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From Playground to Boardroom: Marketing Lessons from Squid Game

Wit. Cunning. Strategy. Competitive. Dramatic. Are we talking about Squid Game, here, or Marketing?

The parallels are uncanny.

For those unfamiliar with the hit Netflix show, ‘Squid Game’, it’s a metaphorical representation of modern society played out in a series of simple games. It’s also a psychologically brutal competition to win a life-changing financial prize; $4.56m.

Most players have a game plan of sorts, believing their strategy will give them the edge. But as the frustratingly simplistic game rules quickly cull numbers from 456 to one eventual winner, it becomes apparent that personal choice is the only true strategy.

The genius of Squid Game lies in the stark lessons it delivers both for the players and for us as we watch them. We witness friendships develop into strong bonds, unbreakable alliances form and even a sense of love between those who have found a deep connection and believe they’re ‘in it together’

They’re not; they just haven’t realised it yet.

We also bear witness to the extreme lengths people will sometimes go to when the stakes are life and death and an unimaginable prize awaits the victor.

Of course, nobody actually dies in Squid Game – The Challenge, the reality version of the show.

However, at the end of each game, those who woop-woop and punch the air to celebrate surviving another day also experience the trauma of losing friends or coming to terms with the deceit and betrayal of allegiances they believed to be unbreakable.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, many of these lessons easily translate into lessons for business owners, underlining the deeply satisfying art of outmanoeuvring competitors.

And whilst this may appear to be a cynical view of business, make no mistake: business is a game of survival of the fittest.

So, let the games begin – and may the savviest marketer win.

The Games

Red Light, Green Light:

The first of the games sees players ‘racing’ towards crossing a white line while only being allowed to move when a ‘green light’ is signalled. They must freeze at ‘red light’, with even the slightest movement or wobble resulting in instant elimination.

In reality, there is no red or green light, just a 14ft ‘doll’ behind the line whose head rotates, signalling to the players to move only while she’s not watching.

Business Lesson:

This game highlights the importance of timing and alertness in business. It’s about being 100% focused on what you alone are doing. Sometimes, it’s important to block out what everyone else is doing and concentrate on what’s right in front of you.

Business owners should see the opportunity and seize the moment to advance swiftly whilst conditionals are favourable, pausing to assess and review their strategy during uncertain or quiet times.

The Telephone:

A telephone is placed on a pedestal in the huge dormitory where all the players slept. For some, it’s a no-brainer; just leave it where it is. For others, their curiosity gets the better of them. They get closer to look at the phone but are not daring to do anything.

For one, it’s obvious: just pick it up and see what happens. The player is instructed to convince another player to come to the phone. If successful, the other player would unknowingly face immediate elimination. If unsuccessful, the original player would immediately be eliminated.

Business Lesson:

Effective communication and persuasion are vital in business and can be the difference between success and failure.

But sometimes, the success of communication is at the expense of someone else. A business may see an opportunity to open a competitive business in the same street as an existing business with whom they are friends. If you decide to do that and you’re successful, your friend loses.

Warship:

Everyone must surely know the board game Battleships/Warship. In the latest Squid Game, teams played a human-sized version of the game where leadership roles were democratically elected, and the rest of the team chose where to stand in ‘ships’ strategically placed by the leader and their deputy.

As in the board game, leaders then took turns to guess which of the opposing teams’ squares to target with their torpedoes. As a ship was destroyed, the players standing in it were eliminated, along with the losing team’s leaders when three ships were destroyed.

Business Lesson:

Team strategy and decision-making under pressure are crucial. I’m business, you must be able to think clearly and strategically whilst under competitive pressures.

Ultimately, critical decisions have to be made despite being blind to what’s really going on. In reality, this means making decisions to do or not do something when we have no idea what our competitors are up to. Remember that fortune favours the brave.

The Vote:

Every player had to publicly vote to eliminate one person of their choosing, with the top three receivers of votes being instantly eliminated. The challenge this presented was deciding whether to vote to eliminate someone they didn’t like and wouldn’t miss or someone they knew and liked but felt was a threat.

Business Lesson:

Understanding group dynamics is an area of psychology all of its own. But where a small, tough decision can positively impact a wider group, it’s important to be confident and stand your ground, knowing that what’s painful now will ultimately be for the greater good.

Jack-in-the-Box:

Five players volunteered to each stand behind a small box. Upon releasing the Jack-in-the-Box, an instruction attached to their Jack instantly sealed their fate or that of other players. The instruction may have been an advantage for them in the next game, their instant elimination or the option to eliminate other players.

Business Lesson:

Being forced into an unknown situation that unexpectedly requires tough decision-making is never easy. A key member of staff hands in their notice. The bank recalls their loan. A valuable client moves to another supplier.

Adaptability and readiness are essential skills and require practice and honing in order for you to be able to adapt quickly to the new normal.

Honeycomb (Dalgona):

Players are requested to form teams. Members of each team choose a shape (although some are inevitably forced to accept a more complex shape than they would prefer). They’re each handed a small, circular tin containing a honeycomb biscuit with their chosen shape pressed into one side. Their challenge is to use a needle to carve out the shape from the biscuit without breaking it, and they’re working against the clock.

Business Lesson:

Precision, patience, and attention to detail are essential skills when navigating complex tasks. Succumbing to the pressure of time and allowing it to make you rush also allows others to gain an advantage.

Tug of War:

It’s a straightforward enough game where pulling a ribbon tied to the centre of the rope or the opposing team over a mid-way line wins the day. But despite appearances, it’s not always raw strength that wins. Guile, tactics, rhythm and persistence all play a huge part in success.

Business Lesson:

It goes without saying how vital teamwork and team strategy are for achieving success in business. Just like in ‘tug of war’, aligning everyone’s efforts towards a common goal can overcome even the toughest of challenges.

It’s rarely about individual strength but how well a team works together, pulling in the same direction.

Marbles:

Among the most brutal of the games in Squid Game, marbles is also one of the simplest, and players are allowed to choose their own game and rules.

The overarching objective is simple: win against your opponent.

In the reality show, players were invited to share a picnic hamper, so they naturally paired up with a friend, someone in their alliance, or, in two cases, a relative.

They were, of course, expecting a twist, but this did nothing to reduce how devastated they were on discovering the picnic was the precursor to the dreaded game of marbles.

Everyone desperately wants to win, but doing so in many cases is heartbreaking because losers are immediately eliminated.

Business Lesson:

Success in business requires not only possessing a diverse range of skills but also being reasonably accomplished at each of them.

Negotiation is a skill that requires you to truly understand the other party’s needs and to find a way to accommodate them that works for everyone whilst still managing to achieve your own objectives.

Being brave means having the balls to put your money where your mouth is, stepping up to the plate and taking whatever is coming.

Glass Stepping Stones:

Players must cross a bridge made from 28 glass panels in two parallel rows of 14, stretched out before them and suspended high off the ground.

The challenge is simply to cross to the other side. However, some panels are fixed, while others open up unexpectedly, allowing the player to fall through into the abyss.

Do you go it alone or ask other players to leapfrog you to even the odds?

Business Lesson:

This is all about risk assessment and decision-making, both of which are crucial in business. Figuring out the safest way to choose the next solid glass panel is evaluating the risk and making a series of informed decisions.

Business owners have to learn on the job and in real-time which risks are worth taking and which are not. It’s key to navigating the uncertainty of the journey every business takes.

The Final Game:

The original series was inspired by a Korean game, known as Squid Game, played by two people. It involves offensive and defensive play within a stylised squid-shaped arena painted on the ground.

Testing their physical and strategic skills, the two players attempt to move closer to the ‘squid’s’ head where one will be the victor.

In the reality show, the final game was entirely different. It still required a combination of strategy, outsmarting the opponent, but the physical aspect was replaced with an element of pure luck.

The game was rock, paper, scissors – with a twist.

The winner of each ‘rock, paper, scissors’ round would select a single key from an assortment within a box. Each key represented a new opportunity, a new gamble. But it was another game of pure chance.

Would this be the right key to unlock the safe that contained the ultimate prize, a staggering $4.45 million?

Business Lesson:

Several lessons can be learned from both versions of the final game.

In the original, it’s about physically and mentally outwitting the competition, trying to predict their next move and catching them off guard to gain the advantage.

Whereas ‘rock, paper, scissors’ is different because it’s 100% a game of chance. Or is it?

In the 2023 final, the two players were a woman in her 40s and a man in his 20s. She used her intuition and understanding of human nature to predict that the younger man would be more likely to choose the masculine rock, followed by scissors. And she was absolutely right most of the time.

In business, what do you instinctively know about the moves your competitors are most likely to make? Or, what do you instinctively know about what your customers need?

And if you don’t know for sure, can you make an educated guess?

‘Rock, paper, scissors’ demonstrates that while strategic thinking and psyching out the opposition are essential, there will inevitably be some things you can’t control that require you to guess.

And, while having to guess what’s right in any given situation may appear to be unscientific, sometimes it can be refreshing as it always presents a new opportunity.

Seven Key Takeaways:

1. Understanding the Rules: Just like in business, understanding the rules of the game is essential. In “Squid Game,” players who quickly grasped the rules – especially the unspoken rules – had a better chance of a positive outcome. Similarly, in business, understanding the market, the competition, and the regulatory environment is vital for making the right decisions.

2. Adaptability and Innovation: The participants who adapted quickly to the changing scenarios of the game often fared better. This highlights the importance of adaptability and innovation in business, where market conditions and customer preferences are constantly evolving.

3. Risk Assessment and Management: Players in Squid Game constantly assess risks and make strategic decisions, balancing the potential rewards against the risks. In business, effective risk management can quickly solve a problem or prevent one from ever occurring.

4. The Power of Alliances: ‘Squid Game’ demonstrated the strength and sometimes the peril of forming alliances. Strategic partnerships in business can lead to many mutual benefits, but it’s important to choose partners wisely and understand that alliances can and will shift over time.

5. Determination and Resilience: The players’ determination and resilience in the face of dire circumstances are commendable. In business, perseverance and the ability to bounce back from setbacks are key traits of successful entrepreneurs and leaders.

6. Ethical Considerations and Consequences: ‘Squid Game’ masterfully delves into moral dilemmas, reflecting the importance of ethics and fairness in business. Decisions that solely focus on profit (or personal gain in Squid Game) without considering the moral and ethical implications can lead to long-term reputational damage.

7. Understanding Behaviour: Squid Game is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour under extreme stress. In business, understanding customer behaviour is critical for developing products and services that meet their needs and for effective marketing strategies.

Conclusion

We know that running a business puts us in a complex and challenging arena. It demands not only a deep understanding of the rules of business but also the ability to adapt, innovate, and manage risks effectively.

Many of the games in Squid Game mirror the diverse challenges of the business environment. From the need for precision and patience in ‘Honeycomb’, and the importance of teamwork in ‘Tug of War’, to the strategic thinking in ‘Glass Stepping Stones’, and the cutthroat brutality of decision-making in ‘Marbles’, each game serves as a metaphor for the multifaceted aspects of running a business.

But, the lessons extend beyond mere survival; they help us appreciate the art of outmanoeuvring competitors, understanding customer behaviour, managing resources, and building alliances, albeit with caution.

They also remind us that marketing in particular, is unpredictable and often unforgiving. Success requires more than just playing by the rules; it requires a shrewd blend of strategy, psychological insight, and, sometimes, the courage to make tough decisions.

It’s a playground, and playgrounds are for having fun. So, yes, remain vigilant and steadfast in achieving your goals. Be prepared to embrace the unexpected twists and turns of the games, but have fun with the opportunities that come your way.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
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