Game Of Thrones & Scarcity Marketing - Marketing Wizardry

Why Game of Thrones is a Masterclass in Marketing

Spoiler Alert: If you’ve been under a rock, this is the final season of Game of Thrones (“GoT”). GoT is a fantasy television series on HBO that chronicles the fascinating tales of countless fictional characters in an enormous and ancient world. And if you can look beyond the wonderful storytelling, you’ll find many marketing lessons.  In this article we’ll explore one such lesson – scarcity marketing.


What is Marketing Wizardry?

With each new edition of Marketing Wizardry (“MW”) we focus on one aspect in marketing – the silver bullet – that we posit has had the largest impact on a product or service’s success. Many times, more than one tactic can attribute to overall success. Talking about everything is not the goal. Instead, we spotlight one thing that makes a product or service stand out above all others.


» » » I know what GoT & Scarcity Marketing are, skip the explanations


What is Game of Thrones?

game of thrones logo - scarcity marketing wizardryIf you’re unfamiliar with the Game of Thrones television show (maybe you’re here interested more in scarcity marketing), GoT is a television show produced by HBO and adapted from a series of fantasy novels entitled A Song of Ice and Fire authored by George R. R. Martin. The series includes five novels, the first is named “Game of Thrones.” The TV show on HBO ran out of material from the books around seasons three and four where David Benioff & D. B. Weiss continued to pen scripts all the way up until the eighth season (the show’s final season).

I would say the show gained popularity mostly because of its plethora of characters wrapped in a complex story with intertwined story arcs. Game of thrones has evil characters, good characters, diverse characters, fantasy characters, plain characters, and extraordinary characters. There’s bound to be a character that each and every consumer can relate with. The story doesn’t begin with clear and concise linear story lines. The viewer jumps right into rich and deep experiences with contextual background information not explained for many books (or seasons). And those stories take place within universally accepted fantasy concepts and constructs. Like the ones you might have played in a final fantasy or dungeons and dragons game.


What makes Games of Thrones Special?

Many shows (or products or services) have had great foundations to build upon, yet eventually end up failing by squandering the source material away. We forget that marketing is more than just promotion, it’s the people, places, and the product itself that can also factor into success. So, if we put aside the storytelling aspects of Game of Thrones, is there Marketing Wizardry at work that also aids in creating a success product? I would argue yes. And if I tried to select just one marketing method or tactic that stands out above the rest, it would be scarcity marketing.


What is Scarcity Marketing?

Marketing Scarcity is a technique of taking advantage of the limited availability of a product or service (in this case, a TV show). It is this concept of limiting release that I speak of. TV shows have employed this tactic since the beginning of television itself. Shoe, car, and fast food companies use this technique. Think of the GT mustang, major Jordan shoe releases, or the McRib. Products only available after long periods of waiting for them.

How Scarcity Marketing Rocketed Game of Thrones to Record Ratings

The McRib really is the greatest example of successful scarcity marketing isn’t it? Who has ever eaten a McRib and thought, “WOW! This was worth the wait! I love the McRib!” No one… the answer is no one ever. Yet the McRib does great in sales for awhile before rapidly declining. At which time McDonalds puts the no bone, rib spam concoction of “meat” back into the vault for another 9 – 18 months at a time.

Game of Thrones has used similar techniques to not only keep the series relevant for 8 seasons, but unlike the McRib, meld an amazing product with fantastic marketing to produce one of the greatest TV series finales of all time.


game of thrones - how did they do it? scarcity marketing

Five Scarcity Marketing techniques employed by Game of Thrones, the final season

If we claim GoT took rich characters, an enormous world, and complex storytelling and combined it with scarcity marketing to bring one of the greatest series finales of all time… How did they do it?


Scarcity Marketing Tactic #1: The wait

Bringing back the McRib example (for the last time, I promise), McDonalds actually stumbled into this limited success story. In the early 1980s there was a shortage of chickens, so the chicken nugget guy made a blended pork meat patty, shaped it like ribs, and slapped a bunch of bbq sauce on it. The sandwich came out in 1981, did well initially, but was removed in 1985 when sales tanked. Fast-forward to the 2010s and the McRib has continued the on-again, off-again lifestyle annually.

For seasons 1 – 6 of GoT, the wait between seasons was very predictable. Each season would begin first thing in April and end in June. Viewers would wait nine months before renewing their HBO subscriptions for 3 months a year. However, as the series wound down and season 6 concluded, HBO and the writing staff went a bit silent. Between seasons 6 and 7, the normal nine month hiatus turned into 13. Between seasons 7 and 8 was a twenty-month hiatus.

You see, whether it’s the McRib or GoT, the wait can be a powerful scarcity marketing tool. Unknown release scheduling combined with the anxiety of waiting is powerful enough to sell pork by-product pressed to look like a ribcage! Keep release details under wraps, surprise people with unexpected release details, and in the case of Game of Thrones, have an amazing product to sell and the wait can become one of your greatest tools.  


Scarcity Marketing Tactic #2: The Countdown

The countdown is just like it sounds. Get consumers to advocate for your own release schedule. Nike uses this tactic well when they release new, high-end, limited edition shoes. Sneakerheads will wait on Nike’s SNKRS app as the latest series of Jordans, or Max Air sneakers countdown to their release moment. Social media carries the message and with each new major release the anticipation is palpable.

game of thrones - scarcity countdown

HBO publicized the countdown to the final season of Game of Thrones everywhere. Websites, video trailers, user-generated content, social media, co-marketing initiatives (bud light) … EVERYWHERE. The even used the words “…countdown to the final season” just in case viewers forgot about Game of Thrones over the twenty-month hiatus between seasons 7 and 8.

There’s nothing stopping you from creating your own countdowns. Imagine overseeing marketing for a new apparel company (one of ten million t-shirt companies on the planet). Think of the creative flexibility available to you with going to market using a countdown timer.


Scarcity Marketing Tactic #3: Limiting Availability

Let’s take one awesome tactic (a countdown timer) and add another. The peanut butter to this jelly. Think again about our Nike SNKRS example. On top of offering a countdown to the latest high-end sneakers, Nike tethers the countdown by limiting availability. Users can only buy the sneakers if they wait and get a raffle number (called the draw). That number is then used to complete the purchase only on Nike’s platform (you cannot take a draw number to Foot Locker and get the pair of shoes you’re looking for) thus controlling supply and purchase medium.

game of thrones scarcity countdown timerThe GoT countdown started months before the show’s release and ramped up over time. The show also wasn’t release on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or other outlets. Like Nike, one could only view the show on HBO. Viewing GoT on HBO might seem like a “DUH!” moment, but think broader in terms of other products or services. Limiting the availability to one retail outlet, online site, or single partner can create a streamline sales funnel that came about through the combination of a countdown timer and smart limited availability.

“Time is running out and there’s limited availability to what I’m selling.” This single statement is enough to pique anyone’s curiosity – a marketer’s dream.


Scarcity Marketing Tactic #4: Fear of Missing out (FoMo)

Do we even need to discuss this? It’s the holy grail of scarcity marketing, nay marketing overall. Getting any target base to fear missing out on your product(s) takes a creative and strategic mind (not to mention a product worthy of a pedestal). Take the Ford Mustang; There are only a few Shelby variants. If you’re a die-hard Mustang fan, you’d kill for one of these variants.

What about the once-in-a-series white-walker vs. human slapfest? Would you want to be the one who couldn’t hold your own in a water cooler conversation about the one-and-a-half-hour war? Or a what about the Jon Snow revelation?

What is a marketer’s role in FoMo? Believe it or not, it’s about ensuring there is something available worthy of water cooler discussion. That the Shelby variant, Jon Snow history lesson, or special edition gold plated t-shirt exist in the first place. Remember the beginning of our conversation, a marketer is involved in more than just promotion, they need to be concerned about the product as well. You know in  your heart-of-hearts whether you product is FoMo worthy. And if it’s not, FIX it now!


Scarcity Marketing Tactic #5: Release the Numbers (be Transparent)

Can we track success of tactics 1 through 4 above? Absolutely, Season 1 of Game of Thrones ushered in 2.52m views, season 7 had 10.26 million, and at the time of this writing HBO published season 8 viewership at 17.5 million views. Note that I’m stating it was HBO who published season 8 viewership numbers directly.

After your first go to market campaign, share how many t-shirts sold. Even if sales for round 1 were not impressive, entice possible consumers to a bit of gamification. “In round 1 we sold 25 shirts, this time we only have 2 weeks to try and beat that number for our platinum striped, limited edition candy-cane Santa Shirt! Sales start in 4 days!”

To summarize,

Here were the five scarcity marketing techniques employed by the final season of Game of thrones:

  1. Be Patient and Wait.
  2. Employ a countdown
  3. Limit your product (or service) availability
  4. Figure out your FoMo
  5. Share progress, gamify future results


The End of Game of Thrones and its use of Scarcity Marketing

The end? With a series as epic as Game of Thrones, there may never be an end to the actor/writer commentary and behind the scenes footage. But the marketing will surely cease.

There’s no doubt Game of Thrones was a marketing machine. Many other flavors of advertising were used to launch this last season: content, video, social, traditional, and more. However, scarcity was our choice as the single, penultimate, most important marketing tool to rule all the other marketing tools. So much in fact that Scarcity Marketing usage in the final season of Game of Thrones is our Marketing Wizardry showcase for May 6, 2019.



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