Brand Storytelling: A Lesson From “Game of Thrones” Season 8

I will admit it: I was a “Never Throner” until November 2018. But never say never, right? When winter came to my household and semi-hibernation season began, I joined the ranks of Game of Thrones viewers, binge-watching the first seven seasons in about five months’ time. Like everyone else, I eagerly awaited Season 8.

I didn’t hate Season 8 enough to rage-tweet about it, as many viewers did, but it did seem to fall flat. People complained that character arcs that had been building for years were suddenly abandoned. But it’s probably more accurate to say that the character arcs stopped midair, much like Arya in Season 8, Episode 3. Or perhaps that the writing was killed and then reanimated as a wight, stumbling along through the snow, a cold and soulless version of what it once was.

What Went Wrong?

In her Scientific American blog post, Zeynep Tufekci says that the problem went much deeper than a deterioration in the writing and a sharp uptick in plot holes: There was a fundamental shift in the storytelling style.

For the first seven seasons, the Game of Thrones story was told in sociological style. George R.R. Martin created the world in which our favorite characters lived (and died). The characters’ stories were interesting because they shaped, and were shaped by, that world.

In the eighth season, the writers shifted to psychological storytelling. They forgot about the society and world in which these characters lived and focused instead on their individual personalities. But without the context of the larger world, character development stopped, and personalities turned into caricatures.

Viewers felt confused, disappointed, even betrayed. The characters that viewers used to love for their complexity and autonomy suddenly became one-dimensional and driven by fate. There wasn’t a world to engage with anymore; for many, the only reason to stick around to see it through was because the end was in sight.

What Does It Mean for Brand Storytelling?

Think of your brand as a character: When your messaging is all about the brand, and when it ignores the context of the world in which it exists (or treats that world as nothing more than a backdrop), that’s psychological storytelling.

Your audience may love your brand as much as Game of Thrones fans loved Arya Stark—but even Arya’s biggest fans cried foul with some of her Season 8 scenes, because those scenes didn’t make sense in the larger picture.

Sociological storytelling for brands means embracing the larger world in which your brand lives, breathes and interacts with customers. It also means not putting your favorite character (your brand) into every single scene.

Take branded print magazines, for example: Print is “the ultimate lean back experience,” as a recent Adweek article put it; it’s an invitation to relax into a world where your brand and the customer can interact. And once your audience has accepted the invitation, says a recent Folio article, they “still prefer content that doesn’t feel like it’s coming directly from a brand.”

The Lesson

Yes, you love your brand. You can’t imagine anyone not loving it as much as you do. If you’re charged with marketing your brand, you’re probably living, eating and breathing it.

But your customers, in general, are not. They’re living their lives, with plenty of scenes in between the ones where your character appears. They aren’t going to love your character—your brand—in a vacuum, or just because you told them they should, or just because you’ve been around for seven seasons prior to this one.

People love brands for how they fit into the customer’s world, and for the relationship between the brand, the customer and the area of interest (be it cosmetics or travel or insurance). And even the most loyal customers can grow frustrated and feel betrayed when the brand loses sight of the bigger picture, abandoning the story between the parties involved and devolving into navel-gazing instead—much like GoT fans did as Season 8 unfolded.

Yes, people continued to watch Season 8, but do you want people talking about your brand the way they talked about Season 8 when it was all over? Probably not. Get them talking about your brand the way people talked about the first seven seasons: Push your storytelling beyond the psychological and into the sociological. Make them care about your character by showing them you care about their world, even if you’re not always the center of it.

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