Learning From Game of Thrones
What House Lannister and House Stark can teach us about branding
Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012
Updated: Friday, April 27, 2012 23:04
Season 2 of the HBO hit Game of Thrones premiered earlier this month and its legion of fans such as myself were overjoyed to learn that the network has already renewed it for a third season. The television series, based upon the saga of novels from George R.R. Martin, works well because it draws upon the excellent (and exhaustive) source material but also, as Andy Greenwald of Grantland observes, turns a "straightforward fantasy epic of succession and betrayal" into a "multi-layered drama about institutional failure".
As I watched the second season premiere it struck me that the show illustrates key topics from business school. Specifically, an examination of the great Houses of Westeros yields instructive lessons for brand strategists. That, or b-school projects and cases have rendered me incapable of seeing anything through another lens. This is entirely possible.
Game of Thrones takes place in the land of Westeros, where monarchs rule over a feudal system and great houses of extended families jockey for power and prestige. Each house has its own sigil and words – essentially the logo and slogans that define its identity. These provide us an opportunity to look at each house as a brand.
David Aaker defines a brand's identity as aspirational – the timeless, most important elements of the identity form its Core. Around that is an Extended Core of key associations that Aaker believes provide texture and completeness to a brand's identity.
Using Aaker's Brand Identity System, we can analyze a small sample set of houses and determine their sources of brand equity.
House Lannister, one of the most important and powerful houses in all of Westeros, understands the benefits of building and maintaining a strong brand.
For House Lannister, I have identified three Core traits: power, wealth, and cunning. The Extended Core is comprised of the color crimson, the golden lion symbol, the house slogans, and the house founder. The sigil of a golden lion upon a crimson field supports the core traits of power and wealth. The lion reigns supreme in the animal kingdom, gold symbolizes wealth, and crimson is a strong color that can represent blood strewn in pursuit of power. The official slogan ("Hear me roar!") references the lion and proclaims that the Lannisters are a proud family. "A Lannister always pays his debts" – the unofficial, arguably more popular slogan – reminds every citizen of Westeros that Lannister financial obligations can forever be trusted. Lann the Clever earned the family its home of Casterly Rock through scheming and trickery, and this legend reminds all that Lannisters are cunning foes. As long as House Lannister successfully navigates the geopolitical currents, it will reinforce these associations and continue to build its brand equity.
House Stark, the leaders of Winterfell, is an honorable and ancient family hardened by the cold of the North. They have a reputational disdain for political intrigue and value actions over words. The Core identity of the Starks is comprised of winter and heritage.
The Extended core contains the house sigil of the direwolf on an icy field, the house words, and its genealogy.
Direwolves rarely appear in Westeros south of The Wall, a massive structure that protects the realm's northern frontier. These mythic, oversized relatives of common wolves date back to ancient times and live in the coldest climates.
The Stark phrase "winter is coming" is a constant reminder of the difficult times that lie ahead. These strong associations with winter reinforce one another and create a consistent branding message. Further, House Stark has shouldered the responsibility of protecting the northern kingdom for ages. Recognizing its heritage and fulfilling its sworn duty are ways in which House Stark maintains its brand equity.
Both houses have created substantial brand equity that can be translated into sustainable competitive advantage and over the course of this new season we will see whether their efforts succeed.