It’s fair to say that die-hard fans of Game of Thrones (GOT) have come to look quite ludicrous to the rest of humanity. Its insane popularity meant that it demanded serious dedication - if you didn’t watch episodes quickly enough, the internet would spoil them for you. The last few weeks saw HBO’s Game of Thrones set viewership records (17.8 million people tuned in for “The Long Night” episode when it aired - and over 38 million watched the season 8 premiere), and inspire hundreds of thousands of memes and Tweets.
Storytelling Matters: Long Term Brand Stories Trump ‘Product News’
It might sound like marketing 101, but it’s an essential brand building tool: successful brands cultivate great stories. Never has a TV show so neatly displayed the importance for a good story. At the end of the series (***serious spoiler warning), the Iron Throne - the subject around which the show revolved - wasn’t won with dragons or war, but with a captivating story.
Tyrion, a beloved protagonist in the show, made the ultimate pitch in the final episode, eloquently presenting the case for the next King based on the power of his story. The character had had incredible journey - Bran the Broken fell from a tower, broke his back, went beyond the wall and returned to help defeat the Night King. From a strategic perspective, this exemplifies the value of building a long-term emotional connection (vs short term sales tactics). And, at the end of the day, Tyrion knew what most PR people do – you need a compelling human narrative, to get something over the line.
The Appeal of the Unpredictable
David Coffey, Thinkhouse Creative Director adds to this point on GOT’s compelling narrative, noting that the show benefitted from the crests and pitfalls of being unpredictable:
“When I heard HBO was making Game of Thrones, like many people I scoffed at the prospect of a TV series set in a Fantasy world... and I actually like the Fantasy genre! Imagine my surprise when, eight seasons later, the world is completely hooked, including friends who would never in a million years have imagined themselves watching a show with dragons and magic. But, great storytelling trumps genre and the strength of GOT is in its incredible writing - great characters, believable conflicts and (often) unpredictable resolutions.”
What set Game of Thrones apart from other well-written shows was its ability to be unpredictable in a way that few shows before it were. We're so used to standard television narratives that we often (correctly) think we have it sussed from the outset, but when you play the game of thrones you win or you DIE. With the death of Ned Stark in season one, GOT showed us that ‘we know nothing, Jon Snow’. Arguably this is also one of the reasons why the threat of spoilers became such a huge deal with this particular show.
Female Gaze: Representation Matters
Tapping into the zeitgeist is important for brands and organisations to remain relevant and enable them to connect with a youth audience. Women breaking glass ceilings, boundaries, and silence has been a continuing theme over the last few years as feminism and the sexual revolution spurred the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Strong female leads are in demand, important and relevant. GOT reflected this – providing fans with a host of strong, fiercely independent female characters, with goals and ambition to realise. While we’re still mourning the fact that a female didn’t end up on the throne, the stories of Arya, Sansa, Daenerys and Cersei, among others, help GOT passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.
Global Escapism: Functional Entertainment
Good brand communications are often ones that are useful, answering a need or want in its audience. The world political landscape has never been so volatile with Donald Trump in the White House, the US trade war with China intensifying as they add additional tariffs on Chinese imports and Iran’s announcement that they will stop adhering to some of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear accord. Brexit creates unease and Italy’s anti-establishment parties grow. Beyond politics, climate change and environmental issues makes us more aware that our world is not in a good or secure place. 2019 is a hostile landscape, so there’s no doubt that young people feel the need to escape every now and then. A world of magic, foreign kingdoms and battles between good and evil is a perfect place to go to forget about our real battles for a while. The fantasy genre of GOT answers this need for escapism in a welcome manner.
Conclusion Confusion: Where Did It All Go Wrong?
It's clear by now that Season 8 has been disappointing for many die-hard fans of the show. For one thing, it felt as though the conclusion of this epic saga was incredibly rushed. Rumours suggest the producers were eager to move on to other projects. (It’s worth noting here that the show is based on a series of books, and these are not yet completed).
The other factor, was the show's desire to remain unpredictable. When a show is so beloved, and under such scrutiny, when every possible outcome has been predicted by some corner of the internet, then chasing the unpredictable can become dangerous… Who would have predicted that Daenerys would massacre a city of innocent men, women and children? No one! Because it doesn't make sense. Who would have predicted Bran would end up as King of Westeros. No one! Because it doesn't make any sense. And so on, with every bum note of season 8.
While you can never keep everyone happy, Kevin Goss-Ross, Creative Director of Photography & Film, believes it was a rushed approach that led to the disappointment with the show’s conclusion:
“I'm almost relieved it's finally over. The final season of Game of Thrones left a pungent conversational stink in the air: an overwhelming aroma comparable to Brexit or the US' 2016 election. The confusing bit was why? How had such a celebrated show fallen so far despite some of the most beautiful cinematography and incredible visual effects? (Let's take a second here to acknowledge that that episode wasn't too dark and that shady pirated streams on shitty laptop screens had something to do with it). My guess is that it went from a well written character drama with swords and dragons lurking in the background to a rushed final season where the characters we had grown to love/loathe merely existed meekly somewhere in between the CGI and fighting. It went form a soap opera with swords to a Marvel movie.”
Nonetheless, Game of Thrones is one of the greatest cultural phenomena of modern times.
Great characters, believable conflicts and unpredictable resolutions make for compelling stories. And this is as true for social posts, festival activations and press releases as it is for epic fantasy series. But, beware of chasing the unpredictable at the expense of everything else.
When it feels right, it’s worth exploring how you can take timely advantage of big cultural moments like GOT (or the Superbowl), online. Ikea, for example did very well with their Iron Throne social post. There is an opportunity to use this mass appeal as a talking point to drive relevance with young audiences, as it enables brands and organisations to establish a point of view with consumers. The sheer volume of eyeballs on related content drives consideration in its own right.