Marketing Social Media

What IKEA and Game of Thrones Taught Us About the Intersection of Brands and Pop Culture

7 Minute Read

Disclaimer: There are no Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. Feel free to read with ease.

Since the dawn of advertising, brands and pop culture have been inseparable. From the earliest advertisements that separated the serials in magazines to the familiar cereal mascots that broke up Saturday morning cartoons, Americans have, for the most part, come to accept branding as part and parcel of interacting with their favorite entertainment.

But this dynamic has begun to change. Perhaps audiences became hungry for unbroken entertainment, or advertising just became too overbearing in traditional media, but the cracks have begun to show in the strained relationship between brands and media. On the more playful end, we watched some of our favorite programs like The Office poke fun with overt, often tongue-in-cheek product placements, while on the more extreme end we’ve seen consistent growth in the number of households cutting their cable cords in return for ad-free alternatives.

Thanks to the immediacy of smartphones and the accessibility of internet today, the average American now consumes more than ten hours of media on a daily basis. Access to entertainment and pop culture has never been higher, but the pushback against advertising has made it difficult for brands to break into this headspace. So what’s a big, audience-oriented B2C company to do?

Rather than interrupting content, successful brands have found ways to interact with media alongside viewers, rather than during. It’s no longer about your brand being on TV—it’s about your brand learning how to watch TV.

Girl watching TV

Bonus Features

Today, I’m like many Americans in that I consume most of my movie content through streaming services. It’s fast, convenient, and offers me a far wider selection than I would have stocking up on DVDs. But one thing that I’ve come to miss by doing this is bonus features. If I want to find commentary, behind the scenes, or other interesting interaction with movies I love, I have to turn to the Internet to find it—and in this space, many production companies have found a powerful way to do content marketing.

But this extended entertainment experience space isn’t just reserved for the companies that make the entertainment we so love. It can be an opportunistic space for brands to get excited about the same content that excites their audience.

Throughout the summer, HBO subscribers and pirates alike have gathered around their TVs and laptops to eagerly watch the penultimate season of Game of Thrones. Speculation, criticism, and GIFs flew across the web. Amidst all of this interest, only one brand could claim the Iron Throne of successful Game of Thrones marketing—and it happened to be a Scandinavian furniture maker.

Someone at IKEA must love the show, because when it was revealed at a production conference that the wardrobe department of Game of Thrones uses IKEA carpets to make the show’s capes, someone in the marketing department was quick to come up with the only logical idea: release an infographic showing people how to make their own Jon Snow-grade cape from an area rug with a name you probably can’t pronounce. It was a move that not only combined timeliness, relevance, and earnestness into a great post, but from a strategic standpoint it’s also likely to drive a little bump in carpet sales and probably create a nice hedge of user-generated content come Halloween.

Diagram of how to make a Game of Thrones Cape

The Anatomy of “Forced” Content

Social media marketing is often the first place marketers think of when it comes to how marketers interact with entertainment media, and with good reason. Social media interaction has quickly become a default idle state for many people, live tweeting through their favorite shows or scrolling their Facebook newsfeeds for something interesting in downtimes. We like to give this behavior pithy names like “second screening,” but it accounts for an enormous amount of traffic in the social space, particularly Twitter.

In this space there are already some legendary moments like Oreo’s Super Bowl blackout tweet that continue to stick in the minds of marketers as the gold standard for interacting with audiences during media time. And it’s a big space—social media management tech company Hootsuite explored how brands can do a better job live tweeting and essentially came to the conclusion that when brands are the first people to the conversation, geared up with something witty or insightful to share, they win.

But in talking about these moments, it’s interesting to hear what marketers find most impressive about these posts. “Timeliness” and “relevance” are often two ideas that come up that, while central parts of the equation, leave out a third, essential component. This third piece is often referred to as “authenticity,” but this is a word that has quickly become so overused that it is perhaps too broad for good use here. Instead, I like to think of language like “sincerity” or “earnestness”: language that isn’t just about the brand being real, but about the brand feeling the same thing while seeing something happen in pop culture and expressing it in a way that feels like there’s a person behind the content.

Take for instance one example from recent history that I keep coming back to. The Carolina Panthers, in preparation of releasing some photos of Will Smith interacting with their team, decided to announce the content in the same way that any brand would: by hiding the lyrics to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song in three days’ worth of tweets.

You can see it, right? The smug grin on the social media marketing manager’s face as she posts that last tweet telling everyone to go back and the read the first words? The brand wasn’t just excited to release some photos of a celebrity, they expressed playful excitement to have something that connected them to a powerful piece of nostalgia for much of their audience—excitement that was presented in a likewise playful way.

Was the post timely and relevant to what was going on with the team? Sure. But more importantly it interacted with this event in a way that mirrored the feelings their audience would also have while interacting with their posts. Where attempts to be timely and relevant without sincerity can result in catastrophe (looking at you, Pepsi), while feeling the same way as your audience can net results.

May the Forced Be With You

Recent Star Wars films present an excellent case study in how content marketing connected to media we love can go really well and horribly wrong all at the same time.

Backed by the creative and budgetary powerhouse that is the Walt Disney Company, the latest Star Wars iteration, Rogue One, entered the market place with a massive marketing and advertising pushing behind it. These deployments ranged wildly in efficacy, from some truly odd product placements (“Honey, can you pass me my Rogue One™ razor please?”) to a slight stretch of a partnership with Uber that used opt-in and optional content to push last minute visibility.

But one of Disney’s biggest wins came when they decided to explore a story of why people love the Star Wars story so much. With the launch of their #CreateCourage campaign, Disney released a two-minute short film about a unique day in the life of an avid fan to support the Philippine General Hospital Medical Foundation.

With a pleasant twist, a heavy dose of sentiment, and more than a few moments of levity, the film landed more than seven million views on YouTube alone and launched a sizeable hashtag conversation across the social landscape. This was the content Disney needed to move their conversations forward: They knew people loved the stories they were telling, but doing nothing but capitalizing on that love with merchandise can harm audience goodwill. Finding ways to interact and understand that love, however, reactivated their audience in a big way.

Participating in Connection

In our constantly connected state, users are always looking for better ways to interact with the experiences they love—sometimes even in odd, unexpected ways. A lot of marketers like to think their brand can be such an artifact of content, but in reality, our audiences aren’t usually coming back to us for material. The interaction between brands and pop culture allows companies a way to take advantage of the fervor that fans have for their favorite entertainment, without riding on the unrealistic expectation that they’ll constantly turn to us in their free moments.

This is really the heart of it: There is stuff out in the world that your audience is likely more interested in than your brand. But by finding ways to share in that interest sincerely, your brand can become a non-intrusive and positive part of your audience’s pop culture experience.

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Featured image attribution: Pablo Garcia Sandana

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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