3 Marketing Lessons from HBO's Westworld

When Game of Thrones went off the air last June, I cried along with millions of other viewers. But, HBO answered our prayers with Westworld.

3 Marketing Lessons from HBO's Westworld

Posted Monday May 01st, 2017 by in Analysis + Strategy.

When Game of Thrones went off the air last June, I cried along with millions of other viewers. The thought of waiting until the following spring was sickening. What were we supposed to do without Cersei, Arya and Jon Snow? Well, HBO heard our prayers and brought us Westworld, a new show that - dare I say it - rivals GoT in its spectacular dissection of humanity. For those of you yet unfamiliar with the show, let me explain:

Created by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame, Westworld tells the story of an amusement park in the future that has chosen the American southwest of the 1800s as its theme. The park, frequented by the wealthy 1% of centuries from now, is filled with robotic "hosts" that play various characters within the interactive park. Every night, the hosts' memories are wiped clean for the next day - until the robotic hosts start to remember. Then, as you can imagine, all hell breaks loose.

Aside from being a fantastic science fiction story with incredible acting (can you say, "Anthony Hopkins" and "Ed Harris?"), the show presents a veritable buffet of existential themes fit for the deepest of us thinking humans. How "real" is real? When does consciousness emerge? How do we know what we know? Set in a backdrop of wild-west shootouts and beautifully-scored love stories, those thought-provoking questions are enough to make one forego Sunday's 9pm Walking Dead commitment and switch to HBO. Or, as I did, record them both out of sheer indecision between two great entertainment powerhouses.

But alas, Westworld isn't defined by its guns or identity crises, or even by its robots-will-take-over-the-world warning. Being a marketer by trade, I was drawn to these 3 marketing lessons that Westworld reveals to the trained eye:

  1. Authentic experiences are the ultimate human pursuit. In the future in which Westworld is set, Westworld is the last authentic experience that one can have. Anthony Hopkins' character points out in one of the first episodes that outside the park, all diseases have been eradicated and everyone has what s/he needs. Therefore, visitors come to the park to feel the very human need to survive. The show posits that we feel most alive when we are faced with a true survival situation, and that overcoming consequential challenges is the most authentic experience we can enjoy as human beings. As a marketer, it made me wonder: What authentic experiences does your brand create, in order to show the consequential nature of your brand in the lives of your customers?
  2. People are willing to hand themselves over to technology. The theme of robots overcoming humanity is well-worn from The Matrix to Terminator. In Westworld, we see a similar theme as we see humans giving themselves over to robots in the most intimate of ways. Today, as we roam around glued to our smartphones, it's easy to imagine how we might end up in any one of these apocalyptic film stories as we continue to increase both our technology and our reliance on it. To that end, how can your brand more heavily rely on technology to support your customers, knowing that your customers are all too willing to embrace it?
  3. Emotional connections will always trump facts. Despite the fact that park visitors know that they are interacting with robots, it doesn't stop some from falling in love with the machines. Emotional connections - even the manufactured ones - trump all of the facts in the minds of the people frequenting the park. How many times have you heard someone say, "I don't care if (X) has done (Y), I still love (X)." Where there's an emotional connection, the facts don't matter nearly as much. The question is, how is your brand inciting an emotional connection with its audience, rather than churning out facts and figures as most brands do?

In my humble opinion, HBO does one thing better than any other network: It understands the most basic elements of humanity and it captures those elements in beautifully-produced television entertainment. Marketing, too, is a test of our ability to convey human elements, only in the name of growing a brand. The key takeaway is that as long as your customers are human, it behooves you to communicate on an authentic and emotional level. Then again, if you wait long enough, robots will most likely inherent the earth and you can utilize all kinds of facts in your messaging. Given how those movies turn out, though, I'm not sure I want to be around when that happens!


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