By every measure the Suzanne Collins’ books and the subsequent movie have been massive successes. Most of us who have read the books have found them almost as hard to put down as did the teenage girls that first made them popular. The story is riveting, fast-paced, vivid, and induces emotion.
While the story isn’t really intended to be a lesson in marketing
, it’s hard for someone who works in the marketing and advertising industry to read the books or see the movie and not
recognize the key ways in which marketing and branding play a major role in the story.
For those who aren’t familiar with the storyline, I won’t re-cap everything; you can read more on that at Wikipedia
or the official site
. Fair warning, there are spoilers if you keep reading.
The heroine of the story, 17 year-old Katniss, suddenly finds herself swept up in a demented and futuristic annual reality television show, where she will be forced to fight to the death against 23 other children and teenagers, all from the enslaved and poor Districts that are subject to the wealthy and controlling Capitol. She knows she has little chance of winning and is most likely headed to her death. She and the other “Tributes” will be paraded around the Capitol in ceremonies and interviews, all of which will be televised to the entire country. They will be rated and scored for betting odds on their possible success. The entire country of Panem will be glued to every minute of the near 24x7 event and broadcast for weeks.
One fascinating aspect of this rather sick concept of a show is that the Capitol allows extremely wealthy patrons to pay large amounts of money to become Sponsors and send gifts to individual competitors during the actual Games in a sprawling outdoor arena. These could be weapons, food, water, medicine, or other things they need to survive and win. So to improve your chances of surviving, you need to stand out to the audience. It sounds a lot like good marketing might just be important.
Here are some key marketing lessons from The Hunger Games:
Establish a Brand Position
Every Tribute in the Games is assigned a personal stylist and prep team, along with a coach and mentor. It’s part of their job to help you stand out and get sponsors. Here’s where Katniss’ team excels. From the very first moment, they make her more than a contestant and person. They make her a brand – one that stands out. With a costume that is literally lit on fire as she rides on a chariot to be introduced to the throngs at the Games opening ceremony, she instantly becomes more than “the girl from District 12”; to all those watching, she becomes “Katniss: The Girl on Fire”. She has a stone-cold, serious look on her face, and yet it is at the same time beautiful, mysterious, powerful, and spectacular. She is memorable. This is followed up in her big pre-Games public interview where her stylist puts her in a beautiful dress that again ignites in synthetic flames as she twirls around – all to the delight of the audience while the announcers reinforce her brand of “The Girl on Fire”. She cements this all with an incredibly gutsy, if not rash, show of attitude and bravado in the secret training halls of the Gamemakers, that nets her the highest contestant pre-ranking. This makes her seen not only as deadly, but a possible winner. And everyone wants to back a winner.
Tell a Great Story, and Engage Influencers and Advocates
Katniss comes into the Games with an already interesting story to the viewers. Her father was killed years ago in the coal mines, and Katniss is really the sole provider of care and food for their family. Her 12 year-old sister Prim, was the one originally selected to be sent to the Hunger Games. Knowing this would mean certain death for the sister she loved so much, Katniss volunteered (an extremely rare occurrence) to take her place. It’s a good background story, but she’ll need more to really generate the needed interest of sponsors.
There are two Tributes in the Games from each of the 12 Districts, one boy and one girl. Both are coached by a mentor, who is a prior winner of the Hunger Games. Katniss and her male counterpart from District 12, a boy named Peeta, are coached by a man named Haymitch. At the urging of Haymitch, Peeta declares that he’s in love with Katniss during his publicly broadcast pre-Games interview. This is, of course, dramatically tragic in that there can be only one survivor of the Hunger Games. To the audience and potential sponsors, Peeta and Katniss are now “The Star-Crossed Lovers of District 12,” whose last moments together will be televised for the audience’s entertainment. They become the hottest subject of discussion and attention. Katniss and Peeta continue this storyline (which has at least some partial truth to it) during the televised games, working together, helping each other, and even sharing their first kiss during the Games, to the delight of the viewing audiences. All of this creates a most compelling story that builds upon Katniss’ brand and results in the charity of sponsors and their money, which brings key gifts to her in the arena to help her survive. Combining Katniss’ impressive skill with a bow and arrow, her general survival skills learned from taking care of her family, and some truly likeable and impressive other actions, and she becomes captivating as a story to everyone watching. She’s far from soft, but also unwilling to be the cold-blooded killer the Capitol wants her to be. Her story resonates with both the audiences in the Capitol and the Districts in ways both similar and very different.
As fans of the book series know, Katniss, as a brand, becomes even bigger in the subsequent novels as she transcends all of this to become the “Mockingjay,” a symbol of so much more than a Victor of the Games. And the lessons on branding and marketing continue throughout the series.
OK… so I admit it. I’m a fan just like my teenage cousins and all their girlfriends. But now that I’ve written this blog post, I can feel like I’ve rationalized it for work-related purposes, right?
May the ads be forever in your favor.