It began like any other commercial set in Bud Light’s medieval world of Dilly Dilly: a cheery lute soundtrack, the happy-go-lucky king, a bottle of Bud Light, the blue-steeled Bud Knight set to join a thrilling jousting contest. Then . . . something happened.
Suddenly, we were no longer in the safe confines of Dilly Dilly Land, where corn syrup is the most pressing matter of the day. It was quickly apparent that the Bud Knight’s jousting rival was none other than the Westerosi masked monster known as Ser Gregor Clegane (aka The Mountain, aka Head Crusher, aka Worst Brother Ever), literally almost the last person anyone expected to pop up in a Bud Light Super Bowl ad.
Game of Thrones had entered the arena.
Cue a brutal murder, a blood-curdling scream, the screech of dragons from above, and the destruction of fire raining down on the dilly dillies.
This was easily HBO’s biggest commercial for its long-running series and a hilariously apt way to celebrate the coming of Game of Thrones eighth and final season. But it wasn’t just unexpected because of the way it crashed the Super Bowl. Over its decade-long run, HBO has rarely used the show for such a high-profile brand partnership. And it’s not the only one.
The network is taking advantage of this final season to flex both its cultural and commercial muscle. The list of partners and projects includes Mountain Dew’s “A Can Has No Name,” special edition Twitter emojis, Adidas kicks for White Walkers, a tie-in with Major League Baseball, special edition Johnnie Walker whisky, limited edition Oreo cookies, OKCupid dating badges, a John Varvatos collection, 250,000 New York City transit GoT-themed MetroCards, and a superstar-filled soundtrack with Columbia Records.
— Game of Thrones (@GameOfThrones) April 9, 2019
“We want to convey the quality and event level of the show,” says HBO’s executive vice president of program marketing, Zach Enterlin. “There’s a lot to live up to, leading up to season eight. It’s the culmination of one of the best shows in the history of television, so the celebration of the series took on a higher level.”
In past seasons, HBO approached the marketing for Game of Thrones in a largely piecemeal way—a fun food truck here, a small-batch craft beer there—primarily relying on the sheer hypestorm of teasers and trailers to drive awareness and excitement.
This time, the network consciously aimed for all of the season eight marketing to be an extension of a single theme: For The Throne. “It’s based on the simple insight that over the seven seasons, the characters have sacrificed and fought for the throne,” says Enterlin. “What would our fans do? What would other brands do?”
Quest for the throne
Beyond the brand tie-ins, there have been three major aspects to the overall HBO campaign, created by agency Droga5, all with the goal to elevate and celebrate the devotion of Game of Thrones fans. “Bleed For The Throne” is a partnership with the Red Cross that kicked off as a cosplay crossed with a blood drive at SXSW and extended to other Thrones-themed blood donation events around the world. “Quest For The Throne” was a global scavenger hunt, in which HBO hid versions of the show’s Iron Throne in far-flung locales, offering up only the vaguest of hints across social media, then planting a 360-degree camera to livestream the moment it was found. “Create For The Throne” was a call to see how fans have expressed their love for the show through artwork.
It’s been years since HBO had to use marketing to actually promote awareness for Game of Thrones, a marketer’s dream. Jim Marsh, HBO’s senior VP of digital and social marketing, has been with Game of Thrones since the start, launching the show’s Facebook page and Twitter account back when only book readers knew what Dothraki was. He says that the biggest turning point for the show, when its marketing shifted from driving awareness into its current mode of finding the best way to stoke fan excitement, was the infamous season three episode “The Red Wedding.”
“That was the coolest fan-first piece of advertising that also very viscerally demonstrated the experience of watching the show, and it was incredibly helpful for us in bringing in new viewers,” Marsh says.
“What really defines the scope of Game of Thrones is how extreme the fans have been and how into the show they are,” says Droga5 creative director Andrew Fergusson. “We found this lovely parallel between what happens in the show and this obsession for one thing: the Iron Throne. Our challenge was, if people have been doing this already, how can we step up that devotion?”
Why AT&T and WarnerMedia need GoT to reign forever
That’s exactly the question new WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt must be asking himself. Last month, Greenblatt, a NBC and Showtime vet, took the reins of HBO, TNT, and all the other Time Warner networks for which AT&T paid $84.5 billion.
As the new behemoth begins plotting the rollout of its WarnerMedia streaming service, the one thing the “For The Throne” campaign is illustrating loud and clear is that the passion and potential for the universe George R.R. Martin created is faaaaar from tapped. Work has already started on a prequel series set some 10,000 years before the events of the current hit, and there are reportedly four more other related spin-off pilots under consideration.
Inspired by the colours and details of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond The Wall.
— adidas Running (@adidasrunning) March 11, 2019
The importance of the Game of Thrones universe to WarnerMedia can’t be overstated. “It’s boring, but ultimately, content is king,” says eMarketer analyst Paul Verna. “These services aren’t competing any more on the basis of customer service or technology. They all have it, so it’s really about who has the great show people feel they need to watch.”
Two of AMC’s top three rated shows are spin-offs: Fear The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul. Given the depth of the source material in Martin’s novels, the potential for Game of Thrones goes beyond a one-off extension and more akin to the universes of Harry Potter or Star Wars.
Professor Aswath Damodaran of the Stern School of Business at New York University is a leading expert on valuation and has previously broken down the value of Star Wars in the wake of the 2012 Disney deal for Lucasfilm. Damodaran says that while Game of Thrones doesn’t quite have the merchandising muscle of a galaxy far, far away (because of its non-kid-friendly content), its value is in both the long-term for generating years of content, and the short-term for attracting potential subscribers. “I can’t think of a single TV series that could draw new subscribers like Game of Thrones could,” says Damodaran.
Just as WarnerMedia has quickly paired HBO with its other network siblings under one roof for more commercial potential, this season’s marketing blitz—and how it evolves throughout the six episodes—could provide a road map (or at least a hint) for how AT&T/WarnerMedia plans to continue harvesting commercial value from the Game of Thrones universe.
So if you think this is the last you’ll see of Westeros, remember what Cersei Lannister told Ullana in the season six finale: “What? No. Today? You’re not going to die today. You’re not going to die for quite awhile.”