Learning From Game of Thrones

What House Lannister and House Stark can teach us about branding

I’m constantly amazed by how much drama can teach us about the life. And the Game of Thrones television series is a case in point.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that the HBO series, based on the epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, is wildly popular right now. It works well not only because it draws upon the excellent (and extensive) source material but also, but also because, as Andy Greenwald of Grantland observes, the show turns a “straightforward fantasy epic of succession and betrayal” into a “multi-layered drama about institutional failure.”

Season 2 of the HBO hit premiered on April 1, and as I watched it I was struck by the idea that Game of Thrones illustrates key concepts from business school.

Specifically, an examination of the great Houses of Westeros yields instructive lessons for brand strategists (either that or b-school projects and cases have rendered me incapable of seeing anything through another lens — this is entirely possible).

Game of Thrones takes place in the land of Westeros, where monarchs rule over a feudal system and great houses of powerful extended families jockey for power and prestige. Each “house” or family has a logo and slogan that defines its identity. These provide us an opportunity to look at each one as a brand.

David Aaker defines a brand’s identity as aspirational — the timeless, most important elements of the identity form its core. Around that is an extended core of key associations that Aaker believes provide texture and completeness to a brand’s identity.

Using Aaker’s “Brand Identity System,” I think we can analyze a small sample set of houses and determine their sources of brand equity:

House Lannister

One of the most important and powerful houses in all of Westeros, this house understands the benefits of building and maintaining a strong brand.

For House Lannister, I have identified three Core traits: power, wealth, and cunning. The extended core is comprised of the color crimson, the golden lion symbol, the house slogans, and the house founder. The sigil of a golden lion upon a crimson field supports the core traits of power and wealth. The lion reigns supreme in the animal kingdom, gold symbolizes wealth, and crimson is a strong color that can represent blood strewn in pursuit of power. The official slogan (“Hear me roar!”) references the lion and proclaims that the Lannisters are a proud family. “A Lannister always pays his debts” — the unofficial, arguably more popular slogan — reminds every citizen of Westeros that Lannister financial obligations can forever be trusted. Lann the Clever earned the family its home of Casterly Rock through scheming and trickery, and this legend reminds all that Lannisters are cunning foes. As long as House Lannister successfully navigates the geopolitical currents, it will reinforce these associations and continue to build its brand equity.

House Stark

The leaders of Winterfell, this is an honorable and ancient family hardened by the cold of the North. They have a reputational disdain for political intrigue and value actions over words. The Core identity of the Starks is comprised of winter and heritage.

The extended core contains the house sigil of the direwolf on an icy field, the house words, and its genealogy.

Direwolves rarely appear in Westeros south of The Wall, a massive structure that protects the realm’s northern frontier. These mythic, massive creatures date back to ancient times and live in the coldest climates. They are a close relative of the wolf, but larger and stronger.

The Stark phrase “winter is coming” is a constant reminder of the difficult times that lie ahead. These strong associations with winter reinforce one another and create a consistent branding message. Further, House Stark has shouldered the responsibility of protecting the northern kingdom for ages. Recognizing its heritage and fulfilling its sworn duty are ways in which House Stark maintains its brand equity.

Both houses have created substantial brand equity that can be translated into sustainable competitive advantage. And over the course of this new season we will see whether their efforts succeed.

Written By: Brett Baptist

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