Is Game of Thrones an Allegory for Corporate Branding? Probably Not.
Here’s the case for it anyway.
Why read this?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent the last few weeks rewatching G.O.T. And if so, you probably thought: I’ll watch one or two episodes a night and finish just in time for season 8.
At least, that’s the lie I told myself.
For two weeks straight, I watched all seven seasons. It was a colossal undertaking, and it required my full commitment.
I shirked on responsibilities, lost much needed sleep, got food delivered, skipped the gym, and stopped talking to my girlfriend so I could listen to the banter between Arya and The Hound.
I felt the judgement of my roommate (rightfully so) as I sprawled out on the couch day after day. Sometimes not showering or eating or changing my clothes.
For those two weeks, I was a useless consuming degenerate.
But here’s the thing. I don’t care. I was sucked in — giving into the surreal satisfaction of binging premium cable television. I regret nothing.
Since rewatching, I’ve gained a modicum of success in the world of creative advertising — and with that I gained a whole new insight on the central themes of the show. I’ve always known Game of Thrones was more than a story about dragons and knights. It’s contemporary — reflecting on issues like feminism, modern politics, and existentialism. But one aspect of the show I realized only on the second watch is one that has not been addressed. That G.O.T. is essentially a metaphor for corporate identity and branding.
So here’s me trying to redeem myself for putting my loved ones through the trauma of binging Game of Thrones. After all, they say the first step to recovery is writing bizarre manifestoes in the fantasy-marketing genre.
It’s all about the Houses
The literary device of using animals to represent the essence of each noble family is genius. It’s Martin’s signature method of symbolism, and it enhances visual storytelling and character development throughout the entire series. But beyond that, once you start to think of each House as a brand — akin to Nike or Apple, the pieces begin to connect like a self-fulfilling prophecy of an old Westerosi witch.
George R.R. Martin crafted each House using systematic checkboxes of self-expression. Each family has a sigil, a motto, and for the sake of this article — brand guidelines.
Usually the sigils pertain to an animal — the Starks are wolves, Lannisters lions. Sometimes it’s a flower (Tyrells) and in one case it’s a flayed man (Boltons). The point is, these sigils act as logos and they’re essential for understanding the behaviors of characters. In some cases, the sigil impacts everything they do. I’d argue Ramsay Bolton wouldn’t be the same if his sigil was a rose, just like Nike wouldn’t be the same without its iconic swoosh.
Martin goes a step further and gives the most important houses their own motto. These mottos often express deeper meaning and carry duality: Winter is Coming, A Lannister always pays their debts (a rebrand from the original Hear me roar!). These are taglines. A brand promise that describes each House and its priorities. Like the sigil, it informs the motivations and influences the actions of each character.
Brand Identity and Guidelines
In a less tangible sense, each house is equipped with its own brand identity and guidelines. For example, Lannisters must be tall, attractive, fierce, and blonde. Anyone who is not this is not a true Lannister. Tyrion’s entire central conflict is boiled down to this point. Essentially, he despairs at the fact that he’s an off-brand Lannister. And like a distorted logo lockup, he is repeatedly rejected by the brand proper.
The Other Paralleles
Bannerman of the greater houses are just subsidiaries gained through acquisitions and mergers. Margery’s faux compassion for the poor is reminiscent of highly publicized corporate ploys in the name of social responsibility. And the struggle to get Houses to take the threat of White Walkers seriously feels like the struggle to get brands to lower their carbon footprint.
If you’re still not buying what I’m saying, I’ve gone through the trouble of assigning each house a modern brand that most closely resembles their essence.
The Starks are lovable, strong, and full of integrity. They brace the elements and refuse to be pampered. They’re true outdoorsmen, rugged and tough, and they’re the only family that have taken the threat of White Walkers seriously. If we keep the White Walker/ climate change comparison, than there’s really only one choice. Patagonia. They’re a big company, but they don’t wax poetic on social causes. They live by them. Does that mean we should compare CEO Rose Marcario donating $10 million to fight climate change with Jon Snow battling the Night King?
This one was tricky. I had to think of the worst, most greedy, and self-interested corporation that would live up to Lannister cruelty. There were so many contenders, but one stood out beyond the rest.
The Lannisters in general and Cersei in particular have expressed their disdain for the poor many times throughout the show. For example, Cersei instructed the realm to throw out leftover food rather than feed it to the needy after Joffrey’s wedding. They are not only furiously self-interested, but actively take pleasure in the suffering of others.
When we think of companies that express these values. We have to look at Monsanto. The agriculture conglomerate has wreaked havoc on the lives of working farmers, and their practices of consolidation have made them de facto rulers of the country’s food source.
This is going to be controversial, so I’ll just come right out and say it. The Targaryens (under Daenerys) reflect Amazon.
No, I’m not saying Jeff Bezos is a modern day “breaker of chains” or that Amazon is in the position to “break the wheel” of hyper-capitalism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I am saying that Amazon, like Daenerys, created major disruption to the status quo. The Dragon Queen had humble beginnings in Pentos, like Amazon did in the book market. But with a great business model/grown dragons, they both conquered any enemy that stood in their way. Amazon and the Targaryens are awe-inspiring, powerful, and use a combination of fear and love to gain power.
The Baratheons were the baseline of establishment power when Game of Thrones begins. They gained power because of their honor, willingness to fight for what they believed in, and support from the people. But once they took control, they proved extremely incompetent. And they let others gain too much influence in subverting the rule of law. They were hollow at their core, and made fools by the cunning of other Houses. Eventually they were decimated by nefarious and powerful interests who divided brother against brother to gain control for themselves.
The Baratheons are like the federal government. Do I need to explain more?
Like the Starks, the Martells have honor and integrity. However, they’re philosophy on life is what sets them apart. They’re liberal to the core — not abiding by hetero-sexual norms, empowering strong women, and treating bastards and true born with equal respect. The Martells are a big, powerful family, but they’re compassionate and want the best for their people.
That’s why they’re like Trader Joe’s.
Trader Joe’s boasts a strong feeling of love from both their customers and employees. They harbor a relaxed beachy vibe, and care about the little things, like good wine and a great experience.
The Tyrells bankroll the plots of other houses, and that’s what gets them a seat at the table. They don’t stand for anything, besides power as a means in of itself. And they mix crazy caution with insane risk to make sure they’re on the side of the winner. The Tyrells try to present to the world an image of responsibility, integrity, and trust, but they’re just as self-interested as the other Houses.
In other words, they’re the JP Morgan of Martin’s fantasy world.
I should mention that Martin’s fantasy world has a big bank — the Iron Bank in Braavos. But the fact is, Lannisters have relied on Tyrell money as much if not more than Iron Bank money. For that reason, I believe my comparison still holds.
I acknowledge the comparisons aren’t perfect. But they do reinforce the idea that George R.R. Martin was intentional in creating brands for his innumerable cast of characters. Whether you agree with my assessment or not, I hope we can agree: Season 8 is going to be an epic ending to an amazing series.