How marketers fell short with ‘Game of Thrones’ activations

The hit TV show set staggering viewership records with its finale, and many brand managers tried to take advantage of the global phenomenon. Were the attempts successful?

Game of Thrones marketing fell short

In the past few months, marketing and the TV juggernaut “Game of Thrones” have crashed together spectacularly with, by some estimations, over 100 brands engaging in themed promotions as Series 8 of the series hit screens.

However, most (if not all) of these promotions have been woefully shortsighted. Many campaigns were just opportunistic attempts to earn a quick buck that completely disregarded brand identity and how it should be properly communicated.

These kinds of marketing efforts are a mistake. Whenever there are immensely popular TV or movie franchises, many brand managers jump on to the franchise bandwagon. There are loads of examples where brands and franchises have worked beautifully well together.

Think about the brands associated with the James Bond movies. What sort of car is Bond driving in this film? Is he wearing a Tom Ford suit or is it from another designer? What’s he drinking? What’s that sports bag he’s carrying?

From TV, there’s the great example of “Sex and the City.” What office is that they’re in? Oh, it’s the Vogue offices. Is that a Louis Vuitton bag she’s carrying? Has she matched that bag with Prada shoes? You can find many examples where brand values and the franchise complement each other exquisitely.

Yet, many brand managers missed the mark with “Game of Thrones.”

Given the nature of the program, it’s a bit tricky for contemporary brands to do product placement (some leftover coffee cups notwithstanding).  Instead, many marketers pursed themed promotions. Some examples of this are Johnnie Walker and its “White Walker” whisky, GoT-themed Oreo cookies, a Red Cross blood donation promotion drive called “Bleed for the Throne” and OkCupid allowing the show’s audience to display a badge declaring their fandom.

At first glance, these efforts might sound amendable. Maybe some of them even sound like a marketing home run. On second view, however, it seems some of these brands didn’t really think these messages through.

Look at Oreo’s marketing effort. For years Oreo has been telling a story, through advertising and other forms of communication, about Oreo and playfulness, suggesting that eating Oreos helps bring out the youth in all of us.

So, how does this brand image tie in with “Game of Thrones”? I’ve watched every single episode of Game of Thrones, and I really don’t remember much playfulness or joy. Instead, the series is infamous for its depictions of violence, pain, death and political intrigue. If Oreo’s brand story was a TV series, it wouldn’t be “Game of Thrones.” It’s not even close.

What about OkCupid and its “Game of Thrones” badge? Given the predominance of incest in “Game of Thrones,” along with frequent rape and prostitution, I’m not convinced that OkCupid really thought about the full implications of this partnership.

How should brands engage with franchises like “Game of Thrones”? It’s important to remember the identity and image of the brand that you have spent so much time and money promoting. Make sure need to engage in promotions and/or product placements that communicate the same identity. If you don’t, you run the risk of confusing consumers.

If there is not a clear way for the brand to communicate its identity and maintain its image, perhaps you should avoid tying your organization to the latest pop-culture phenomenon.

I loved “Game of Thrones” and enjoyed the latest season, though plenty of other fans disagree.  For me, the marketing of the brands that associated themselves with “Game of Thrones” let me down. The show’s creators get high marks, but the brand managers responsible for the promotions leave a lot to be desired.

Have you been joining the conversation around “Game of Thrones”? What’s working for you, and what’s falling flat?

Steven Seggie is an associate professor of marketing at ESSEC Business School.

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