Decoding Why the Squid Game is So Popular

10 years of thought. 6 childhood games. 1 dystopian satire. 1.56 billion hours of viewing. $900 million in impact value. A global phenomenon. A Myth Buster.

Myth Buster

Squid Game has busted some myths that over time we had begun to believe to be the gospel truth

  1. Attention spans have drastically reduced. People prefer consuming shorter content. 
  2. Everyone loves comfort TV. Dark, violent content doesn’t do well
  3. Simplicity doesn’t work any more. A script needs to shock and awe. 

Win, or Die. This simple formula was what the show rested on, and if you think about it, so do our lives. 

10 years ago, this script was rejected for being grotesque and unreliable battle royale. Today, it has been watched by 142 million households since its September 17 debut, and helped Netflix add 4.38 million subscribers.

Many credit the timing of its release. COVID 19, uncertainty, the realisation of the frivolity of life as a general sentiment that helped Squid Game go as viral as it did. I beg to differ. The strongest factor that propelled the show to THIS level of virality is simple, to me. It portrays an exaggerated yet apt reality – of the rat race we get caught up in, slowly letting the little joys of life slip by in a hopeless quest for money, and then some more.

Like the games the 456 men and women are embroiled in on the show, Squid Game’s virality and success can be attributed to simplicity and a little bit of luck, But nothing can take away from how much word-of-mouth, content marketing and Netflix’s release and promotion strategy helped propel it to the next level.

Storytelling Framework - The Hero's Journey

5 Reasons Why Squid Game Went Viral

Suspense. Simplicity. Relatability

“It’s a sad story. But the reason why I returned to the project is because the world 10 years from then has transformed to a place where these unbelievable survival stories are so fitting, and I found that this is the time when people will call these stories intriguing and relatable.” – Director Hwang Dong-hyuk

Squid game is the KISS principleKeep It Simple, Stupid – in action. Everything about it – from it’s storyline to its sets, the costumes to its camera work – is simple. Keeping it simple has helped the show to be easier to comprehend and believe, and hence more relatable. This is the foundation Squid Game stands on. 

While the premise of the show rests on a tried and tested formula of survival thrillers built around games, it has its share of unexpected little twists and turns. But largely, the show rests on a simple foundation. 

​​Minyoung Kim, the VP for Content in Asia for Netflix, believed that the simplicity of the show and the childhood games kept the barrier of entry very low. No one who hadn’t grown up playing the games on the show had trouble relating to or appreciating them. 

The show is deeply rooted in truth. The state of financial debt in South Korea has been overwhelming, to say the least, for those owing money. In 2021, the total amount of debt that South Koreans ran up exceeded the country’s GDP by 5%. Financial stress among the people has been a long-standing problem in South Korea. In fact, when Hwang Dong-hyuk first wrote the script, he too was struggling with debt and loans. Truth is stranger than fiction they say and Squid Game has a strange way of reminding us of how easy it is for us to connect with fiction that stems from our fact. 

Brian Hu, a film professor at San Diego State University in the United States, said, “The unique thing about ‘Parasite’ and ‘Squid Game’ is that while the works depict poverty and class inequality, they do so in a way that exerts Korea’s technical and cinematic modernity.”

Netflix’s Release and Promotion Strategy

Jeff Bezos praises Netflix

Source: Twitter

Netflix now works with Ernst and Young to create “Most Popular” lists based on the total number of hours watched. Curating these lists has helped them propel certain content to intense popularity. Keeping their finger on the pulse, Netflix was quick to pick up on the popularity of Squid Game and list it in all of its curated lists. 

Netflix was sure that the show would be a hit in South Korea. What surprised them is how well it did in the rest of the world. Despite the lack of a marketing strategy for the rest of the world, barring a generic trailer made for the US market, Netflix didn’t really advertise Squid Game. With this in mind, a release was timed to coincide with the holiday season in South Korea. What Netflix did do though was dub it extensively. Contrary to popular opinion, I think the voice artists have done a fantastic job of the dub, and have added so much value to the show for a non-Korean speaker! I for sure am one who watched it because the English dub was available. Had it been just subtitles, I may not have been able to see it through. This move where Netflix made the show accessible to the entire world in a way that was easy for them to consume it has contributed to its high viewership rates and sky-high popularity. 

While Squid Game reached meteoric levels of success thanks to organic marketing, Netflix was pulling strings behind the scenes to reinforce the show in the minds of all its subscribers, and potential subscribers. With the company closely monitoring its traffic and crunching numbers to curate lists based on popularity, having Squid Game constantly appear in its Top 10 across geographies was a masterstroke. Netflix has done a brilliant job of understanding how its subscribers want to consume content and is tailoring all the content it’s hosting to cater to those tastes. 

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The Show Itself

Why Squid Game Went Viral? Hero's Journey Framework

Squid Game speaks to the very root of humanity. The law of the jungle is the only law that applies. And it is only the fittest who survive. Fiction helps one escape reality. But how much better was the fiction that Squid Game created where loss meant death but a life of debt outside of the jungle had no brighter prospects? For being such a despondent plot, it clocked 1.54 billion hours of viewing in the first 4 weeks! Now, if that isn’t testimony to the fact that a plot that echoes primal survival instinct isn’t a winner, I don’t know what is. 

Sets, Costumes and Art Direction 

Everything visual about Squid Game has great recall value – from the costumes to the set, and also of course, all the deaths. It appears that the colours – red light and green light – of the costumes were well thought out. The bright red of the guard’s uniforms stood in sharp contrast to the green that the players wore. Against an otherwise bare set, the candy coloured staircase created an illusion of happy uncertainty which was an uncanny visual echo of the deadly consequences of losing a children’s game. The simplicity of the three symbols – the circle, triangle and square and it’s repeated use everywhere has ensured that there will only be one association made to those three shapes when seen together. I have to tip my hat to the Art Director who has managed to use the sets as a canvas to showcase the conflict and contradictions through his vision. The value that that has added to the show is immeasurable. 

Music and Sound

The background music, choice of song and sound engineering that must be applauded helped make the show an experience. The juxtaposition of a happy Irish tune in Blue Danube that signalled a dreadful death as the call to each game is a wonderful reinforcement of the dystopian satire that is Squid Game. 

  1. Human Psychology

On the merits of the show itself, Squid Game reaches out to us on a primal levelThe flawed characters force us to put ourselves in their shoes. Their less than perfect portrayals, the shades of grey that are brought out make them believable, relatable. Whether it’s the contestants (whose pain and despondency is easy to echo) or the VIPs who are watching the game (which role is what we as viewers play too, if you think about it), the perspective we as viewers have is dual. At some level, that reminds us that we are flawed too. Playing on raw emotion, again. As real as it all feels, it still feels distant though. For non-Korean viewers, there is a distance created that makes this piece of believable fiction more easily digestible. Simply because though we relate to the characters on a primal level, it doesn’t seem real enough because they speak a different language. So while there is a sense of relatability and attachment, there is a sense of detachment and a safe space where we know we are merely observers. 

Social information is also a significant factor that drives up consumption. Squid Game became a water-cooler show and the social validation it got spread like wildfire. The show acquired a status symbol. It became a highly popular show, socially. Once conversation in all our social circles becomes centred around a subject, it’s only human to feel left out and lacking when you’re not armed with the information you need to be part of that conversation. With Squid Game, more than the quality of the show – the story, dystopia and violence – it was this factor that has made it so hugely popular. Consumer behavior is shaped by information about the choices and behavior of other people. It is these processes that have the power to turn any (decent) piece of media into a global phenomenon. 

  1. Marketing | Before, During, After

Squid Game is now much bigger than Netflix.

Netflix relied on the oldest trick in the marketing book – word of mouth. Content’s ability to generate conversation is what helps make it big. Squid Game is filled with memorable, meme-able moments. Today, with social media being as powerful a medium as it is, FOMO is the biggest driver of popularity

“People hear about it, people talk about it, people love it, and there’s a very social aspect to that, which does help grow the show outside of what we do,” Netflix’s global TV head, Bela Bajaria

How Netflix leveraged social media

Twitter Engagement

With its impeccable data analysis, Netflix was quick to pick up on the popularity Squid Game generated by tracking its appearance on social media. They were quick to ride that wave, and began making their presence felt through memes of their own in a move to promote the show. 

Netflix fangirls Squid Game cast

Source: Twitter

Netflix Squid Game meme job interview

Source: Twitter

Bringing Squid Game to life

Netflix on Halloween set up RedLight, Green Light in KoreaTown in Los Angeles to bring Squid Game to the people as a “Halloween Surprise”. 

Netflix Squid Game Koreatown event

The Korea Pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020 also chose to ride on the success of Squid Game. For a limited time, it allowed visitors a chance to engage in Squid Game activity at the pavilion and also gave away a massive prize to winners – A packet of Korean Instant Noodles!  

Watch this Instagram video to peep into the campaign!

Netflix set up a Squid Game themed pop-up in Paris, and even served Dalgona candy. 

Netflix Squid Game pop-up Paris
Netflix Squid Game pop-up Paris candy

Source: Twitter

Apart from Netflix doing its thing on social media, it has allowed its viewers to create content that has made Squid Game go viral. Not just that, so many other brands and influencers have profited by jumping on to the Squid Game marketing bandwagon

#squidgame on TikTok has over 44 billion views. Creators around the world have indulged in Squid Game challenges of their own with trends that are arguably as popular as the show itself. 

Fan theories, easter eggs, plot holes and more are being discussed extensively on Reddit and speculations are being made through YouTube videos. So much so that the Director says he may just be inspired to use some of the fan theories to build on Season 2

Marketing Lessons|Takeaways from Squid Game and its Success

Nothing beats a powerful story

At the end of the day, Squid Game is a story that has been told convincingly enough for it to have resonated with the masses at large. Simply, nothing beats a good story. The marketing takeaway would be to use more stories in your campaigns. Give people stories they want to talk about. Stories that they want to think about. And stories that they want to be part of. A great story is driven by raw human emotion. Emotions remove cultural barriers, which is exactly what Squid Game did. As a marketer, remember buying decisions are based on emotions. So drive your campaigns and copy with emotion.

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating

Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool. Despite Netflix’s active marketing of Squid Game, the Korean thriller was and continues to be talked about on every social media platform. From Instagram to LinkedIn. Netflix allowed its users to create marketing content for them. Allow your audience to create content for you. Don’t be afraid to try something fresh and disruptive and let your audience guide you. 

Passive marketing playing on FOMO works 

No one at Netflix imagined this show would go viral. But they did encourage it; with push notifications, recommendations, and of course, endlessly reminding the world that Squid Game is the most popular show ever broadcast on the streaming platform.

Data is your best friend 

Netflix is a data-driven enterprise. It is this data that was used, analyzed, and exploited in making Squid Game the pop culture phenomenon that it is today. Scratch that. That became a pop culture phenomenon within one week of its release. 

Humour is a great vehicle for awareness and sales

The fact that there are memes, gifs, posts, and jokes swirling their way around shows that comedy always spreads faster than anything. Even when they are rooted in dark, dystopian satires. If comedy can help publicize a violent, chaotic, and heart-breaking social commentary, maybe that teaches you to allow space for comedy and fun with your marketing campaigns.

However good your strategy, you need a charismatic sales person to bring in the clients

If not for the good-looking salesman at the tube station luring people into the game with his sales skills and ddakji playing skills, there would be no Squid Game. So, whatever you offer your customers as rewards and incentives or quality products, if you fail to channel your customers into your buying funnel, it really won’t matter how good your product or service is. 

What Makes the Content Engaging and Valuable?

Great content is great content. You either deliver a great experience, or you lose your audience.

Many theories suggest that people have a short attention span and they prefer to consume just byte-sized content. However, Squid Game proves that if you give your audience what they want, your audience sticks to you till the very end.
Now the question is how to create great content that your audience is looking for. Let me share one way of creating great content, the one that we follow at Concurate. At Concurate, the first thing that we attempt to figure out is who are your best customers.  

Content Writing Approach

 The best customer is defined by a combination of these four criteria: 

  • Who are the customers that pay the most?
  • Who are the customers that stay with you the longest?
  • Who are the customers that you love working with?
  • Who are the customers that have a high need for the product or service?

 We get this info typically by asking the members of the sales team, the marketing team, anyone who is in a customer-facing role.  After we’ve come to a conclusion on who the best customer is that we should target, the next thing that we try to learn is what are their challenges and pain points.
In this part, we try to learn everything we can about these people: 

  • Why did they buy your product/service?
  • What challenges did they have prior to buying?
  • What alternative options did they look at prior to purchasing?
  • Why did they end up going with your product over the alternatives?
  • What part of the product or service do your customers get the most value from?
  • What other decision-makers were involved in the buying process?

These are a few questions we ask. If you want to have a look at the entire questionnaire doc, fill the form below.  

After we’ve run through the exercise above, and have a good understanding of who the customer is and why the purchase, the final thing we do is search for keywords and other topics that indicate that the customer has intent to buy the product or service.  Want to know our secret sauce of selecting the initial topics based on the keywords with the highest buying intent? Let’s do a short connect. Book our calendar!

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4 Takeaways from Squid Game's Success


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