TV & Streaming

How HBO Max threw its marketing might behind ‘House of the Dragon’

A years-long marketing push looks to hook new viewers while bringing old fans back in.
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Ollie Upton/HBO

5 min read

Interested in traveling back to Westeros? HBO Max sure hopes so.

More than three years after the finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones, HBO and HBO Max are finally ready to take off the wraps of its ambitious prequel, House of the Dragon.

The bloody fantasy drama, premiering Sunday, Aug. 21, follows a succession crisis in House Targaryen 200 years prior to the events of Game of Thrones, one of the most critically and commercially successful television series in the last ten years. As war brews in Westeros, HBO Max hopes the marketing for House of the Dragon can help generate the same kind of buzz as the original series did.

“As we’re planning House of the Dragon, we’re still making sure that we are cultivating the Game of Thrones fandom alongside, especially since it is a fandom that knows no bounds,” said Pia Barlow, HBO and HBO Max’s EVP of originals marketing, and who described the series as similar to Netflix’s The Crown and HBO’s Succession.

Hatching a plan

Barlow, who began her career at HBO and rejoined HBO Max from Netflix in 2020, has been working toward this moment for a long time. She and her team began planning marketing for the new series in spring 2020, when she spoke with showrunners Ryan J. Condal, Miguel Sapochnik, and Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin before the series went into production.

Casey Bloys, chief content officer at HBO, recently told the New York Times the network aimed “to make a show that feels related and honors the original, but also feels like its own.” In the same vein, the marketing strategy for House of the Dragon has looked to enlist old fans while charting its own course.

“Making sure that we are balancing the familiar and the distinct is probably the biggest challenge,” said Barlow, whose team used familiar motifs, including the Targaryen dragons and the Iron Throne, as connective marketing tissue.

The Iron Anniversary in 2021, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Game of Thrones’ premiere, was designed to prime audiences for more Thrones programming, Barlow said. A teaser for House of the Dragon was released a few months later, in October 2021, and digital and social efforts have continued to engage the tens of millions of viewers who watched Game of Thrones’ final season.

“Earlier in the campaign, we were focused on celebrating the original Game of Thrones series, but also getting fans ready to return and be immersed back into the world of Westeros,” Barlow said.

At San Diego Comic Con in July, HBO Max erected a replica of King’s Landing, Dragonstone, and the Red Keep, in which attendees could participate in a dragon egg-hatching ceremony (and could bring AR versions of hatchlings home via a mobile app), as well as snap photos atop the Iron Throne. More than 4,000 people walked through the activation, Barlow said; some die-hards lined up the night before to ensure they would be granted access.

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Earlier this month, the network partnered with the National History Museum of Los Angeles on a pop-up exhibit highlighting the Targaryan family’s reign featuring props, costumes, and displays. In the digital realm, HBO Max partnered with Duolingo to offer lessons in High Valyrian, a fictional language used in the series, and debuted an official companion podcast, along with the aforementioned dragon-hatching app. AR lenses on Snapchat, depicting dragons atop local landmarks around the world, will be available on the platform for the duration of the series as part of yet another partnership.

In true megamerger fashion, the upcoming series has also gotten play across the Warner Bros. Discovery portfolio, with an extended trailer airing during Discovery’s Shark Week and promotions on TNT and TBS. HBO Max declined to disclose the total marketing investment for the series, but Barlow described it as “an event-level tentpole for us.”

“Our collective focus is just putting that same level of craft and care and storytelling into our marketing that our viewers expect and see on the screen,” she said.

Fan-tastic beasts

A lot is riding on House of the Dragon. By the final season of Game of Thrones, the series reliably attracted huge television audiences in an increasingly fragmented viewing environment. Executives at Warner Bros. Discovery have spent years searching for appropriate spin-offs to franchise the hit series, with nearly a half-dozen additional series in development.

There’s one big reason why: the strength of the original Game of Thrones fandom. Some of whom are passionate enough to get series-inspired tattoos or name their children after characters in the series.

Barlow’s team has aimed to recruit those superfans as unofficial brand ambassadors and build organic excitement ahead of House of the Dragon’s premiere, Barlow said. Game of Thrones has consistently been among the top five most in-demand series across all streaming platforms, according to the data analytics firm Parrot Analytics, and US audience demand for the series grew 12% in the six months leading up to the release of House of the Dragon when compared to the six months prior, becoming 48.7x more in-demand than the average show in the US (HBO Max released Game of Thrones in 4K at the beginning of this month to encourage rewatching ahead of the new series’ release).

“The fan fervor hasn’t died,” Barlow said, “so we just capitalized on it.”

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