To say that Netflix’s South Korean series Squid Game was a success may as well be an understatement. Watched by 142 million households globally with over 1.9 billion minutes of viewing (and counting), Squid Game became the #1 show in Netflix Originals history in just 3 months.
Today, we will be looking at Squid Game from a Marketing perspective. Among so many originals produced by different streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and HBO, what made it go so immensely viral? Was there one, or multiple reasons behind its success?
Image source: marca.com
Before we dive into our Squid Game Marketing review, it is important to keep in mind that a huge reason for its virality is due to Squid Game being an outstanding production. In a way, the show basically sold itself without a huge Marketing budget.
After all, it’s close to impossible to achieve certain popularity with an average product, and this applies to any business and industry.
So, without further ado, let’s dive right into it:
1. Great Marketing starts with a great product
As I just mentioned, we can’t expect a product to go viral or popular if it isn’t great to begin with, and this is the first lesson that we can learn from Squid Game. After all, as I also explain in my previous article, a good Marketing strategy can’t outrun a bad product.
So, what makes Squid Game such an outstanding product?
Unique and refreshing plot
As opposed to many other series, Squid Game’s plot feels unique and refreshing not only because of the story itself, but also because of its relatability. Yes, this may sound weird as being sent to an island to get killed in a creepy game isn’t a particularly common situation in the real world.
However, what’s relatable are the characters, their background and their behavior. On one hand, most series and especially k-dramas feature young, picture-perfect, gorgeous actors that make it hard to relate to for most of us. Squid Game’s characters are attractive but raw, real, and show all their vulnerabilities.
(Don’t get me wrong, I am head over heels with actress HoYeon Jung)
Then we have their background stories. They are not some superhumans but regular people from the real world – with their complex situations, financial problems and shaken relationships. We see all of their feelings, emotions, vulnerabilities and fears. They do the same things that we would do if we were in their place.
And this is what makes them so relatable.
Smart use of colors, design set and symbolism
Another reason why Squid Game became a sensation and a brilliant Marketing example for us to follow is because of the smart use of design architecture, colors and symbolism. First, we have the mesmerizing contrast between the dark, gloomy room and the bright, colorful playgrounds on which the games happen.
Squid Game Marketing: the use of colors to portray certain feelings or spike certain emotions
The colorful sets add depth to the story by creating an unsettling atmosphere of sweetness and innocence, and help participants recall childhood memories that give unexpected twists in the show. And then, we have the dark and cold bedroom that returns them back to the real world in which they are participating in a gruesome contest.
There are many color and symbolism theories that explain the “why” behind everything on the show. But the point us, the attention to all details was incredible, and this is one of the reasons why the final result ended up being so great.
To give you just one more example, here is what the art director Chae Kyung-sun said on the terraced design of the metal beds:
“Since modern society is constant competition to climb the ladder, we thought about portraying that in the bed design.”
Incredible directors and cast
I am not going to dive deep into the cast as this is not what the article is about. However, it has to be said – the team behind the production is outstanding, with amazing actors and amazing producers, crew, etc.
Everybody did a great job in making the show so memorable, and every single person added their own unique touch and spice to it. You can see the full cast here.
There are many other things that make Squid Game such an amazing product – and all these details make the Marketing strategy so much easier. And this is what we are going to discuss next.
2. Virality through word-of-mouth
One of the most mind-blowing things about Squid Game Marketing was their ability to achieve virality mainly through word-of-mouth. I couldn’t find an exact number on their Marketing budget, but it wasn’t much in Korea, and they did no promotion at all in the US where the series blew up as well.
In fact, the whole budget for the series was just $2.4 million per episode ($21.4 million in total). In comparison to other originals, according to Business Insider, Netflix spent $10 million per episode for The Crown and $8 million per episode for Stranger Things.
As with every movie or series, everything starts with early adopters who watch it as soon as it’s released on Netflix (or any other platform, by that means). In Squid Game’s case, the show didn’t blow up overnight; but as more and more people were watching it, they were just compelled to recommend it to their friends.
Soon, this virality reached incredible heights:
In the era of social media, things happen quickly and everyone is looking for the next big trend to hop on and make content about it / from it. Squid Game is great in this sense as it is very “challengeable“. In other words, it provides the perfect base to make challenges off of it because of the 6 games in which participantss take part.
A lot of content on YouTube and TikTok is about taking on different challenges for entertainment, and Squid Game definitely provided a viral ground for it. Here is one example of it – this TikTok compilation on YouTube has almost 24 million views!
Needless to say, the show benefitted from its own virality as well, growing in popularity even further. Another example of spreading the word organically are influencers like MrBeast, who recreated all 6 games for fun:
Squid Game Marketing: going viral through word-of-mouth.
The video got 166 million views! Having people spend so much time and effort on creating such high-level content was definitely something that Netflix didn’t pay for nor could have planned (unless they actually invested in Influencer Marketing, but you can’t guarantee any results).
However, since the show itself was so unique and interesting, influencers saw its great potential and created a whole lot of entertaining content from it. Which ended up in more views and Netflix subscriptions, contributing to the word-of-mouth virality.
Influencers were not the only ones that simultaneously benefitted from and contributed to Squid Game’s arising popularity. Brands hopped on the train as well, creating ads with references to the show. Here are some awesome examples:
Of course, brands wouldn’t join the hype if the show wasn’t already viral. However, as more and more people spread the word, the bigger the avalanche gets, and sooner or later everyone gets blown away by it.
So, the fact that companies include Squid Game references in their advertising not only allows them to benefit from its popularity, but it also helps to spread the word even further.
Social media & memes
And of course, it’s not all about brands and influencers either. People also increased the show’s visibility and popularity through social media, which is one of the fastest ways to get viral in today’s modern era.
From a Marketing perspective, Squid Game is not only perfect because it’s “challengeable”, but it’s also “memeable”. Yes, that’s right – many scenes, face expressions and situations can easily be converted into memes that people can apply in all areas of their lives…and they are doing exactly that.
Like this Twitter user who created an awesome meme to express the challenges of his PhD:
Or this one, which made me laugh because it feels so relatable:
3. Being in the right place at the right time
While it can be very difficult to get it right and it doesn’t always depend on us alone, timing can be a very important factor in the outcome of a good Marketing strategy.
Before finally getting accepted by Netflix, Squid Game director’s script was rejected by studios for 10 long years. According to the Wall Street Journal:
“He once had to stop writing the script and sell his $675 laptop due to money struggles. Today it’s number 1 in 90 countries and set to become the most-watched show in Netflix history.”
This makes the success of the show even more impressive.
However, it’s also interesting to take a look at this from the perspective of timing. If the show actually aired 10 years ago when it was written, it may have had more difficulties becoming viral than now. Just from the simple fact that social media barely existed then and was far from the popularity it has today.
Did you know that there were 4.48 billion active social media users in 2021? That’s more than 50% of the whole earth’s population! The power of social media has been key for virality in the last few years – and it’s awesome that incredible shows such as the Squid Game are getting the visibility they deserve through it.
Of course, as I said, timing can be extremely difficult to calculate and it may not depend on us, just as Squid Game’s director Hwang Dong-hyuk didn’t plan airing in 2021 instead of 10 years ago. But it plays an important role that we should at least be aware of.
4. Having a great trailer matters
Another Marketing aspect in which Squid Game scored an excellent note was the trailer of the show. Trailers are an essential part of any movie or series – they are the demo of your product, the business card of your business.
A good trailer that reveals enough but not too much and is capable of grabbing your attention will make you want to learn more by watching the whole production.
In the case of Squid Game, they created a trailer that revealed just enough to tease us for more, and highlighted perfectly what we can expect from the show.
Squid Game Marketing: the importance of having a great trailer
On top of that, it was also “user-friendly” for non-Korean audiences as well, even though the series didn’t get a promotion in the USA. Most games in the show were games that Korean kids played in their childhood, but not all of them were easy and quick to understand by non-Koreans, especially in just a few sentences.
However, the trailer highlighted the one game that was simple enough to be understood by everyone right from the trailer – Red Light, Green Light. Which contributed to making it catchy and attention-grabbing.
5. The importance of being data-driven
If we can sum up technology in the last 5-10 years, it can be summed up in one word: “data”. In today’s quick-paced world, data-driven companies have a powerful advantage over any other as they are able to understand their customers and adapt to them in the best ways possible.
It is not a coincidence that the show was picked up by Netflix, a company that basically initiated and is still dominating the movie streaming industry.
As I explain in my article 11 Brilliant Customer Experience Examples (Real-World Cases), Netflix uses AI, Data Science and Machine Learning to personalize the movie experience for every user, including unique recommendations and personalized thumbnails.
For example, this is how the thumbnails of Harry Potter look for me:
And this is how they look from my brother’s account:
The fact that Netflix is capable of leveraging the power of data means that they not only understood that Squid Game would be an interesting show for their audience, but also knew how to recommend it in the best way possible.
6. Creative Guerrilla Marketing can be very effective
While digital advertising is what’s currently dominating the marketing industry (with Google Ads and social media ads, among other channels), it can be difficult to stand out. However, Netflix took a different approach for Squid Game Marketing in order to promote the show.
Guerrilla Marketing allows you to promote your business by making use of unconventional methods, most often by blending your brand or product within scenes and places of the real world. You may have seen benches in parks being painted by a company in a creative way in order to draw the attention.
In Korea, along with doing some traditional advertising such as billboards, Netflix turned a whole subway station into a Squid Game playground:
If done right, like in this case, Guerrilla Marketing can be an awesome way to go viral.
And that was all from me for today! I hope you enjoyed my article on Squid Game Marketing, and I hope to see you in the next one!
Join the discussion