Whether you like to spend your weekends binge-watching TV shows on a streaming service or not, you’ve probably heard of Netflix’s Squid Game. It is one of the most viral topics of 2021, and, perhaps surprisingly, it offers some significant business-related insights.
The South Korean survival drama can teach you many valuable marketing lessons that your brand or business can use to improve sales and organic publicity — but no spoilers here, I promise.
With the number of active social-media users at a historic peak, it is safe to say that the content presented to audiences is now more independent than ever before. With that comes the opportunity for small and medium brands to shine more easily — it’s now possible to achieve big impressions for a fraction of the price it used to take.
Additionally, with streaming services being the new normal for how we view content, we might never experience another appointment television viewing like the one for Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, Squid Game redefined what is possible and broke past publicity records with a show that is both gruesome and highly disturbing.
The TV show is based on the events of desperately poor people being invited to compete in children’s themed games with deadly consequences if they lose. Ironically, Squid Game had virtually no press or marketing in the U.S. before its debut compared to all the other big Netflix shows, but it still managed to become the topic of the year. The script has been written since about 2009, with years of attempts by the writer to get it picked up, but no one wanted to produce such an unrealistic and violent story. But, just like any other marketing success, the show owes its popularity to a combination of luck and perfect timing.
Here are three important lessons that can be learned from its example.
1. Word-of-mouth is more successful than the largest paid ad campaigns
Truth be told, word-of-mouth is what you usually read about when you’re opening a 100-year-old marketing book; it’s considered an all-time classic technique. I was always a believer that it works as a minimal factor in any marketing strategy, but Squid Game proves that it can be the major leading factor in advertising. Unfortunately, marketing firms can’t buy or secure word of mouth, so it’s usually done organically, but with social media being so accessible to brands, businesses can now attempt to trigger a wave of trends or buzz to get word-of-mouth going.
I heard about Squid Game from friends of mine who could not stop talking about it, but that was still not enough to convince me to watch it. When I opened my phone to see countless memes flooding my news feeds on every social-media app including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and, of course, TikTok, I stopped for a second and had to give the TV show a try. A TV show accompanied by trends and memes results in one thing for certain: It almost forces you to want to watch the show so you can relate to the community around you and understand the jokes being told.
The concept itself isn’t new; however, word-of-mouth hyping up a TV show at such an accelerated pace is something we have never seen before. I even noticed that Netflix is now investing in some marketing for the series with pop-up displays, which I found odd, then I found out it’s not really intended to bring more attention, but rather to complement the ongoing buzz happening worldwide. The moral of the story is that no paid ad campaign of any scale could accomplish the success that Squid Game achieved using just word-of-mouth, and there is a psychology that supports this.
We humans want to share something odd like this violent game of death with our circle of friends and family; it gives us pleasure of some sort and makes for a great conversation starter. In the case of Squid Game, the violence and gore that kept the script on a shelf for a decade actually contributed to its success.
2. When your brand has a viral TikTok trend, it’s bound for success
TikTok did not only reinvent the way brands reach their audiences, but it also set a new standard for how companies should approach their consumers. Today, it’s acceptable for a large brand to comment on a post without having to be professional; in fact, serious brands that take an informal approach on the platform get a lot more praise and attention, resulting in higher free impressions. The dating app Tinder, for example, gets a ton of impressions by simply commenting funny phrases on any content related to relationships.
I can tell you from experience that marketing is constantly evolving. I run a marketing firm called X Network, and we have been managing our client’s social-media accounts for many years as we run their paid ad campaigns. In the past, they would always ask us to be very professional in the way we speak on their behalf and always maintain some sort of serious tone. Thankfully, we don’t need to do that anymore because consumers evolved; they now want a brand they can relate to and feel a deeper connection with than just a traditional transactional relationship.
If you’re able to get lucky by having a trend related to your brand go viral on TikTok, you’re most likely going to have financial success. Squid Game picked up a fascinating amount of traction on the platform, almost forming an army of viewers that advocate and share the inside jokes. The great advantage for Squid Game is that the only way to understand the jokes going viral is to watch the show because of how specific they are. This can work great for a marketing strategy. Make your campaign so unique and specific that you turn your audiences into advocates for the story.
3. We don’t know what consumers really want until they show us
This South Korean survival drama going viral will make sense once you actually watch it. It’s a great TV show that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and it’s rated highly by critics. Additionally, it’s the perfect time to release such a show because audiences are bored of the copy-paste-styled shows now available on all these streaming services. There is a gap in the market, almost a need for something odd and fresh like Squid Game. The third and most important lesson the show can teach us is that we really can’t predict what consumers want next until they show us.
It sounds a little philosophical, but the reality is that we sometimes don’t really know what we want until we are given something that we then figure out we want. Let me explain better: When you go to any McDonald’s drive thru, for example, you’re welcomed with big flashing photos of food items meant to sell you something you didn’t really know you wanted or were craving when you arrived.
This goes to show that we can’t always follow the conventional norm and depend on historic data to tell us what’s next; innovative businesses should always consider taking calculated risks with their marketing strategies. Squid Game redefined the boundaries of a TV show, revolutionizing the way we view and interact with content. Regular content can get your business mediocre attention, but a really strong concept that is intriguing and fresh can make you go viral, resulting in a lot of free marketing.