Although the first tsunami of Squid Game success may be quieting down, its impact on the digital landscape is unlikely to fade away. Saying that Netflix’s latest hit show “rocked the boat” of the personal and business side of the coin is an understatement. The way it shaped user and business behaviors around the world, steered my attention to its marketing prowess.
What is it about Squid Game that turned it into an overnight sensation?
What about the show made it overcome the invisible barrier that keeps Asian production on the periphery for western audiences?
What made Squid Game #1 on Netflix’s Top 10 list in 90 countries, attracting 142 million households in its first four weeks of streaming? Popularity so unprecedented that it surpassed Netflix’s reigning most-watched production, 2020’s Bridgerton, and has the co-CEO of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, saying that there’s “a very good chance it’s going to be our biggest show ever.”
Is it because Squid Game is the best show ever?
Sure, it’s compelling, riddled with cliffhangers, and ethical and emotional dilemmas that resonate with everyone regardless of age or culture. The character arcs, acting, and dialogue are great, too — well, except for the VIPs. But who knows, that might have been on purpose to emphasize the pretentiousness? No one will ever know.
Still, despite a lot of elements that recommend the show, there’re plenty of “shortcomings.” First, playing deadly games in dystopian series is not that original. The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and even Westworld have explored this concept quite recently. The ending is also a bit of a letdown after so much drama the show puts you through. Plus, did you realize that the entire detective side story has absolutely zero influence on the main plot? It’s pretty much the Jar Jar Binks of the show — if they cut it out, it would have no impact on the outcome of the series.
So, if it’s not nearly as perfect as its popularity suggests, then what is the secret key to the show’s success?
It’s this question that propelled me to think about Squid Game as a masterclass in demand generation marketing. The lessons to be found hide not only in the effect of the show on its audiences but also in the deadly games themselves.
This is my take on the lessons I learned from the most popular TV show on Netflix.
Lesson I: Never Undervalue the Power of Visual Identity
Before you’ve even gotten to watch the show, it’s likely you’ve been assaulted by the show’s imagery. In fact, I would go as far as calling it a brand identity that is primarily made up of three simple shapes: triangle, square, and circle.
These three shapes are consistently represented throughout the series, including:
- The layout of the Squid Game as explained at the beginning of the show;
- The show’s “logo;”
- The business card players receive;
- A rank denominator on the black masks of the red army employees;
- In the overall environment design.
The shapes are simple, even unoriginal, as they are the ultimate “gaming shapes” PlayStation turned into gamer icons. Yet, the way the show uses and incorporates them gives them a new life of their own.
The strong and consistent branding is perpetuated by “character design” rooted in simplicity:
- Red overalls with black mask outfits of the red army;
- The green-white outfits of the players with white slip-on Vans.
The consistency and simplicity of the show’s brand identity make it easy for users to identify and, most important of all, reproduce. Creative user-generated content served to amplify demand generation without pretty much any additional cost and propelled the show to reach new audiences.
The branding impacted the audiences profoundly. According to Artisanal Consulting, Squid Game costumes were the #1 Halloween costume in the US, with metrics showing a +3000 increase in show-inspired costumes on Amazon, +62% increase in searches for red boiler suits, and +7800% increase in searches for white slip-on Vans.
So, the first important lesson in demand generation we can take from Squid Game is the undeniable power of branding. The key takeaway is that your visual identity doesn’t need to be complex, unique, or incredibly artistic. It must be consistent, thoroughly incorporated, and always (even if just subconsciously) present.
While Squid Game could have probably been a hit without its visual identity, it is clear the branding did play a key role in catapulting it to the top, helping to spread like wildfire through social media.
Lesson II: Nail the Pain Point
Squid Game, quite clearly, revolves around prevalent pain points: money problems, debt, and poverty.
Hence, from the viewer’s perspective, the show’s draw is the struggle pretty much anyone can relate to at one point in their life. The show is honest and brutal about these struggles and opens up many ethical dilemmas that leave us questioning humanity and ourselves. It’s refreshing as so many other shows rely either on nostalgia and familiarity (e.g., Stranger Things) or on trends such as superhero or fantasy genres.
It is relatable. And the narratives built around that central pain point make it even more so.
In the context of the story, the Squid Game organizers target people in dire financial situations and offer them a very tempting way out. Play a few children’s games, win a lot of money. Sure the first offer is a lie by omission. Yet, many decide to come back even knowing the games are life-or-death and prospects rather grim.
And yes... There’s a lesson in this rather harrowing metaphor.
No product or service is perfect. Sure, that would be ideal, but many customers don’t count on it because a perfect product or service doesn’t exist or is too costly. In other words, there’s always “something.”
The key to generating more demand lies in zeroing on a specific pain point your audience suffers from and showing how you can provide a solution to it. Any smaller ups or downs don’t truly matter if the principal need is met.
Thinking this way will also prevent you from falling into the loop of struggling to create the perfect solution before launch. Often, the only accurate way to learn how to improve your product is to let customers have a go at it anyway.
Lesson III: Tap into Current Cultural Obsessions
Another thing Squid Game does quite smartly is tapping into a worldwide cultural obsession with reality and gameshows.
The VIPs are watching the players on the show, but you, as the viewers, are only one step removed. Furthermore, it’s hard to resist putting yourself in their shoes and thinking about how you would react. Squid Game exploits our propensity to embrace gameshows, pick favorite players, root for them, laugh with them, cry for them, etc.
Using current cultural obsessions and trends allows you to amplify your reach and greater audience.
A great example of brands doing just that is, in fact, the Squid Game obsession. Companies all over the world and from all types of industries are using the show’s imagery and references to help advertise their products:
So, the lesson is clear!
Pay attention to the pop culture and the current obsessions occupying the time and minds of the public. It can be your express ticket to growth.
Lesson IV: Leverage the Word-of-Influential-Sources
While word-of-mouth doesn’t boast the power it once did, there’s a new contender for the leader among inbound marketing strategies: word-of-influential-sources.
As Rand Fishkin points out in the Ungated Marketing podcast, SEO is getting more challenging, but also, people don’t necessarily rely on Google search to get information on their area of interest. Instead, most of us flock to our trusted sources of influence.
Our grandparents might have relied more on newspapers, radio programs, or valued members of their community as sources of influence. Today, those influential sources are different, but the behavior is the same. Instead of the more classic channels, we go to our favorite niche blog, our favorite YouTuber, or TikToker, a podcast, an online community of like-minded individuals, etc. In these spaces, conversations happen, and influence is exerted with a hundred times more authority than any ad could possibly muster.
The show’s visual identity inspired the massive response in the form of user-generated content. These content pieces, along with the show’s reviews, obviously acted as the first influential sources.
The memes and TikToks helped build the hype and spread the word, amplifying the initial success. That success inspired more serious media such as the New York Times, the Guardian, or the Economist to write about the show and so, introduce it to a whole new audience.
TikTok also responded to the trend and created Squid Game-inspired filters that allowed users to play digital versions of some of the games that feature in the show. The filter created even more buzz about the series while also giving more exposure to TikTok as it attracted new audiences to check out the content on their platform.
The lesson in demand generation here is evident.
Making your product appear or be mentioned in the sources of influence most frequented by your target audience is a powerful and incredibly cost-effective way to amplify the reach of your content.
So, when tapping into current cultural obsessions, remember to focus on channels favored by your target.
Lesson V: Don’t Let the Pressure Rob You of Your Creativity
Each game in the series represents a point of stress, a test, a life-and-death dilemma. The Dalgona cookie game, the second of six, is perhaps the most iconic — probably because of the cookies.
The players are asked to select a shape — circle, triangle, star, or umbrella — before the purpose of the game is revealed. To even out their chances, the key characters split, each of them picking a different shape. Seong Gi-hun, the protagonist, selects the umbrella and regrets his choice after entering the playground and realizing he will have to cut it out from a honeycomb cookie using a needle.
The time is running out, and Seong Gi-hun is falling behind. That is until he realizes that the cookie is nothing but sugar which can melt away with a bit of moisture. He starts to lick the cookie from the back to soften the cut-out edges, thus separating the fragile shape successfully and in time.
When it comes to generating demand and leads, marketers face a lot of pressure to perform, deliver, and reach ambitious metrics. This pressure can focus too much attention on the numbers at the expense of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.
Since paid campaigns are often easier to track and measure, they are easier to defend and justify than organic strategies. However, as demonstrated above, organic campaigns are often much more compelling and persuasive as they inspire more trust.
Hence, regardless of the pressure, it’s key to keep your mind, eyes, and ears open to existing customers, target audiences, cultural obsessions, as well as your peers in search of the idea that might just “save your life.”
Lesson VI: Strategy and Teamwork Can Beat Size and Strength
The fourth game in the series is the elementary children’s game, Tug of War.
To me, it’s the most intense of the episodes because despite realizing they won’t kill 90% of crucial characters in the middle of the show, it still has me cringing in fear and anxiety. It is also the game with the most significant lesson.
Muscle power — or, in our case, the size and extent of one’s resources — isn’t the sole indicator of success.
In this instance, players have to create a team of 10, once again without knowing what the game will be. Because of the personalities of some of the main characters, our “protagonist team” includes several women and the old man making the team weaker and unlikely to win.
However, using strategy and working as a team, they manage to beat the much stronger group they end up facing.
The life of marketers is not much different as most of them — or, better said, US — work for small or medium companies and startups where every cent matters and resources are scarce.
Having less at your disposal doesn’t mean you can’t fight against the “large muscles” of your industry. Don’t try to match them and beat them with the same “weapons” they use to fight. It won’t work because they have more of both the weapons and the experience using them.
Examine your tools and skills set.
What is your team best at, naturally? What or your strengths in content, in approach? Do you have a great personal brand? Are you great on video? Do you excel in graphics? Whatever it is, zero in on it.
Work together, complement each other.
These are your secret weapons.
Lesson VII: Learn from Those Who Tried before You
Last but not least, we’ve got the self-evident lesson of the firth game, the glass bridge.
The contestants must cross a glass bridge made of glass squares. Each move forward gives them a 50/50 chance of survival as one of each two squares is tempered and will break under human weight. Those in the front must guess to get ahead, while those that come after only need to remember the right choices and follow.
We live in a culture where being the first, the original, is celebrated.
Well, it’s great.
Though being first means stepping into unknown territory where the way ahead is a guessing game, often dependent on luck.
Not that I’m encouraging you from trying to find original solutions! I’m just giving you a heads up not to snub your nose at the knowledge of your “elders”— all in the spirit of Squid Game.
The way things are these days, it’s 99% likely somebody somewhere has already tried the campaign or tactic you’re attempting.
So, do your recon before you blindly jump on the next glass platform. Don’t risk unnecessarily. Inform yourself, dig deep and increase your chances of success. After all, your marketing existence deserves to be less about “fingers-crossed” gambling and more “calm & confident breathing,” your Yoga sensei would be proud of.
It’s unlikely you’ll get it perfect the first time around. Still, with just a bit of learning from the trials and errors of others, you can do well enough that your manager will let you repeat the experiment.
What a journey!
Who would have thought TV shows would end up teaching us marketing… and imparting more knowledge than some actual marketing degrees. Well, the world is full of surprises!
All jokes aside, besides Squid Game being a good show, to me, it’s more of a remarkable marketing feat. I’m not sure if it was meant to be so.
Either way, the series is a stepping stone to an exciting era of digital marketing driven by storytelling and powerful visual imagery, both of which compel and engage.