own," he said. "Yazz [Bryshere Gray, who plays Hakeem] already has his own career, and it's only going to keep going."

Help prop up American Idol

Fox also is working on ways to cross-promote Empire with its lead-in, American Idol. "I'm hoping that we will be seeing some Empire people on Idol," Earley said. "Empire will be off the air before the live episodes of Idol start, but I still hope that we'll have some Empire people make a visit to Idol because the night is more compatible than is happening from a ratings standpoint, right now." Indeed, while the network had expected to use American Idol to boost Empire's ratings, it now has the reverse situation. Last week's Idol was a full ratings point below Empire. "So now what we need to do is figure out, how do we get those people who are coming from Empire to realize how much fun there is in American Idol and give them a whole night?"

Chaiken said there have been "informal talks" about Idol members guest-starring on Empire (though likely not this season, which is wrapping up shortly). "It's not an artificial collaboration," she said. "It makes perfect sense in the world of the show, a world that we're trying to make as real as possible."

Renew it early, let the binge watching begin, and merchandising

Walden and Newman's early renewal of Empire, which came after two episodes had aired, wasn't only to help the network turn the page on its disappointing fall. "It's also to send a signal to people that it's safe to watch. You don't have to stack 12 [episodes] and wait to see if we bring it back," Earley said. "Go ahead and start watching now, and catch up whenever you can and get into the stream." 

The quick renewal also let the consumer products team get an early start on merchandising. "It allows you to look at what would the fans be interested in having in order to deepen their relationship with the show," Earley said. Such as? "Cookie's cookies, right? It does seem like a no-brainer. But I would leave that up to the consumer products people to think of."

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.