3 Marketing Lessons from Game of Thrones

Last Sunday marked the penultimate episode for Season Five of Game of Thrones. With material from the books nearly exhausted, and no set date for George RR Martin’s forthcoming addition to the series, legions of GOT fans are nervously awaiting what’s next.

Game of Thrones is uniquely appealing to fans of both terrible human behavior and admirers of strategic thinkers. While some of the most notable scenes involve grotesque acts and shocking interpretations of historical events, at its’ core, the show is full of aspiring kings… the original marketers. The characters are constantly plotting and adapting in their quest for the Iron Throne, resulting in a few great lessons in the quest for the ultimate campaign. Here are a few:

#1 Loyalty is Key, and Constantly Fleeting

The entire feudal system, and the world of Westeros by extension, is based on one fact: peasants are loyal to lords, lords are loyal to other lords, and those lords are loyal to a king. That loyalty is inspired by fear, love or both.

Obviously, marketers aren’t out to inspire fear in the hearts of their consumers, but the love part is pretty spot on. At the end of the day the choice between Pepsi and Coke, Google or Apple boils down to loyalty. But people who remain loyal in spite of everything, the Brienne of Tarth’s of the world, are rare.

Most people are, at best, as loyal as Tyrion Lannister and, at worst, as loyal at Walder Frey. That is, the Tyrion’s of the world will stick with you through the rough patches until you cross a certain line, and the Walder Frey’s of the world will betray you as soon as the wind changes direction.

More importantly, this means that loyalty requires maintenance. Building a long-lasting relationship doesn’t mean getting there, and walking away. It means always going above and beyond to prove to the consumer they’re worth of your support.

#2 Stay Classy

There’s a million Melisandras out there: People who claim that they can solve all of your problems by burning a few people alive, or less drastically, performing some digital magic.

A lot of new marketers and businesses make the mistake of getting caught up in this “anything that gets me ahead” logic, which can be inherently self-destructive. Spam techniques, black-hat SEO and even misleading product claims are just a few examples of this logic at work. But there are two problems. Like Stannis knows, you’ll probably make a few regrettable decisions (although hopefully not about your daughter) but it also undermines trust both internally and externally.

Nobody likes working for a shady organization, and not many people like to buy from them. And no matter how closely guarded your secrets are, word gets out. That is, if they even work. It seems more likely that Stannis is getting played by a fraud, and your company might be as well.

#3 The Power of Local

In today’s market, it’s often assumed that what works in one geographic area will work in another, and that a powerful narrative told nationally will have the same effect on a local level. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

The presumption in the politics of Westeros is that people are fiercely local: in custom, in politics and even in language. Historically, this was also the case, although with the advent of air travel and the internet people assume that these barriers have been erased.

But the lesson in Game of Thrones is not only that local leaders will always have the advantage: they know the terrain and they know the people, but a nationally coordinated campaign needs to fully integrate those local voices. The keeper of the Iron Throne wouldn’t dare put a Southerner in charge of the North (the Starks are the Faygo of local loyalty), but that’s ok. A series of disparate, local voices (in the North, in Dorne, in the Vale, etc) come together for a national voice: loyalty to the king.