Nobody saw Succession’s ending coming (until we did). Here’s what the hit show’s writers can teach marketers about keeping consumers tuned in.
Over four seasons, Succession’s viewers constantly reformulated their theories of who they thought would take over Waystar Royco. Last Sunday, HBO’s hit show finally crowned its successor.
At its core, Succession was a slow, simmering interpersonal drama. It didn't have high-stakes mob dealings or geopolitical machinations (like its peak TV predecessors, The Sopranos and The Americans). And yet, Succession’s writers kept viewers on the edge of their seats, deploying subtle twists that we never saw coming but immediately understood were inevitable.
Succession’s ability to keep audiences guessing—and to deliver “oh, of course” twists—holds a few lessons for how marketers can use storytelling to keep their own audiences engaged.
Surprise your audience with what makes perfect sense
Adam Sternbergh, a culture critic at the New York Times, argued that Succession wasn't a twisty turny show. Instead, it took a classic approach to storytelling: Surprising viewers with the inevitable.
We didn’t see Succession’s twists coming, but in retrospect, they made perfect sense (and fit within the show’s arcs). For example (season 4 spoiler ahead): Succession’s writers killed off its center of gravity, patriarch Logan Roy, three episodes into its final season. It was surprising—normally, it would take place in the final episodes. But it was logical. The entire show was about jockeying to fill Logan’s seat. With Logan gone, the audience became privy to the aftermath that the characters were planning for.
Marketers should take the same storytelling approach when taking big brand swings. Your major campaigns should surprise and delight your audience. That element of the unexpected will not only grab their attention and get them talking about you, but keep them engaged to see what you do next.
But these experiences can’t be so out of left field that they feel off-brand or don’t immediately “click” for your audience. Ask yourself: Is there something our audience are superfans of (outside of your brand)? Does it have a clear tie-in to our brand values? The reaction you’re going for is equivalent to a lightbulb going off—not a “huh.”
Justin Bieber’s recent collaboration with Tim Horton’s is a great example of this surprise-and-delight approach. Both are Canadian icons. And the connection felt authentic: It was a brand Bieber had grown up with. Tim Horton's chief marketing officer, Hope Bagozzi, told Food and Wine, "Even before the Timbiebs collaboration, Justin had often shared with fans how he'd grown up with Tim Hortons and was obsessed with the brand. His commitment to working with us to develop a natural and authentic twist on the Tims experience is what made Timbiebs a hit and we know guests are going to love Biebs Brew and his take on Tims Cold Brew."
Timbieb's American counterpart is equally delightful. Ben Affleck and Dunkin' are about as Boston as you can get. Affleck has long been an unofficial walking advertisement for the brand, constantly being pictured with Dunkin' cups throughout the years. Their latest official collaboration, promoting $1 donuts with a coffee purchase, took their roots to the next level. The commercial features a meta conversation in which Affleck pitches a new campaign, only to be mistaken for another famous Bostonian (and his long-time creative partner), Matt Damon.
Don’t forget your supporting cast
Succession has a lesson for keeping your audience engaged with your day-to-day marketing strategy, too.
While the show centered on the Roy family, whose members were competing to inherit control of the company, it offered outsider perspectives as a counterbalance. These characters were in the family’s orbit—a cousin, a husband, a company executive. But their unique challenges and points of view add depth to the story, helping propel the drama forward (and keeping it fresh). Succession’s creator and showrunner, Jessie Armstrong, told HBO, “The Roys are so wealthy, they've become unaware of their surroundings. It's nice to have people that can peer into their lives in the show and stand in for the rest of us.”
It’s easy to rely on a singular A-plot—the messaging you know will drive conversions—when you’re operating under tighter constraints. But if your audience is only receiving a string of promotions, your channel will start to feel one-note. They’ll start to tune you out, knowing exactly what your message is before they even read it.
You need to bring your cousin Gregs, Toms, and Gerris into the mix to keep your audience engaged. Maybe that’s sharing a featured products series, sending subscribers user-generated social content, images from your lookbooks, and GIFs of styling recommendations. Or, maybe you weave in educational content about your brand, from blog posts on your mission to educational videos on how to use your products.
When you help your audience connect to your brand’s story, and keep them on their toes about what’s coming next, your viewership will only grow. Whether you're launching a major campaign or setting up your messaging strategy, Succesion’s storytelling can offer inspiration.