Those are two words you might never have put together, and suddenly it’s October 2021, and you’re not hearing about much else.
The Korean-made, dystopian drama series produced and streamed by Netflix is by all measures a record breaker. Not just in terms of viewership or money (it made nearly $1B…), but also in terms of audience mindshare, which after all is what drives every other success.
There is plenty that marketers can learn from Squid Game about how to engage audiences and make them go a bit crazy for your brand or product. Let’s dissect the show and see what takeaways can inspire your next marketing campaign:
1. Design Matters (A Lot)
One of the impressive aspects of the series is its visual design, which pops out and sticks with you, an indelible part of the show’s character and identity. The show creators incorporated many elements that reference familiar art, like the Escherian stairwell, and the red suits from Money Heist. This is important to note, because familiarity is a powerful way to appeal to audiences. It creates a sense of comfort and belonging, which are key to building trust and boosting affinity.
The series uses colors smartly, as if from a set palette. The backgrounds are pastels, which effectively counteract with the vivid red of the staff uniforms and the players’ green. The colors reinforce the underlying sense of the story – innocent childlike settings in light pastel tones, nasty devil colors for the staff, and the hope and renewal of green for the players whose lives we are rooting for! Marketers know that color drives different emotions, and the use of different colors can have a huge impact on a campaign. Squid Game just makes it all the more clear.
Another element of design that deserves a mention is the simple, clean symbols representing the games, and those on the masks of the guards. When it comes to creating brand logos, simplicity is really important. It provides the viewer with a somewhat blank slate on which to project their own feelings and perceptions, which is a large part of building a relationship with a brand. Plus, it’s a good lesson to remind marketers to simplify their message, only making it easier for customers to assimilate.
Source @RaminNasibov: Escherian Stairwell vs. Squid Game staircase
2. Know Your Audience – Via Data
“Know your audience” is the first rule of marketing. And it has proven to be a key reason for the incredible success of Squid Game.
As it happens, the series was repeatedly rejected by production studios for almost 10 years. No one wanted to take it on, until Netflix.
Netflix is a data-driven enterprise. Every time a user chooses a show to watch, stops watching, clicks “Like”, or searches for a title, Netflix is gathering data about their interests and preferences. This not only drives the recommendations served to the particular user; the massive pool of global user data provides a picture of the mood and interests of the general viewing audience, and even the overarching cultural mood. This is a powerful, data-driven guide that helps Netflix make smart decisions about which content to invest in and promote.
A decade ago, the world was not ready for Squid Game. Two years ago, Netflix used data to predict that the time was ripe, so they took the risk. And it paid off, bigly. This should inspire marketers everywhere to pay very close attention to their own data, and use it smartly in future decision making.
3. Word-of-Mouth Works, Big Time
If you are working at the office, you will definitely have heard a lot of water-cooler talk around Squid Game. There’s no avoiding it. That’s the power of word-of-mouth marketing, and Squid Game has achieved it better than any other show, probably ever.
In September 2021, content popularity analytics showed that Squid Game was “the most in-demand show in the world”, garnering 79X more interest in online discussions and searches than any other series. “Squid Game” was popping up everywhere, from LinkedIn posts and feed notifications, to dinner table talk, and overheard conversations on the bus or train.
Word-of-mouth is believed to drive no less than $6 trillion in annual spending worldwide. Human nature being what it is, word-of-mouth is and will always be the key to successful marketing and sales. Squid Game is the proof in the pudding.
4. Be Different
Whether you’re a brand or business or TV show, the best thing you can ever do is to stand out. Netflix is working on this angle, investing more and more in foreign made series that are very different from the usual Hollywood fodder: Squid Game, Fauda, Money Heist, the list goes on.
Why? Foreign productions are exotic and different in every way, from the language to cultural references, values, and sensibilities. Even the look and feel is distinctive. While audiences love the familiar (as noted above in the section about Visual Design), they are also drawn to the new and unusual. Not just a “foreign” production, Squid Game is also a Netflix Original, part of the huge investment Netflix makes in creating and producing original content. In marketing too, if you can bring something new to the table, you’re already on your way to standing out.
5. Going Viral
Going viral is not necessarily something you can plan for or predict. Even Netflix may have been taken by surprise with the viral success of Squid Game. As one senior strategy analyst in the streaming industry put it, “I’m assuming that the [Netflix] executives knew because of the talent they used, because of the region they released it in, that this was going to be a hit in South Korea. I would put good money that the executives had no idea this was going to be a global hit.”
Squid Game has proven to be the quintessential example of contemporary “virality”. Since the show’s release, there has been a tsunami of TikTokers posting videos of themselves playing the games. Mentions of Squid Game have exploded on social media networks and feeds such as Google Discover. Check out the steady and continual increase in YouTube views of the show’s trailer:
While you can never force going viral, you can do your part to encourage it, as Netflix did with push notifications, recommendations, and of course, endlessly reminding the world that Squid Game is the most popular show ever broadcast on the streaming platform. Even when the series drops from the top spot (already happening BTW), it will still be remembered as having smashed records and preoccupied the world. That’s the kind of “virus” every marketer hopes for.
6. Be Inspiring
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in marketing, if you’re ‘copied’, then you know you’ve succeeded. The success of Squid Game has spawned a host of marketing campaigns, inspired by the popularity of the series (this blog post included!). Brands rushed to engage their target audiences with social media posts, ads, and images that draw on themes and visuals from the show. The key element here is timing: brands had to move fast to join the Squid Game bandwagon while it was at its peak. Luckily, the show’s symbols and visuals are so distinctive and simple, many brands could easily put together a quick-win campaign at low cost, designed to attract instant attention from audiences with notoriously low attention spans.
Some brands decided to go heavier than just social media posts. RHB, the fourth largest financial services group in Malaysia, even issued a limited edition Visa card featuring the Squid Game card design.
If you missed out on marketing around Squid Game frenzy, keep in mind for the next craze – act quickly and engage audiences with an inspired campaign that capitalizes on their interests right now.
There’s Something About Squid Game…
Every artistic success has a certain indefinable quality, a sense of wonder or magnetic pull, that is hard to quantify. The mind-boggling reach of Squid Game can never be completely understood, but we do know this: the right story told in the right way to an audience that’s ready for it can reach a level that marketers should strive for. Take what you can from Squid Game and use it to win your marketing game.