TV & Streaming

How HBO Max marketed ‘The Last of Us’ into a global hit

Big marketing swings looked to build credibility with video game fans while also attracting prestige-TV watchers.
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4 min read

When Emily Giannusa, HBO’s VP of program marketing, found out in 2020 that The Last of Us would be adapted from a video game series into a TV show, it seemed like a perfect match from the start.

The award-winning horror game, a post-apocalyptic tale of survival where a fungal infection has turned most humans into flesh-eating monsters, was already a favorite among Giannusa and other members of HBO’s marketing team when work began on the marketing plan for the series. But challenges were evident—including the long-standing assumption that video game adaptations are generally, well, terrible.

“I feel like The Last of Us is the HBO of video games,” Giannusa told Marketing Brew, but they noted that “with video game adaptations, there’s a lot of scrutiny.”

So far, the show has seemed to withstand that scrutiny. The adaptation premiered on January 15 to critical acclaim and a big audience. The first episode was viewed by more than 10 million people on HBO and HBO Max in its first two days, in line with the House of the Dragon series premiere.

While Giannusa noted the strength of the TV series, the show has also received years of careful marketing support, beginning as far back as 2021, with the intention of making The Last of Us a huge hit for HBO.

“This was a massive-scale campaign. Even though I can’t talk about budget here, we ignited all over the world,” Giannusa said.

Making it worth it

Entertainment executives are increasingly looking for existing stories with built-in fan bases that may help improve the chances that a new series will be a hit. With The Last of Us, it was no different, and the marketing plan began with the goal of engaging existing fans.

For HBO’s marketing team, that meant looking to drop “breadcrumb content” in 2021 at the annual The Last of Us Day on Sept. 26. (For the uninitiated: In the world of the game, that’s the day when the outbreak reaches critical mass and all hell breaks loose.)

Those breadcrumb efforts, which included releasing a production still that was intended to highlight the similarities between the game and the series, were designed “to help assure the fans that this was going to be an adaptation worth their time,” Giannusa said.

A year later, HBO dropped the series’ first official teaser, which generated more than 57 million organic views in 72 hours—outperforming HBO’s House of the Dragon teaser by 50%. In December, the official trailer for the series was released at Brazil Comic-Con, generating 49 million views in 72 hours, an HBO record.

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HBO also worked alongside Sony to promote the game across its platforms, including on PlayStation 5 consoles. That promotion extended to promoting HBO Max subscriptions. On premiere week, PlayStation users without existing HBO Max subscriptions were offered a 40% discount on HBO Max with Ads’s annual subscription.

Finding new fans

As the premiere date inched closer, Giannusa also was focused on engaging with fans of prestige television who may not have ever heard of—never mind played—the game.

Social-listening efforts indicated that everyone from “musicians and lifestyle influencers and fashion influencers” were expressing excitement about the show. To engage with them, custom Carhartt jackets, beanies, and other merchandise were mailed to fans and influencers. HBO also built out experiential installations in Brazil, Los Angeles, and New York to help build buzz around the series’ premiere that could engage existing fans while also appearing accessible to general interest audiences.

In New York, a takeover of the Angelika Film Center & Cafe the days leading up to the premiere recreated a militia group’s base. Attendees were scanned to check for infection using a prop scanner from the show’s production before being enlisted to help with various missions by actors posing as members of the group; later, they were ushered into a screening of the premiere episode with truffle popcorn in hand.

In all, HBO hosted six sold-out screenings at the Angelika, totaling 1,500 guests who walked through the experience.

At all three installs, HBO Max leaned on the expertise of Barrie Gower, a prosthetics and makeup effects designer who designed the infected creatures in the series. Gower provided 3D scans of one monster  so the marketing department could replicate and install it at events. Fan interest in taking photos with the creature, which Giannusa referred to as “the infected guy,” was unexpectedly high.

“The infected guy—he surprised us!” Giannusa said.

There are nine total episodes of The Last of Us planned for the series’ first season, and Giannusa said there is still plenty of marketing runway ahead of the team.

“This is a fandom we have to engage 365 days a year,” Giannusa said. “So we’re just getting started.”

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