100 Days of Pop: Episode 21 Game of Throne's Best Pop-Marketing Moments

Like a Dothraki attending their first MMA cage match, we’re all keyed up and feeling a lot of feelings right now, as we somewhat-patiently wait for the premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones.

On today’s Ye Ole Pop100 we kick back in our Iron Throne of Pop-Marketing and remember our favorite marketing moments in the show’s history.

Arguably the most popular cable show ever and unarguably the largest scale TV series ever attempted, comes to an end this year in its 8th season on HBO.

And as we enter the final chapter on the show, we also say farewell to some of my favorite pop-marketing examples north of Westeros.

Let’s kick it off with season 1.  Marketing for TV and movies that are making the leap from a previously popular book are always particularly interesting to research because, on one hand the fans of the books aren’t yet sure that they can trust you with their beautiful and perfect baby and on the other, people that didn’t read the book have no idea that they should even be excited about.

HBO’s strategy was to put their focus on the current fans of the book and build trust with the core first, thinking correctly that if they won those super fans over, that they’d then do a lot of the recruiting of new audience for HBO through word of mouth, therefore taking some of the strain of introducing a new story off of their shoulders.

To do this HBO launched a web based game called the Maester’s Path.  Through a series of levels of riddles and puzzles released weekly before the series premiere, the game built anticipation within the knowledgable fanbase, giving them access to never before seen footage, settings, and content if they’d recruit new fans into the fold.  This thing was slick and it was on of the first online experience that also interacted with real world actions and events.

My personal favorite campaign was for season 3 when HBO was in a groove and more comfortable that they were now a pop-culture phenomenon. They used the image of a looming shadow from the much anticipated but not yet seen Kahleese’s full-sized dragon as it flew across everything from the Entertainment magazine covers, The New York Times and even buildings across the country.  A good use of symbol and looming anticipation without giving away the good.

That was also the season that a 40-foot dragon skull washed up on Charmouth Beach, a beach known for its richness in Jurassic fossils, the dragon skull was left on the beach with no explanation, leading to a fury of earned media from people wondering if it could be the real thing and if not, who would go to this length and not take credit?  HBO was then able to jump into take credit and another bump in PR.

But it was season 4 that you could see the genius in how the social conversation and the energy around the storyline was being directly leveraged in marketing the current season.  Yep, it was when they erected a 23 foot King Joffrey statue in Auklund New Zealand’s city center and proceeded to use the collective fan hate for this character to topple the evil boy king in real life.   You see, they tied a giant rope to the statue that was attached to a wench and with every tweet that included the hashtag #BringDownTheKing the rope pulled tighter and tighter until the statue was finally toppled of the course of five days and 875,000 tweets.  

That’s straight Littlefinger stuff right there.  Also it’s a big ole Curiosity gap, Shout out to Andrew Davis. Check out his content to learn more about how this tactic can be used to holds an audience's attention and build anticipation at the same time.  Brain science!!

Last season they took the same social media-powered approach, using live-streaming on Facebook live to get people to watch a gigantic block of ice melt on the social media channel.  Yes, 3.7 million people gleefully watched ice melt. By typing the word FIRE in the comments, it would activate a circled group of flamethrowers and melt the giant block of ice, revealing the premiere date of season 7.  Fire and Ice Baby! Metal move

And that takes us to the marketing for the upcoming final 8th season. Following up their 2017 SXSW Westworld activation, where they built a working real world Westworld  that made the advertising world scream out in a chorus of TAKE MY MONEY PLEASE to their nearest experiential marketing partners, HBO had some big shoes to fill.

They didn’t disappoint. Showing up to SXSW with another mind warpingly immersive activation by the folks at Giant Spoon, where participants were asked to “Bleed For The Throne” by donating blood in a partnership with the Red Cross. Over 15,000 pints of blood collected, the woozy participants were then spat back out into the streets of Austin, with a free t-shirt and an Instagram story for the ages.

That was soon followed up with a worldwide scavenger hunt to search for 6 iron thrones that had been hidden around the world, with nothing but a few hints and some 365-degree videos of the locations at different times of day.  A week later and all but one of thrones have been found by persistent fans who have tracked the thrones down without any promise or knowledge of what they’d win for the effort, but the promise of internet fame and a sweet pic for the grams.

You may be saying- Why in the hell would you spend any money marketing the final season.  Is there really a human that doesn’t already know? It’s true. This may not get them new signups, but remember that this isn’t the real end. HBO has already agreed to produce multiple shows within Westeros after this season ends.  It pays for them to keep the momentum and not to start losing steam, because the real battle will be keeping subscribers from jumping after the credits roll.

I didn’t even have time to talk about the 217-foot tapestry that they had commissioned with a partnership with Ireland Tourism board that detailed every episode of the series or the time they partnered with the language teaching app duo to give a free class in High Valerian.

It’s clear that HBO sits at the Iron Throne of Pop-Marketing, having mastered the art and science of amassing new fans and subscribers every year by building fan anticipation up to a crescendo that never disappointed once the shows hit the air.  Just like the show itself, the marketing was always giving fans something to talk about by coloring outside of the lines of traditional marketing tropes and converting fan energy into new subscribers.

Like a Wildling when the open bar closes, I gotta run, but thanks for joining me for this episode of the Pop100.  You can check out more Pop-marketing musings at Pop-Marketer.com where you can sign up for my newsletter and always be sure to hit me up with any of the Game of Thrones marketing that I may have missed.  Until next time.

Joe Cox