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Is Game of Thrones a Triumph of Profile Over Penetration?

12th April 2019

Grayling's Jon Meakin gears up for a watchathon.

In my first PR agency role, the chairman-owner insisted on interviewing and signing off on every candidate before they were hired. One of his favorite interview questions was to ask candidates to explain the difference between profile and penetration. In the world of public relations, it’s a valid question, since the two do not always go hand in hand.

Game of Thrones, the HBO TV show that returns for its final season this weekend, is a case in point.

There can be no doubt that GoT has captured the imagination of vast numbers of people. There are multiple podcasts dedicated to dissecting every aspect of it; TV reviewers, deprived of the ability to view new episodes in advance, instead pontificate online and on the airwaves about why it is the perfect TV show for our age; my Twitter feed is on fire with speculation and anticipation; season premiere watch parties are popping up all over; and my fiancé even has a dedicated Slack channel with her colleagues, and a GoT death pool.

But here’s the thing: Relatively speaking, Game of Thrones is not particularly well watched in the United States.

The last season finale garnered 12.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Not bad. And definitely a record for HBO. But that figure wouldn’t even make the list of the top 10 most watched shows of 2018.  

Let’s just pause there. Can you think of 10 TV shows that are more talked about – have a higher profile – than Game of Thrones? Tough, isn’t it? Maybe you could guess at one or two popular shows, but they lack the profile of GoT. How many podcasts are dedicated to Bull? (CBS, tenth most watched show of 2018, with an average of 13.5 million viewers); do you hear TV reviewers frothing and speculating about what will happen next in Young Sheldon? (CBS, fifth most watched show of 2018, average 15.7 million viewers.) No.

It’s important to note that Game of Thrones is an HBO show. And less than a third of household subscribe to HBO. So in that context, it performs very well indeed.

But if anything that makes its ubiquity even more baffling: It is the most talked about show on television, but less than a third of the population even has the ability to watch it.

But there is a reason for that, and it’s not just that HBO has a great publicity machine – though it undoubtedly does.

If we think of GoT as a brand, it is very clearly a premium brand. And premium brands get talked more than other brands in the same category. Mercedes is more talked about than Nissan; Grey Goose more talked about than Smirnoff.

And people – reviewers, podcasters, viewers – like to talk about such ‘prestige television’ because it says something about them. Self-identifying as a Game of Thrones viewer says ‘I appreciate quality’.

That is not to say that shows like NCIS, The Good Doctor, or Manifest (all in the top 10) aren’t quality shows, but they lack the trifecta of elements that make up a premium brand: Quality, limited availability, and stand-out. Game of Thrones has all three: High production values (each episode costs around $15m to make); limited availability (the show’s route to market is HBO), and stand-out appeal – it is definitely unlike anything else in the market.

The lesson for brands is clear: You don’t have to have massive market penetration to have a high profile. That is, you don’t have to be everywhere, to be talked about everywhere. But you do need a strong brand to begin with.

Jon Meakin is Grayling's Global Head of Strategic Services.

Grayling Team

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