With 111 million views in just 28 days, Squid Game has become Netflix’s most-watched original series ever. The streaming service’s top ten positions now include three non-English series: Squid Game, Money Heist, and Lupin. What makes Netflix’s international content so likely to succeed, and why isn’t everyone doing it?

Squid Game, the South Korean thriller series in which people compete against each other in deadly versions of childhood games, has well and truly shattered Netflix’s records. In just 28 days from release, it had surpassed the previous leader, Bridgerton (released late 2020), by tens of millions of views. Netflix expects the series to add $900 million to the company’s value, according to Bloomberg.

In a decade, Netflix has gone from operating exclusively in the US to over 190 countries. As of the 2020-21 period, 55% of its original content is in a language other than English (Wired). This aggressive globalization strategy starts at the local level and it’s something Netflix does better than anyone else in the game.

3 ways Netflix makes local-to-global content possible

1: Strategic investment in regional markets

While it might seem like Netflix is creating content indiscriminately across the globe, it’s often a very tactical decision.

If you look back to when Netflix first ventured away from the US market, the choice to open up shop in Canada was well thought out. There was already a lot of media flow between the two countries, no language barrier, and any original content would benefit from the exportability of English-speaking television abroad.

Years later, this strategy is still working. The South Korean government has been heavily investing in culture exportation to gain soft political power. As a result, the K-pop industry is valued at almost $1 billion in exports alone (Statista).

Korean content is increasingly familiar to an international audience, and Netflix is banking on that. Forbes reports that the streaming service is expected to spend $500 million on Korean content this year, almost as much as the total sum it’s spent in the region since 2015.

Even in markets where Netflix has a relatively small presence, it will invest in local production if there’s potential for global appeal. Netflix only has 5 million subscribers in India, yet it’s planning to heavily invest in local content, with 41 original productions planned in 2021 (TechCrunch).

Netflix global annual subscribers. Source: Business of Apps

“That’s not just to appeal to potential Indian subscribers, but also because Indian content is exportable to a lot of the Asian countries,” explains Simon Murray, Founder of Digital TV Research. He claims that of the 52 million more subscribers predicted to be gained by Netflix by 2026, some 19 million will be from the Asia-Pacific region.

By investing in countries that already have a history of exporting media abroad, Netflix often benefits from the groundwork that’s already in place.

2: Creative freedom for local production companies

Netflix is able to bring Hollywood budgets to foreign production companies that would never have seen that investment otherwise. But how does that investment impact the creative process behind the content? Is Netflix forcing creators to globalize their storytelling?

While Netflix openly admits that it hopes its local content sees global success, the creators of its original shows have claimed they were never pressured to adapt their stories in this way.

Morten Juhl, a producer who worked on Danish drama Chestnut Man, one of Netflix’s top-performing original series, told Wired that he was offered advice on how to make the series more accessible to an international audience, but Netflix never forced any changes. 

“They were always working from the project out and not the other way around,” he says. “That gave us the opportunity to do what we’re best at. The core creative vision of the Chestnut Man was never brought into discussion.”

Source: Netflix

Netflix receives criticism for its anime production and how unlike traditional Japanese anime it is. However, several prominent anime creators have praised Netflix for allowing the genre more flexibility than the domestic industry has allowed.

Taiki Sakurai, one of the writers of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, has been working with Netflix since 2017 and believes that the media company is giving Japanese studios the opportunity to tell the stories they’ve always wanted to tell on an international stage.

Manga artist Mari Yamazaki, whose manga will soon appear as an anime on Netflix, also shares this sentiment:

“Netflix gives creators lots of money and little direction. Compared to traditional anime production, a wide variety of stories which are not tied to a single cultural value are able to coexist.”

The creative freedom Netflix allows its production partners is a gamble, one that others in the industry likely wouldn’t have taken, but in several cases it has paid off significantly. Squid Game, for example, was rejected by other studios for 10 years for being too “unrealistic” until Netflix picked it up (Screen Rant).

3: The best language options in the market

While investing in the right markets and production companies is important, Netflix’s content would never see global distribution without its range of language options.

You can currently watch content on Netflix in 62 languages, but that’s not what sets it apart. The fact that you can choose between subtitles, dubbing, or both is what positions its content for global appeal.

Preferences for dubbing and subtitling shift dramatically across countries. If you look at Netflix’s four largest EU markets: France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, 60% of the foreign content in these countries is dubbed.

Even in English-speaking countries, where subtitling is typically preferred, there’s still a significant proportion of content consumers who use the dubbing option. 48% of US viewers who watched Money Heist used a combination of dubbing and subtitles, while 36% watched it with the dubbing track exclusively, according to The Economist.

By catering to these different behavioral segments, Netflix is able to maximize its pool of potential viewers in every country it localizes content for. It works with 165 dubbing studios around the world to make this happen.

Kathy Rokni, Director of Globalization at Netflix, spoke about the correlation between subscribers and available languages at an event in 2019:

“In two years, we added a couple more languages, created a lot more global original content, and saw our subscriber base grow nearly 50%.”

Why you shouldn’t copy Netflix’s localization strategy

Netflix can take these specific steps because it has access to extensive funds to effectively spread bet across the globe. To get one Squid Game, it needs to produce dozens of series that never see traction outside of one region.

The cost it takes to produce original content at this global scale is immense. Netflix spent $17 billion on content in 2021.

Source: Business of Apps

Even its translation costs are more than most companies could afford to scale. The average cost of dubbing one episode of a TV series is $10,000. This is why Netflix is selective in which languages it offers on particular series, but even then there’s no guarantee that they’ve chosen the right language for the right content.

So while it’s important to learn from Netflix’s localization strategy, this risky approach is unsustainable for most companies. But that doesn’t mean you can’t access global audiences with your content. 

Take Sky News, for example. After identifying that its English content on YouTube was being viewed in Latin America, it decided to launch a Spanish language channel. Instead of creating completely new content for that market, the team took their existing world news content and dubbed it using Papercup’s AI voice translation at a fraction of the cost of a dubbing studio. In just 12 months, the channel had gained 96,000 subscribers and 26 million views.

Sometimes localization doesn't work. By making data-informed decisions on the best new region to target, sticking with existing content, and substituting professional studios with translation technology where relevant, you offset that risk. It also means that when you do see growth, the ROI on your efforts is through the roof.

As new technologies come onto the market that reduce barriers to localization, local-to-global viral hits are on the rise. Netflix just has a headstart.

Want to build a successful localization strategy? Check out this handy framework we pulled together with everything you need.