December 2, 2022

Squid Game: a successful model for innovation

Squid Game, the Korean blockbuster TV thriller involving indebted and marginalised people playing six deadly games to win a massive cash prize has quickly become the most successful, most viewed, and most talked about movie series ever on Netflix.  

The games in Squid Game are based on simple childhood games, but with a brutal twist: all players who fail to win are killed. While the rules of each game deceptively simple, the ways to win them are not always immediately apparent and require thought and experimentation among the contestants. This provides an engaging drama, but is also stimulating much ‘thought leadership’ opinion and discussion online. 

If you’ve not yet seen it, then chances are you’re in a quickly shrinking minority. We’d recommend you do, and you may find it even stimulates your thinking.  

In this blog, we’d like to explain why Squid Game has some interesting messages for us that relate to innovation, and how Netflix’s decision to produce the show is a great example of what innovative companies everywhere can be doing.

Lifting the lid of Squid Game: its deeper subtext

But first, let’s look at why Squid Game has had such an impact on viewers. It’s a compelling show with many different sides to it, in turn moving, creepy, violent, clever, inspiring and darkly comic.  

But it also has a deeper underlying subtext.  This subtext is partly a dark socio-political satire, and partly an examination of human individual and group relationships, values, human behaviour and problem-solving while struggling to survive in intense and often desperate circumstances. 

Those of you who’ve worked on deadline in an under-funded corporate venture may well connect directly to this.

“We are living in a Squid Game world” says show’s creator

The basic premise of the story is clearly illuminated by Squid Game’s creator Hwang Dong-hyuk in an interview in The Guardian newspaper on 26 October. “The show is motivated by a very simple idea,” he is quoted saying. “We are fighting for our lives in very unequal circumstances…we are living in a Squid Game world.” 

It’s worth noting that this socio-political angle is intensified by the fact Hwang’s storyline combines two popular dystopian genres –  Battles Royale and Dangerous Games, according to an excellent and thoughtful article by a video producer named Jenna Stoeber on the website Polygon.  She writes that while both genres feature deadly games, the villains are slightly different.

 In Battles Royale, typically set in a dystopian society, the games are justified as a form of social control to maintain the status quo. Iit’s the system. Meanwhile, with Dangerous Games, the villains are wealthy, powerful people who are able to break the law because of a social inequality of power. In other words, they exploit the system. 

So in Squid Game, the 456 hapless contestants coerced into the games are largely victims of brutal socio-economic realities, while the faceless rich gamblers, the paying customers of the games’ organisers, feed on the violent games for their own entertainment. 

The contestants participate through choice because the realities of their lives in the outside world are so harsh. The games at least offer them an opportunity, however much the odds are stacked against them. “Out there, I don’t stand a chance. I do in here,” says one contestant. 

And the games’ manager, Front Man, underscores this: “Here, the players get to play a fair game under the same conditions. These people suffered inequality and discrimination out in the world”.  

As the players proceed through the games, we see them collaborate, support, and sometimes betray each other, with acts of both hostility and unexpected compassion. Psychologists watching the show no doubt will have had a field day. 

Squid Game’s lessons for business and life

No wonder, then, that Squid Game has stimulated so many people to interpret the show as a provider of lessons for business and life.  Just do a web search for “Squid Game lessons” and you’ll see what we mean.  There are articles online about what Squid Game means for team building, for marketers and entrepreneurs, and the Financial Times even ran a piece about the show’s lessons for investors (the FT, 20/10/21)

Squid Game’s success as a show can be summed up as great content, at the right time. This is really the basis of any good business. But innovation can help make that happen by identifying what people will want before they even know it themselves.  With Squid Game, Netflix made a quality show containing messaging with which its viewers identify. This is perhaps particularly so during the pandemic, when many people have come to question aspects of their lives and the societies in which they live. 

Interestingly, Hwang wrote the story 10 years ago, and based it on his family’s tough experience during the global crash of 2008. After spending years trying to find a buyer, Netflix finally stepped in. 

Netflix: the right product at the right time

So one innovation lesson here is not only about offering the right product at the right time, but being able to visualise what customers might want and then providing it before your competitors do. 

Another lesson lies in how Netflix works with external writers and film makers from all over the world, to develop great ideas that are unrecognised or overlooked by other platforms and channels, or which are deemed by them to not be sufficiently commercial. 

Thankfully, Netflix has no advertisers to please, which arguably gives it more creative freedom. Still, it has a global and diverse subscriber base of around 125 million. To constantly satisfy that audience is a huge challenge. But Netflix meets this challenge by constantly searching out for, and experimenting with, new and original ideas, and working with creative local talent around the world. 

And of course, the benefit of this for subscribers is that they can experience the richness of international film making. If travel broadens the mind, then in the absence of travel during the pandemic, at least we have Netflix.  In this respect, then, Netflix is living up to what its subscribers want it to be. This is good business, and good innovation. 

South Korea as a home of creative innovation

And it’s no surprise that Squid Game is a South Korean show.  Fans of Asian cinema have long recognised the quality and diversity of that country’s productions. So it may be no coincidence that South Korea is also the world’s leading investor in innovation: in March, the OECD published figures showing the country spending 4.6% of national GDP on innovation – that’s more than any other country, including the US, UK and Japan.  The OECD has pointed to Korea’s “resilience and creativity” as driving the country’s “economic miracle”.  

So perhaps there is another lesson here: if you want to work with a partner, then choose one that considers innovation as a priority. 

Netflix as master of ‘outside in’ corporate innovation

 In simple terms, this involves us helping a client (usually a major corporate) to select and then work with a global range of external start-ups and SMEs that have technologies and skills of particular relevance to our client. This approach helps to fast track our clients’ R&D and time to market with new products, usually for a much lower cost than trying to do it by themselves. But more about that in a future blog. For now, it’s just worth recognising that Netflix has mastered this approach within its own market. 

Squid Game innovation drives growth at Netflix 

And this ‘outside in’ approach is paying off. Squid Game was released on 17 September and became a runaway success for Netflix in just nine days. By day 28, the show apparently clocked up 142m views globally and added 4.4m new subscribers, double that of the year before. During October, the show was reported by movie streaming statistics firm Flix Patrol as being the number 1 show in dozens of countries, including the UK, US and South Korea.

Financially, the show’s value to Netflix has been estimated by Bloomberg at $900 million, based on Netflix internal documents. That’s not bad at all for a nine-episode series that cost just $21m to make. 

Squid Game’s impact on Netflix’s fortunes during Q3 is impressive, after the company had a slow start to 2021, with pandemic-related delays to new productions. On 20 October the Financial Times reported that Netflix projected adding 8.5m subscribers for Q4, making 18.4m new subscribers for 2021. 

Squid Game success boosts Netflix brand, too

The success impacts positively on the brand, too, by polishing the reputation of Netflix as a maker of innovative content, and investors are delighted.  

The show has also triggered a big demand for merchandise. A search on Amazon reveals just now aspects of the show’s design and style – particularly in terms of costume – are perfect for such products. Masks, toys, tee shirts, key rings and advent calendars, to name but a few. 

But Squid Game is not just the most viewed movie series ever on Netflix. It has also become a viral sensation on social media. 

Virtuously viral: Squid Game and social media

This reveals much about the power of social media to drive customer interest. Squid Game’s launch was low budget, and had little advertising support. Instead, its rapid growth in popularity has been driven by subscribers themselves: it is social media and word-of-mouth that has driven the viewer numbers, leading to exponential growth of viewers in a way that advertising alone could never do.  

Viral social media activity sustains this growth. New audiences pick up on the viral nature of Squid Game, and so it goes on. It’s virtuous circle, and a great lesson in how social media can drive customer acquisition. According to entertainment website Collider, Squid Game has been used to create more unforgettable memes than many shows do after multiple seasons. Tiktok, for instance, has had several games for members that are based on games in Squid Game. One, called ‘Dare To Move’, based loosely on the Red Light, Green Light game in Squid Game. This attracted 3.4m views by the last week of October. 

And social media doesn’t just feed off the show itself, but also on news of its impact in the ‘real’ world. The fact that a crypto currency named after the show was revealed as a scam just a few weeks ago (BBC News, 02/11/21). Its huge impact on social media as a piece of conversational real estate is significant in scale, possibly unique and potentially as ground-breaking as the show itself. It’s the internet’s favourite TV show, according to NBC News. 

Unsurprisingly, business news websites have taken this as a lesson for entrepreneurs to use social media to stimulate a buzz about themselves and their products. But we, as innovation consultants, would add that you have to have the product (or service) right first if you are going to stance a chance of ‘going viral’. 

The games in order of appearance

We came up with some thoughts about what the games themselves teach us about innovation.  Let’s list the games and what they involve:

Game 1: Red Light, Green Light

All 456 players start this game, and have to move across an area towards a sinister, giant doll while its head is turned away. Once the doll’s head rotates backwards, any players still moving are seen by the motion sensors in its eyes – and are then shot.  Leading character Seong Gi-hun almost falls forward after the doll has turned to face the players, but is saved by another player who catches him. 

The lesson:  be patient, work quickly but wisely, but don’t rush. And help each other where possible. 

Game 2: Sugar Honeycombs

In this game, players are given a fragile sugar honeycomb sweet with one of four different shapes marked on it: a circle, a star, a triangle or an umbrella. Equipped with only a needle, they have to carve out the shapes without breaking them. If they do, they are then shot.  Gi-hun realises that moistening the honeycombs with saliva is the best way to prevent them from breaking. 

The lesson:  think ‘outside the box’ and develop a new approach if you can to deliver the solution.

Game 3: Tug of War

A traditional game indeed, but instead played on two high platforms. The game challenges each group of players to pull their opponents to their deaths. Gi-hun’s team includes several women, and physically weaker, older men, and faces a stronger, all-male team. The situation looks desperate, but the old man Il-nam tells everyone that there are smart ways to win, such as placing team members on different sides of the rope, using their fully bodyweight to dig in, and waiting for their opponents to get tired. 

The lesson: having a good strategy can beat pure strength, particularly if you combine also good teamwork and leadership, and remain agile enough to change your tactics as circumstances change. 

Game 4: Marbles

Players are required to pair up with one other person, and are each given a bag containing 10 marbles. It is only then that they are told they will compete directly against their partner – who, in most cases, is the person they have become closest to.  This is the first time in the games that players will be responsible for the death of someone they care about. Meanwhile, gangster Deok-su when playing the ‘odds or evens’ guessing game, so he asks to change to a throwing game instead, which suits his talents better. 

The lesson: play to your strengths, and break the brief if necessary in order to do this. But if your actions lead to hurting others, you will have to live with the consequences. 

Game 5: Hopscotch

This involves players queuing up to jump their way across a suspended bridge of glass panels, within a 16-minute time limit. Some panels are made of strong, tempered glass, and others are just standard glass. Players must guess which panels will take their weight. Inevitably, those earlier in the queue face a higher the risk of making a wrong decision and falling to their deaths. Those last in the queue benefit from most of the weak panels having already been broken, and merely have to beat the clock.  

The lesson: learning from the mistakes of others can save you time prevent wasted effort. It also means that finishing last is not a failure if it means you survived. 

Game 6: Squid Game

Based on a popular Korean childhood game, using a pattern on the ground incorporating a square, triangle and several circles, and has two teams trying to invade each other’s space while hopping on one foot and avoiding stepping on the lines. By the time Gi-hun reaches this final round, his only surviving opponent is his former friend, fraudulent banker, Cho Sang-woo. 

The lesson: the fight between them Gi-hun and Sang-woo represents a battle between opposing values: Gi-hun’s compassionate and more moral viewpoint, versus Sang-woo’s one based on selfish greed. Gi-hun triumphs because his viewpoint convinces Sang-woo to agree with him. 

This may not really involve innovation, but it does underscore the strength of compassionate morality in a winning argument. So innovation ideas with an altruistic outcome might well be received more warmly. 

Squid Game’s overall message for innovation

This final game leads us to consider what must be Squid Game’s overall message.  Maybe it’s this:  a cry for a less exploitative, more equitable and compassionate approach to how the ‘machine’ of power and money deals with human beings. 

And perhaps this might be our most important lesson. If innovation can be a tool for making better products, or creating greater corporate profit and reducing global carbon emissions, perhaps it can also help to inspire and build a fairer, more caring world, too. We can but try.