Game of Thrones (GoT), which had its Season 7 finale last week, captured the imagination of millions with its incredible tale of kings, queens and dragons set amid some of the world's most amazing natural wonders. But it's the story behind the story that provides the most interesting takeaways for companies.
HBO, GoT's distributor, was hacked, and over the past few weeks, details, and entire episodes, were leaked. HBO,however, refused to pay a multi-million dollar ransom to the hackers who held those GoT secrets. And, despite intense interest in the show, most fans didn't bite on the leaks.
Why? Credit the fan loyalty GoT had earned by providing an unparalleled entertainment experience.
How can brands build a similar level of loyalty? Customers commit to brands that are committed to them. In other words, brands that consistently provide exceptional experiences will inspire loyalty, even in the most difficult times.
Here are five experience lessons companies can learn from the GoT leak:
1: "Customer first" means you can't be held hostage.
HBO was hacked, but the network refused to let that dictate its actions. Instead, it focused on providing the perfect fan experience, and fans responded.
Today, there are lots of loud and distracting voices. Don't listen to them. The first rule of business is to focus on the customer experience. These people constitute your number one voice. If you've developed a deep relationship with your customers, then nothing and no one can hold you hostage.
An interesting example of this came in the early days of Whole Foods. The company built its first store in a floodplain thinking it would be fine. It wasn't. Not only did the store flood, but the sewage system also leaked badly, and looters robbed what was left of the food products. But because Whole Foods provided such a unique experience, it still managed to develop a loyal customer base.
Those customers then saved the company from bankruptcy by showing up to clean up and rebuild the store.
2: Exceed expectations.
It's hard to overstate how high fan expectations were for each episode of GoT. But the show exceeded those expectations with pretty much every episode. The entertainment experience was unparalleled, and fans responded by showing their loyalty.
When the opportunity came to engage with the leaks, most fans refused. They rewarded GoT with their loyalty and spurned the hackers. Many took to Twitter, declaring their refusal to look at the leaked material and urging others to do the same.
If you're loyal to your customers by providing unique and powerful experiences, they'll be loyal to you -- even when something goes wrong. Take Southwest Airlines. It's known for encouraging its employees to go above and beyond for passengers. This was manifest just a few weeks ago when an employee drove through the night to personally deliver lost luggage to a cancer patient.
3: Be transparent.
When the hackers announced that they'd breached GoT and intended to leak information and episodes, HBO didn't hide. The network had been hacked before and made it clear that it wouldn't negotiate with hackers. HBO acknowledged what had happened, clearly stated the principles governing its decision to not engage and held its ground.
Precendents exist in which companies, responding to attacks, have handled these incidents with dignity and transparency. Take the events surrounding the painkiller Tylenol three decades-plus ago.
Thirty-five years have passed since nine people died from taking cyanide-laced Tylenol tablets, but the way Johnson & Johnson handled that crisis is still a textbook model of transparency, responsibility and communication during a crisis.
When things go wrong, companies must remember that the key to getting through a problem is first to be transparent. Second, they must communicate with the public regularly and clearly. Third, they need to take steps to make sure the problem doesn't happen again.
4: Build a community.
A community used to be a group of people who lived near one other. Today, the word has a much broader definition -- it's a group of people with shared interests, connections or ideas. The communities that formed around GoT were strong and committed.
Some fans went so far as to write articles noting that if people succumbed to watching the pirated episodes, then the GoT business model would suffer and the franchise would be unable to continue producing content for fans. In essence, the fans appealed to the entire GoT community with the sentiment of, "You get what you pay for, so we need to keep paying for this."
GoT became something to be experienced both in real life and online. People wanted to talk about it and share theories. If your product or service can move beyond being transactional, into something people form a community around, then you're on to something big.
5: Provide an experience, not just a product.
This final point is the culmination of the previous four. For any product or service to be memorable, it must become an experience. Airbnb is a powerful concept,not just because it provides accommodation or helps fuel the sharing economy. Its genius came in realizing that the majority of its guests use the service as a way to save money and connect with people in areas they're visiting, thereby enhancing the travel experience.
With GoT, HBO provided a consistent, genuine customer experience. One example: Each week, the network released the show at the same time on both TV and online, so people could watch however they wanted to. It allowed fans to experience the show in unique ways, whether gathered together with friends or watching online while simultaneously engaging in an internet forum.
Winners and losers of the future will be decided based on the types of experiences they provide. That's the secret to GoT. It's more than a television show. It's an experience. And it's one hackers had better not try to mess up again.