Of Hot Markets and Halloween

The South Korean television series Squid Game, which launched in September, is currently the top Netflix show in 90 countries and is trending to be the most-viewed series ever on Netflix in the U.S. Its fast rise, which has occurred through word of mouth, despite a lack of promotion to back the show, has naturally led to demand for merchandise. The property makes for an interesting case study in how purveyors of products and properties respond to “hot markets” opportunities.

The fictional horror-drama is about 465 contestants in financial straits who enter a survival competition that takes place in Seoul. They play a series of children’s games and, if they ultimately win, they will earn a cash prize of 45.6 billion won, or $38.4 million. But if they fail along the way, they will be killed.

As is typical for properties that come out of nowhere to become pop culture phenomena, Squid Game products have quickly proliferated. They have come to market in a variety of ways:

  • Through official channels. Netflix offers a Squid Game shop on its new online store, which launched in June in the U.S. before rolling out globally. The shop features mostly t-shirts and hoodies, including some that are customizable by allowing the consumer to select a player number or guard-rank icon associated with one of the characters. U.K.-based e-tailer Zavvi launched a line of apparel and home goods through a licensing deal with Netflix, available in the U.K. and U.S. It includes items such as limited-edition sneakers produced in collaboration with Akedo, as well as sweaters and blankets.
  • As unauthorized merchandise. Squid Game products are a hit in China, where Netflix is not available, through Taobao, Alibaba, and other platforms. Most are thought to be counterfeit or grey-market items produced by Chinese factories that have made their way to e-commerce sites in China and around the world. Fans have gotten into the act as well, for example creating unofficial Squid Game character skins, weapons, buildings, and so on for use in the video game Fortnite. One Fortnite player known as Glitch King faithfully created a detailed and playable version of one of the challenges featured in the show, the game red light, green light, within the Fortnite metaverse.
  • By riding the coattails. A Korean shop that supplied the show with 700 shaped pieces of dalgona, a round, flat toffee treat that features prominently in one of the challenges, has seen long lines of customers wanting to purchase the candy. Its sales increased from 200 per day pre-show to 500 per day now. Consumers around the world are attempting the dalgona challenge—which involves trying to extract a shape carved into the middle of the candy without the piece breaking—and posting their results on social media. Marketers have noticed. The Brown Butter Café in Singapore has seen success with an in-store dalgona challenge, while Korean e-commerce site Coupang, along with Amazon, eBay, and others, are selling equipment and kits so consumers can make their own dalgonas. Separately, Samyang Foods, maker of the ramen that Squid Game showed in the form of a snack called ramen ddung (pieces of raw noodles sprinkled with seasoning powder), is running a global Instagram campaign that shows fans how to create the snack, gives them a chance to win Samyang-branded merchandise, and introduces them to its other products.
  • By way of the show’s stars. Fans can also feel connected to the show by buying products endorsed by some of the breakout actors in the series. One of the stars, actress Jung Ho-yeon (Player 067), has seen her global popularity rise since the show’s premiere and has signed brand ambassadorships with Louis Vuitton and Adidas Originals. And Oh Young Soo (Player 001, the “old man”) was approached by a fried chicken chain (transliterated to Kkanbu or Gganbu), but turned down the opportunity, saying he wanted to focus on his acting. He was in a scene in which he called another player his gganbu, or ally, which led fans to post fake Gganbu ads featuring the character online; the memes went viral and prompted the chain to approach the actor.

The fact that the show hit so close to Halloween helps illustrate the challenges of licensing and collaborations tied to quick-hit pop-culture phenomena. The green track suits and red jumpsuits worn in the show by contestants and guards, respectively, are expected to be top Halloween costumes this year, but no authorized versions are available, thanks to the short time frame to get such merchandise out on the market.

This is driving consumers to some of the counterfeit goods mentioned above, but it is also causing them to seek out items such as Adidas track suits and white Vans shoes that allow them to recreate the outfits. In fact, sales of white Vans have jumped 7,800% since the launch of the show, according to The Sole Supplier, likely due at least in part to Halloween. And, in a potential indicator of future success, online searches for white slip-ons in general have increased 97%, according to Lyst, while searches for other items similar to what the characters wear in the show have also experienced significant gains.

Marketers of relevant merchandise and services can capitalize on opportunities like these, whether through promotions or products. But only if they move fast.

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