Pop Culture Incorporated: Five Marketing Lessons from Squid Game

Netflix’s mas­sive hit “Squid Game” is packed with nail-nib­bling ten­sion, heart­less dou­ble-cross­es and cut-throat (lit­er­al­ly) com­pe­ti­tion. If you haven’t seen it, imag­ine the chaos and cal­cu­la­tion of a throng of peo­ple angling to score the last Tick­le Me Elmo on the shelf in 1996, only with a lot more green tracksuits.

Mil­lions of words have been writ­ten about why glob­al audi­ences are stream­ing the first sea­son, but there’s been lit­tle dis­cus­sion about all the tips it gives mar­keters on every­thing from com­pe­ti­tion and team­work to strat­e­gy and col­lab­o­ra­tion. For real – there’s a lot to learn from how the fic­tion­al con­tes­tants approach the games, and whether they win or lose.

Indeed, once you squeegee the blood from the TV screen, the show imparts sev­er­al use­ful lessons we can apply to our roles as marketers:

Under­stand the objec­tive. The first game con­tes­tants were sub­ject­ed to, Red Light, Green Light, demon­strat­ed the impor­tance of pay­ing atten­tion to the point of the assign­ment in plain, non-nego­tiable terms. The peo­ple who imme­di­ate­ly stopped walk­ing when the creepy giant doll exclaimed “Red light” lived to play anoth­er day. Those who didn’t? Well, they learned their les­son pret­ty quick­ly, painful­ly – and permanently.

For mar­keters, the les­son is sim­ple: Deter­mine the objec­tive of a cam­paign or ini­tia­tive before dig­ging in, then make sure every tac­tic you exe­cute sup­ports your strategy.

Don’t assume. One game required the com­peti­tors to form 10-per­son teams, but the over­seers pro­vid­ed no addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion. Some com­peti­tors assumed they should lean in on brute strength, so they assem­bled teams based on that. Nope. It turned out to be tug of war on a bridge high in the air, which end­ed up (spoil­er alert) reward­ing strat­e­gy over blunt force. You know the old adage that when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME? In this case, assum­ing made a pile of dead con­tes­tants crum­pled in a pile on the cement floor.

In mar­ket­ing, mak­ing assump­tions can be near­ly as prob­lem­at­ic. We need to con­sid­er every­thing from quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive data to what our expe­ri­ence tells us before we act. Deter­mine what you know, and what you don’t, then move for­ward from there.

Lis­ten to mul­ti­ple voic­es. Dur­ing that same chal­lenge, when they real­ized they would be com­pet­ing at tug of war hun­dreds of feet in the air, most teams took a “pull as hard as you can” approach. But our heroes lis­tened to their frailest team mem­ber, Oh Il-nam, “the Old Man.” Turns out he knew some tricks to win tug of war from when he was a kid, from how to hold the rope to when to strate­gi­cal­ly lean back­wards to gain leverage.

Some­times the loud­est voice or most aggres­sive col­league or client can over­shad­ow the dis­cus­sion, but savvy mar­keters know that it’s crit­i­cal to lis­ten to a vari­ety of ideas and opin­ions from a diverse group of people.

Get cre­ative. Some of the com­pe­ti­tions relied on cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing, espe­cial­ly the dalgo­na hon­ey­comb-can­dy chal­lenge. How would they remove the shape from the brit­tle yel­low can­dy disc with­out break­ing it as the clock dra­mat­i­cal­ly ticked down? While most took the most obvi­ous and straight­for­ward approach – slow­ly try­ing to break off tiny pieces or dig­ging at it with a nee­dle – the main char­ac­ter Gi-hun real­ized he could dis­solve the sug­ar by lick­ing the back of the candy.

Mar­keters are no strangers to cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing, and the most obvi­ous strat­e­gy isn’t always the way to go. Often, tak­ing a step back to look at the chal­lenge from anoth­er angle and refram­ing your approach can get you where you want to be more effec­tive­ly and efficiently.

Look at cus­tomers, col­leagues, employ­ees and com­peti­tors as human. In the game, it would have been easy to start con­sid­er­ing com­peti­tors as speed bumps on the way to vic­to­ry, to make it eas­i­er to do what­ev­er it took, no mat­ter how unsa­vory, to beat them. And some peo­ple did just that, throw­ing com­peti­tors under a fig­u­ra­tive bus — or in this case, through a non-tem­pered glass bridge. But Gi-hun formed an authen­tic rela­tion­ship with just about every­one he encoun­tered, and it paid off.

For mar­keters, build­ing rela­tion­ships, prac­tic­ing empa­thy and putting our­selves in the shoes of our cus­tomers, clients and com­peti­tors can make all the difference.

While mar­keters don’t gen­er­al­ly deal with the life-and-death stakes and lethal con­se­quences on dra­mat­ic dis­play on this ultra-vio­lent show, we do play to win. Glean­ing some lessons from “Squid Game” can help us and our clients not only sur­vive, but thrive.

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