How Game of Thrones Conquered the Marketing Kingdoms
- Elizabeth Frey
- On April 3, 2014
In the game of television, you either win or you get cancelled. No producers could have been more aware of this stark lesson than the creators of the fantasy show “Game of Thrones.” Since the series premier in 2011, what started as a relatively small but fervent group of fantasy readers has grown into a 14.2 million-viewer audience—the second highest of any HBO series, behind only the fifth season of “The Sopranos.”
So how did HBO take a show based in fantasy—one of the most critically frowned-upon genres—and make it one of the most talked-about shows on television?
Over the last three years, HBO has been able to tap into pop culture’s hottest trends: the craft beer movement, the popularity of social-based games, and, most recently, the ground-breaking innovation of the virtual-reality device known as Oculus Rift, to name a few. Each of these trends helped reel in viewers from all corners of the map by targeting either niche fans or the mass market. Ultimately, this gave HBO the opportunity to utilize both a precise, targeted campaign and a mass market campaign that appealed to the common denominator viewer.
[NOTE: Spoiler alerts ahead.]
As in the “Game of Thrones,” forming the right alliances is an integral part of a sound marketing strategy. With that in mind, HBO partnered with Brewery Ommegang, a Belgian-style based in Cooperstown, N.Y., to create a line of craft beers inspired by themes and characters in “Game of Thrones.” HBO reached out to Ommegang because their branding matched the medieval theme of the show. Initially, Ommegang and HBO planned to release a one-time limited edition beer, but, fortunately, realized the importance of continuously engaging their fans. Since it first appeared on shelves in time for the second season, the “Game of Thrones”-branded beer has been released in three different varieties: Iron Throne, Take the Black Stout, and Fire and Blood.
Each year, Ommegang one-upped itself and released a unique variety that tied in with the corresponding season. This year’s ale, “Fire and Blood,” references the horrific ending from last year’s season (blood) while looking forward to season four with a reference to the growing dragons (fire). “Fire and Blood” also happens to be the house motto of the deposed Targaryen family represented by a three-headed dragon sigil. Accordingly, the artwork on the bottles feature each of the three dragons in the series.
Such fine attention to detail excites hardcore fans of the show; meanwhile, the partnership with a craft brewery harnesses the growing craft beer movement. And, an added bonus? Everyone loves dragons. The success of the Ommegang-HBO partnership is evident enough in the empty shelves at local stores. The beer has sold out each year. Ultimately, the partnership has proven to be win/win for the series and the brewery and demonstrates how companies can work together to utilize each other’s fan bases in order to expand their own.
But HBO didn’t stop there. To expand its target consumer base, the network also partnered with Zynga and Disrupter Beam to develop a social game, “Game of Thrones Ascent.” The game was first released on Facebook and Kongregate last year and acts as an extension of the storyline, providing new content for users. This year, they’ve increased the stakes by recently announcing the release of a mobile version. Such availability across a variety of social platforms allows the series to market to a wide net of users and appeal to a more mainstream audience.
What really makes both the Ommegang beer and the social game appealing and, therefore effective is their immersive nature. Fans can feel like they’re part of the series by playing the game. This interactivity engages the escapist desire in all of us. And what better way to prepare for the season premier than popping open a bottle of beer?
Yet nothing quite provides the true “Game of Thrones” experience like the Oculus Rift tie-in on display at SXSW in March. The virtual-reality exhibit used the Oculus Rift glasses and created a special cage that allowed fans to “ride” the rickety elevator up the icy wall that protects the kingdom from hostile “wildlings” and mysterious creatures called “White Walkers.” Participants felt a cold wind generated by air jets before virtually plummeting off the wall. The idea came to Relevant, the company behind the exhibit, after HBO challenged it to “evolve the interactive of the first year, which was a digital/physical recreation of the battle of Blackwater Bay,” according to Ian Cleary, Relevant’s vice president of innovations and ideation.
The exhibit was so successful because it was able to capitalize on the fame of Oculus Rift, which recently made headlines after Facebook bought it for $2 billion. Although only registrants at SXSW had the chance to participate in the virtual experience, the exhibit did attract the attention of fans when a video depicting members of the cast using the Oculus Rift device was posted. Even if users couldn’t experience the exhibit first hand, the sheer idea of it was exciting enough—plus, exclusivity is always a great strategy to create buzz.
By hopping onto the bandwagon of these trends, “Game of Thrones” united a kingdom of viewers: from fantasy niche fans to mainstream spectators. But, what, perhaps, has truly allowed “Game of Thrones” to reign? The show has it all: good writing, a diverse cast of characters, plot twists, politics, dragons, magic and romance. We may not know who will rule the Iron Throne in the end, but at least when it comes to marketing, content still reigns supreme.
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