It’s not all just fight scenes, brothels, and dragons: we’re here to unearth the marketing principles lurking in “Game of Thrones,” season five. Here’s what we took away from episode nine, “The Dance of Dragons.”
Am I the only one who hopes Ramsay and Stannis both freeze to death when Stannis attacks Winterfell? It’s hard to choose sides in a battle between a complete psychopath and a guy who’s so desperate for power that he’d burn his own daughter at the stake. But these are the things that Game of Thrones makes you think about – and that’s why we love this show. Last night’s offering brought us gladiator combat, a running horse on fire, a brothel where raw shellfish is an acceptable snack, Drogon the dragon burning Sons of the Harpy like a boss, and Dany riding the aforementioned Drogon to safety.
The episode began though, with a clandestine raid that sealed poor Shireen Baratheon’s fate. Ramsay Bolton and his “20 good men” entered Stannis’s camp and quickly burned a majority of their food and supplies. Poor Stannis was left with having to feed his men horsemeat - and to eventually make the desperate, and controversial, decision to sacrifice his only child to the Lord of Light, in order to gain the upper hand in the siege of Winterfell.
The element of surprise, used so effectively by Ramsay, was a constant in this episode, both moving the plot forward and keeping the audience on the edge of our seats. If there’s a marketing lesson to be learned here, it’s about effectively using the unexpected as a tactic.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the words “surprise and delight” in meetings. But the reason those words have become almost cliché is because most people like a surprise - it can be a very effective tactic. So like the Game of Thrones showrunners, marketers go to great lengths to surprise their consumers. Things like giving away prizes, spotlighting their consumers in social, and bringing out a favorite celebrity at an unexpected moment are tried and true practices on Madison Avenue. Playing with a consumer’s expectations not only helps keep them engaged, but also gives them another reason to tune into your messaging –- which is key in today’s fragmented world.
Of course, there’s another reason to keep your marketing plans secret –- surprising the competition. With billions of dollars at stake, we’ve all seen the lengths that brands and their agencies will go through to keep corporate secrets. Keeping a new product or marketing program under wraps can mean limiting the number of people allowed to view a certain document, making everyone who enters a particular room sign a specific NDA, confiscating cell phones, and even holding back key pieces of material for a select few people..
It’s a lot of cloak and dagger. But when you can pull it off – like some of last night’s surprises -– the results can be thrilling. There’s nothing like working on something for months – maybe years – and having it all fall into place. And when you’re on the other side of the equation? The only thing to do is tip your cap for a job well done, as much as you might be dying inside.
The Sons of the Harpy have used sneak attacks throughout this season in Meereen, and last night’s showdown in the arena was no exception. But this time the surprise was on them when Drogon came to Dany’s rescue. Watching Drogon burn Daenerys’s enemies alive was quite a thrill, and if marketers can mount an adaptive response of their own to surprise the competition, it can be almost as thrilling. Sometimes, if you get it just right, you can even surprise yourself.
There’s only one more week to go in this exciting season of Game of Thrones, and I’m sure the producers have at least one more unexpected revelation up their sleeves for us. Let’s just hope it’s a pleasant surprise -- like Ramsay meeting a horrible end.