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How HBO won over video game fans with The Last of Us marketing campaign

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By Hannah Bowler | Journalist

January 25, 2023 | 7 min read

Vice-president of marketing Emily Giannusa tells us how the broadcaster established authenticity with the much-loved video game’s fanbase.

Fans at the New York immersive premiere of The Last of Us

Fans at the New York immersive premiere of The Last of Us / HBO

HBO’s adaptation of the apocalyptic video game The Last of Us – which premiered on January 15 and has already topped Rotten Tomatoes best shows list with a hefty 97% score – is set to be one of the biggest shows of the year, but it is no mean feat winning over fandoms admits vice-president of marketing Emily Giannusa. “Video game adaptations are hard.”

Its first episode has racked up 18 million US viewers and its second episode registered a 22% increase according to HBO, which is its biggest-ever second-week audience growth.

Giannusa, who uses they/them pronouns, tells us that because The Last of Us has such an in-built dedicated and loyal following, it was essential that this was respected at every point of its marketing campaign and that HBO’s marketing department “establish authenticity” with fans of Naughty Dog and PlayStation’s much-loved title.

HBO primed fans of the game for two years before the show landed on screen, in a strategy Giannusa calls “breadcrumb” marketing. HBO dropped the first glimpse of the show in 2021 on The Last of Us Day – a holiday created by Naughty Dog to celebrate the game. A second screengrab was released a year later at PlayStation’s Summer Game Fest.

The Last of Us first production shot

“Breadcrumb content is little glimpses of the show that aimed to tell the fandom, ’HBO has got your back and this is going to be faithful to the game you know and love,’” they explain.

That first piece of film footage integrated HBO’s iconic ident with themes from the game. The teaser generated over 57m organic views in 72 hours, which according to HBO is its most-watched teaser ever, outperforming House of The Dragon by 50%.

The trailer was finally released at Brazil Comicon in December 2022 and was supported by a cast and crew panel. Giannusa says that was when the “campaign started kicking into high gear” as broader audiences started talking about the show, “not just video game fans”. “We wanted to make the show appealing to the video game fandom but also establish it as a broad cultural sensation.”

After the trailer dropped, Giannusa’s team noticed that the main draw for non-fans was the cast playing unexpected characters. This informed Giannusa to lean more heavily into marketing the cast, which included Nick Offerman and Pedro Pascal.

“You have to be nimble and you have to stay flexible you can think that people might react one way to something but it doesn’t always go the way you think. You must always be listening to those insights.”

Influencer marketing

Influencers were a pivotal part of The Last of Us campaign, explains Giannusa. “The video game fans are the number one influencers in my book. They evangelize the series and recruit more people to join in the movement.”

To identify influencers to target, HBO conducted social listening from the point at which the show was commissioned back in 2020. This helped HBO find unexpected players of the game who weren’t necessarily gaming influencers but creators who spanned lifestyle, music and entertainment.

Over the course of three years, Giannusa’s team “kept a portfolio of different flavors of influencers” to leverage support around the show’s launch. “It’s important to tap into the other spheres of influence, that’s why we reached out to musicians like Logic and actress Felicia Day.”

Immersive activations

The campaign leveraged experiential marketing through a series of immersive activations that kicked off at Brazil Comicon with a replica of an iconic building from the game that fans could explore with props from the game.

“One of the insights we’ve gleaned from the fans of the video games, and fans of HBO, is that they want to be immersed in the world of the shows and we wanted to give them touchpoints around the world to do that.”

Following the activation at Brazil Comicon, HBO and global broadcast partners such as Sky executed immersive premieres and invited fans of the game. At the New York premiere, for example, guests were given props from the show while there were actors with maps helping them to their seats, along with photo ops with the characters. “We wanted fun exploratory easter egg moments.”

“The Last of Us was truly a global campaign,” says Giannusa, with immersive screenings happening in over 20 markets and 200 territories. “There were screening events all over the world that tapped into a similar creative throughline,” they add.

HBO’s big immersive push is part of a wider trend in TV marketing where media companies look beyond traditional press junkets to capture Gen Z audiences. It follows activations such as Disney’s Wonder of Friendship event and Netflix’s immersive Stranger Things Upside Down World in Shoreditch.

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