How T-Mobile Had Stranger Things Fans Calling 1985

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Wildlife’s Scott Friedman on combining analogue aesthetics and digital tech to turn fans’ phones into retro walkie talkies with BBH LA and T-Mobile
How T-Mobile Had Stranger Things Fans Calling 1985
Ahead of season three of Stranger Things, T-Mobile was looking for a way to make the most of its partnership with the super popular show. In the most beautiful ode to the '80s, the brand - along with its agency BBH LA - came up with the idea of creating retro mobile phone cases based on the ‘Realistic’ brand walkie talkies that are used so heavily by kids in the show. 

To bring the 'T-alkie' to life, BBH LA enlisted the help of Wildlife, who designed and fabricated cases that users could attach to their phones. To complete this trip down memory lane, Wildlife paired the cases with a push-to-talk web app that turned the T-alkies into an acutal walkie talkie experience. Users could share their 'channel' with friends and chat to them with the nostalgic sound of static crackle in the air. Wildlife even got to work with Stranger Things’ Kyle Lambert, who designs the series’ key art – Kyle created the electric neon box art for the cases.

LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Scott Friedman, co-founder and creative director at Wildlife, to find out more.


LBB> What kind of brief did BBH LA initially come to you with and what were your immediate thoughts? 

Scott> The team at BBH LA had the incredible idea of creating a replica of the Realistic walkie talkie used by the kids in Stranger Things - but as a mobile phone case - to let fans experience going back to 1985 and feeling like they’re in the world of the show, thanks to T-Mobile. As an add on, the idea was to create a companion push-to-talk web experience so someone could slip their phone into the case, load up the interactive experience and essentially turn their phone into a functioning walkie talkie using modern technology. 

We loved it the moment we saw it! It’s an incredibly fun concept idea and unexpected but at the same time makes complete sense for T-Mobile as an integration with the show. Who wouldn’t be excited to be a part of the hottest show on the planet? The real challenge we immediately needed to solve was how to design something we could semi-mass-produce in less than a month! We started strategising about what components could be fabricated, 3D printed, sourced and how we could make hundreds of cases, delivered in custom packaging and somehow get it all done by the 4th of July. 


LBB> What kind of research and insight was involved to get things started? 

Scott> BBH had already snagged an old school, Realistic brand walkie talkie for everyone to reference so we spent a lot of time holding the real thing, getting a sense for its size, pouring over all the little details knowing we wanted to stick as closely to honouring the real thing as we could to make sure that we conjured the same feelings with our own T-alkie case. A lot of care and attention to detail went into the smallest nuances of the design of the knobs, the text on the face of the T-alkie, the type of antenna and the custom packaging for the box these things came in and how the characters use them on the show. The original box design that the walkie talkies from the ‘80s came in had these incredible illustrations and we wanted to make sure our presentation was equally as cool. 


LBB> Tell us about the actual phone case - what were the biggest challenges here and what were the key things that you needed to keep in mind? 

Scott> Finding a way to accommodate a wide range of phones for as many users as possible with a simple, sturdy and flexible adaptor that users could easily attach their phone to was our first area of attack. We landed on a solid solution with adjustable clips that keep the phone nice and safe - the last thing we wanted was someone’s phone falling out and breaking! 

Once we were confident we had a streamlined T-alkie design that looked like the original, was technically sound and could be produced in the volume we needed, we stayed focused on the rolling milestones to keep to the schedule. Being able to source enough material to print 250 T-alkie cases proved to be a legitimate concern - sorry to anyone else who was trying to get their hands on Nylon 12 filament during June! Everyone’s passion for the project was high so while it was a challenge coordinating so many moving parts, under an incredibly tight timeline, we kept our eye on the prize and tried to evaluate everything through the lens of this being something from 1985 and tried staying as true to that as possible. We’re proud of how true we were able to stay to the original design and dimensions of the actual walkie talkies while making some small updates to accommodate a broad range of mobile devices. 

When it came time to the design of the packaging, we collaborated with Kyle Lambert who designs all the key art for the Stranger Things series. Kyle artfully handled the illustration of the cast holding our T-alkies, and then our designers here at Wildlife applied organic ageing and weathering effects to make the packaging of the T-alkie feel like it was made in the ‘80s and had been sitting in some garage for years and years, staying as authentic to the world of the show as possible. 


LBB> Regarding the walkie talkie app, how did you find the contradictions of designing something that used current technology to capture such a retro experience? 

Scott> It was a blast to challenge ourselves to recreate something with an analog feel but made to function using current web technology. Interactive design has trended so hard towards flat, minimal, vector styles so it was fun to bring back a skeuomorphic approach. If you’re using the experience while your phone is in the T-alkie, it really feels like a seamless extension of the case and the moment you land on the site it clearly delivers that rad ‘80s feel. The biggest thing was making sure through audio and visual cues that users could immediately understand how to use the site and start talking. It’s not the kind of interaction people are used to these days so there were a lot of discussions about the user experience. 


LBB> Technologically, how does the app work? How did you ensure it felt suitably 1985 but was also easy and enjoyable for a 2019 audience to use? 

Scott> The 1985isCalling.com experience was really the icing on the cake to fully bring the T-alkie campaign to life. We leaned on WebRTC technology to provide real-time, on-going communication between multiple devices, letting users access the site through a mobile browser and then chat with up to three other people at once on their own custom T-alkie channel. Each user who lands on the site is assigned a link they can easily copy and share to invite friends into their specific walkie talkie channel. We kept the functionality really simple and limited it to what a real walkie talkie can do. We only added a couple extra UI elements to show if other users are on the channel with you, a simple way to share your T-alkie channel and a toggle for a simple help overlay in case anything was unclear. We did get to have some fun with easter eggs on the other channels - channel 1 features original audio from Erica herself [Priah Ferguson] and channel 3 plays walkie talkie chatter from past seasons of Stranger Things to make it feel immersive. If you listen carefully you might even hear some Russian... 


LBB> What age were you in 1985? How was it exploring that time again for you in 2019? 

Scott> I was four years old in 1985. I don’t have much of a memory of that year specifically but I loved growing up in the ‘80s and remember my own walkie talkie and those old analog gadgets very fondly. It was a great chance for the entire team to get familiar with what was essentially the mobile-phone of that era. Everyone had a great time getting to hold it, use it, and it certainly attracted a lot of attention around the office. It was a trip to remember how huge and clunky those things were but also how awesome it still is in many ways. The crackle of static when you release the button and the thrill of extending the antenna that’s literally two-feet long... I think we were all ending all our conversations around the office with ‘copy’ and ‘over’ for weeks. 


LBB> What kind of reaction did you get to the phone cases and the campaign in general? 

Scott> Everyone who sees these things instantly falls in love and totally gets the concept and the connection. It’s a perfect fit for the brands and the reaction has been incredible. The way the fans have clamoured to get their hands on one, pouring over all the little details and Easter eggs in the packaging and on the interactive experience has been incredible. DJ Khaled and Zedd posted on Instagram with their own T-alkies and we even made a custom model for T-Mobile CEO John Legere. 

The teams at T-Mobile and Netflix have been really supportive and I know that everyone who worked on this was really fired up about making each element and all the small details really sing. We were thrilled when we got the go ahead to bring Kyle Lambert on board to help illustrate the box art. He creates all of the key art for the series so it really enhanced the feel of our packaging design. Our in-house designers did a stellar job ageing and weathering the packaging to look like these boxes really were from 1985 and has been sitting on a shelf in a garage somewhere. BBH LA did a great job building out the social contest side of things through a code-breakers experience and other contests to make fans work for a chance to win one of these things - the social engagement and impressions were incredible. During the 4th of July launch weekend we saw more than 40,000 minutes of T-alkie time racked up by users of the mobile experience! 


LBB> What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them? 

Scott> Timeline was the biggest factor for sure. Any kind of fabrication is always going to be tricky and when you add in the amount of stakeholders and approvals that need to happen along the way and account for design, development, the slow pace of 3D printing machines, the limitations of physical production and trying to do it on an expedited timeline...it’s like running a race while juggling in order to keep everything looking and working perfectly while still meeting the expectations of all the parties involved. We were staring down the barrel of the 4th of July release of the series so there was zero wiggle room.
 

LBB> Can you see a wider rollout of the cases happening in the future? 

Scott> You never know! There’s been a ton of love for the cases with tons of people online asking if they can purchase them anywhere. All of our friends, family and clients keep asking for any extras but unfortunately they’re all in the hands of the fans now! The web experience was designed as a limited time promotion and was actually phased out just last week but don’t be surprised if you see someone walking around talking on what looks like an absurdly large walkie talkie in your neighbourhood. 

Many thanks to the BBH LA team: Amy Hinsley, Dillah Zakbah, Andy Grant, Danielle Tisser, Erica Barringer, Lucie Kittel, Peter Williams, AJ Karim 
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Wildlife, 1 year ago