Game of Thrones and the Power of Branded Storytelling

As Tyrion Lannister states during the Game of Thrones (GoT) season finale, “There is nothing more powerful in the world than a good story.” Over the past several weeks, 43 million people worldwide have risked showing up to work groggy in order to stay up late watching HBO’s epic series, Game of Thrones. Folks from all walks of life – fantasy nerds, college students, your parents – have participated in the ritual of the show, which involved much more than simply turning the TV to the right channel at 9 PM.  

 Game of Thrones has captured the public’s imagination in a way that HBO predecessors like The Sopranos and Sex and the City once did; the only difference being that fans have more access to their favourite shows than ever before. They are using social media, forums, and think pieces to voice their (impassioned) opinions on their favourite television show. The Game of Thrones phenomenon represents a new form of entertainment, one where the storytelling begins behind the camera lens and lives on through the screens and social channels of millions of viewers.  

 HBO is smart. They have capitalized on the show’s popularity from the get-go and set the precedent for a type of branded storytelling we’ve rarely seen at this scale. They have continued the story though a plethora of partnerships: Johnnie Walker introduced their “White Walker” whiskey, Urban Decay rolled out their “Westeros women inspired” makeup pallets, and Oreos claimed their portion of the throne through a collection of branded cookies. Because of social media, these types of brand partnerships have never been more powerful: for example, the hashtag #ForTheThrone has been used on HBO, Game of Thrones, and Oreos Twitter posts, connecting all three brands online and in the minds of consumers. And while we all know the characters on GoT are partial to red wine and not whiskey, Johnnie Walker knew that their branded product was likely to be served at Game of Thrones viewing parties and thus show up on Instagram feeds throughout the world. Same goes for Oreos. By attaching their products to the show’s iconic storytelling, brands inserted themselves into a narrative that fans were already deeply invested in, instead of having to build their own brand stories from scratch. The lesson here: join communities and conversations already in flow.  

 Of course, having an intensely dedicated fanbase comes with its challenges. As George RR Martin fell behind on writing his tomes, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (not so affectionately referred to online as D&D, or Dumb and Dumber) took over. The show faced severe backlash from fans in its final two seasons over alleged plot holes, lack of character development, and nonsensical action scenes – the worst of which culminated in a petition for HBO to redo the show with “more competent writers” that earned over 1 million signatures. While the exposure of the Game of Thrones brand is still in overdrive, its reputation in the fans’ eyes has been somewhat tarnished, reminding us all just how important storytelling really is but moreover, how important authenticity within that storytelling remains. 

 Despite the hype that surrounded the show in its final seasons, it wasn’t the glitz and glam (or dragons and slaughters...) that earned this. It was the storytelling that fans ultimately cared about the most, reminding brands that while it's relatively easy to insert yourself into a story, associating yourself with narratives that aren’t in your brand’s own control could backfire. Is the risk worth the reward? 

 For GoT, it seems so. Despite the show’s recent setbacks, it will still go down as one of the most powerful storytelling experiences of the decade. The show was more than just a show – it was a brand, and it will operate as a model of branded storytelling for years to come. Well played, Oreos, well played.