Tai’shar Amazon marketing department! The multimillion-dollar fantasy epic is launching with a campaign that’s weaving together inventive activations, collaborative fandom strategies and a dash of the One Power, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
“The Wheel of Time turns and ages come and pass...”
Whether that line weaves an excited and knowing grin on your face or simply leaves you bemused and blank, Amazon Prime hopes that after today, it will be etched into your brain.
You see, it’s the opening salvo for every one of the 14 books in the epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time. Amazon is about to launch its lavish and ambitious adaptation of the beloved best-sellers by Robert Jordan (pen name of writer James Oliver Rigney Jr.) and Brandon Sanderson. With the first three episodes droppingon November 19th, the above the line marketing campaign has blossomed into life, from London and Madrid to Melbourne and Los Angeles.
But like a cat carefully crossing a courtyard or an Aes Sedai plotting her next 12 moves, the marketing team at Amazon Prime Video has been thoughtfully laying the foundation for its The Wheel of Time marketing campaign for well over a year.
A Wind Blew…
Briefly - if it is possible to sum up 14 books plus a prequel briefly - the story is high fantasy of the highest order. A group of country youths are ‘tapped on the shoulder’ by destiny as one is fated to become The Dragon Reborn, who will save the world but go mad and destroy it in the process. In this semi-matriarchal world, only women can safely use magic and a mysterious organisation of female channelers, known as the Aes Sedai, shape history. MILF Gandalf, the impeccable Moiraine (played by Rosamund Pike) and her warder Lan (Daniel Henney), whisk the kids away to keep them safe from the sinister Dark One, whose army of monsters (of human and non-human varieties) is growing ever stronger. The story may launch with a very European fantasy vibe, but alongside the Norse and Arthurian influences, the lore is underpinned by ideas from Buddhism and Hinduism and there are references from all around the world in the architecture, ideals, characters and clothing.
Writing personally, it's a series of books that has been a welcome escape, particularly during the pandemic - and I've engaged with marketing content and events as a fan more than a journalist. But, taking a step back and looking at the marketing activations as a whole, it's hard to overlook the fact that this is a huge and unprecedented push from Amazon Prime. I'll also say, upfront, I was fortunate enough to attend one of the fan events in London, as a friend of a competition winner.
Fan Engagement and the Darkfriends' Social (Media)
Given the reported $10 million per episode production budget, Amazon wants to make sure that this series pays back - that it is seen and drives Amazon Prime subscriptions. The first step has been to engage the existing fandom - in fact the fandom has been acknowledged even in the making of the show. Not only has showrunner Rafe Judkins spoken extensively about reading the series in his younger years with his mother, but the production team recruited a hardcore fan and former JordanCon [a dedicated The Wheel of Time convention] registration director to act as a consultant on the show, to walk actors and craftspeople through the lore as well as to challenge and sense-check any changes to the show.
Of course, there will be many changes to the source material in this adaptation, some which the fans will find, err, easier to accept than others but the show producers and marketing team have laid their groundwork and made the case that any changes, controversial or not, have been considered.
The success of its fan engagement strategy can be boiled down to these six factors:
1. It’s been human. And no that doesn’t mean creating an elaborate brand voice but that the social accounts have been clear and fairly open about the human being behind the curtain. When the original social media manager - dubbed by fans as ‘He Who Tweets with the Dawn’ - stepped down, the newcomer (who came to be known as ‘The Tweeter of Chaos’) was open at first about their need to catch up with the lore. When footage was leaked accidentally by a local Amazon Prime account, fans were concerned about the people behind the account getting in trouble and the incident has become a recurring joke. Rather than strive for perfection or pretend the account speaks with some metatronic ‘brand voice’, the tone and engagement has been relatively real and non-condescending
2. It’s been co-created. Given The Wheel of Time’s history - the series, which was first published in 1990 has sold 90 million copies worldwide - there’s a thriving existing fandom. And, by and large, the Amazon Prime team has understood that and even deferred to the fandom where appropriate. And so the social team has picked up on existing hashtags (such as #twitteroftime) and nicknames. When fans flagged accessibility issues around the social content, the teams responded by including written descriptions for people with visual impairments and captions for fans with audio issues. Accessibility has still been an issue.
3. Fans have been brought into the production process. Whether its showrunner Rafe hosting random, spontaneous Q&A sessions on The Wheel of Time's Instagram stories or videos from initial script readings, or snippets of production design, the team has carefully parcelled out inside info to get fans salivating - and to try their best to stave off leakers.
4. Fans and fandom creators have been rewarded. When the main trailer for the season dropped, the Amazon Prime marketing team opted to partner not with a high-count, generic influencer but with YouTube Channel The Dusty Wheel, run by Mat Hatch a mainstay of the community who has been involved dating back to pre-social media days and website Theoryland. Not only did he host other content creators giving their verdict, but stars like Rosamund Pike, Madeleine Madden and Zoe Robins checked in, as did composer Lorne Balfe and casting director Kelly Valentine Hendry. For the world premiere in London this week, a handful of committed creators who had built up a wealth of videos - spoiler-free primers and spoiler-filled deep dives - were flown in. On the blue carpet, they were given parity with the traditional press and live-streamed and vlogged their interviews with the stars. More broadly, some prominent content creators were invited to host local events and screeners, as the marketers recognised their influence and expertise. These live events have also created a real-world beacon for fans who have not been able to attend the American conventions - allowing them to turn online relationships into real-world friendships.
5. It’s been fun! As content has trickled out, and fans have picked up clues and Easter eggs, the Tweeter of Chaos has lived up to their name, popping in to comment on random insights and to drop teasing, cryptic messages. When The Wheel of Time dropped one painterly set of character posters, they released the hi-res versions with hidden layers, which fans soon unlocked in Photoshop. They revealed magical ‘weaves’ that hint towards the characters’ fates.
6. The fandom has been taken seriously. As the premiere live streams were broadcast around the world, fans got to see the stars themselves thank the content creators for the resources they’d made. After all, if you want to get your head around the layers of a character that grows over 14 books, who better to consult than the people who have read the series dozens of times? Some of the stars, of their own volition, have been re-tweeting fan-created content and one star Madeleine Madden, has been known to drop suggestions to content creators and ask #twitteroftime to 'do its thing'.
In 2018, the marketing team started up a Twitter account (originally @WoTonPrime, now @TheWheelofTime) and their engagement started. Now it has over 104,000 followers. To give you an idea of the success, Amazon's other highest profile sci-fi and fantasy series to date, The Boys, has 260,600 Twitter followers after two seasons - while popular sci-fi show The Expanse, heading into its final season, has only 79,100.
There has been some disgruntlement among fans who favour other platforms like Instagram and Facebook that there hasn’t been the same level of focus or engagement with the communities there. Moreover, TikTok is a rather fresher frontier, picking up steam in recent months with creators like Kritter XD, Water and Shade and Ta’veren Tavern, who have been involved in the community for some time, experimenting with the platform, making memes and celebrating the comic aspects of the series. Equally, fans in some parts of the world with no big events have felt left out - though the presence of creators live-streaming their experiences has gone some way to make everyone feel included.
Amazon is now trying to encourage fans onto a platform called Gather.town, a metaversey platform with a cutesy 16-bit aesthetic. On Gather.town, users will be able to create Wheel of Time-themed avatars and interact with other fans in spaces that recreate iconic locations from the series.
Speaking to one fan, Becci, with whom I attended a special screening, this fan engagement has been well-received. “I think they’ve done really well by involving the existing fans early on. They know they can rely on us to share by word of mouth, and enabling us to join the build up, engaging by going on the fan shows (i.e. the Dusty Wheel Trailergaidon show) was very clever. It immediately creates goodwill between the existing fan community and the show, and to be honest it makes us more willing to forgive mistakes because we already trust the show runners.”
Bringing the Mainstream In
When it comes to marketing to non-book readers - those that might need coaxing into a world of pure magic and deep, complex culture and history - there’s a somewhat different marketing strategy. Most frequently, the show has been compared (somewhat inaccurately... but... whatever) to Game of Thrones. But the comparison is interesting from a marketing perspective. When Game of Thrones launched, fantasy was a hard sell. So grit and politics and violence came to the fore and the show was positioned as ‘not really fantasy, fantasy’. However, things have changed after a decade of Marvel movies, Frozen and blockbusting video games like The Witcher series. Audiences may be more open to unabashed magic, but in order to overcome the intimidating sense of overwhelming complexity, the Amazon Prime team has been carefully parcelling out short clips and explainers, breaking down terms like ‘Aes Sedai’ and ‘Shadowspawn’. As the launch has come closer, outdoor ads have taken the show into the real world - and the trailer has increasingly popped up in cinemas and on TV.
And, as with Game of Thrones, which led its initial marketing with its biggest star Sean Bean, Amazon Prime has been focusing on Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine. The idea of leading not with the Dragon Reborn but with the mysterious, glamorous ‘lady Gandalf figure’ is something that even publisher’s Tor realised was a smart move back in 1990. The original covers by Darrell K. Sweet features Moiraine on her elegant white steed, trotting against the moonlight with her warder Lan. There’s a large group of potential female fans who were turned off from the sexualised violence of Game of Thrones that Amazon Prime could draw in with Moiraine. Curiously, Moiraine is front and centre of the original cover of the series' first book - even back in the 1990s, publisher Tor knew that she was an irresistible hook, even though other characters grow in prominence as the story unfolds.
The diversity of the cast, both core and peripheral, is something that is part of the original text, though many readers might have missed it on their first read. However, the showrunners have brought that to the forefront - and it may well have a knock on effect when it comes to welcoming in new audiences who have been alienated from the fantasy genre before.
And, finally, there's been a fair bit of creativity at play when it comes to the design of the promotional material. Traditional fantasy imagery has been given a twist, so it signals very much what you're getting into but adding extra layers of intrigue. The marketing department has subtley woven symbols and thematic imagery into the posters, which pleases hardcore fans without spoiling important plot points. Case in point, the posters that show characters unravelling into 'threads', which mirrors the metaphors from the book that sees reality and time as being woven together from 'threads'.
Experience the Magic
Notably, instead of shying away from magic, Amazon has been leaning into it - or embracing the source as fans might say. And in a world currently devoid of ethereal powers, that means tapping into technology and innovation and building playful experiences. For the launch of the official trailer on YouTube, Amazon Prime launched a 360 video that placed the viewers in a mysterious chamber. The trailer played Easter eggs and eerie faces emerged from the bubbling tendrils of magic that surrounded the viewer, creating a rewatchability factor (as if fans haven’t been re-watching clips and teasers on a loop).
On the Amazon Prime Video platform itself, viewers can find an interactive map and timeline to familiarise themselves with the world, lore and characters of the Westlands. It’s a helpful spoiler-free primer for curious non-fans - and the interactive map is a digital twist on the world map, a genre staple found at the beginning of most self-respecting high fantasy books.
As the launch approaches, these interactive experiences have been brought into the physical world. In October, at the MCM Comic Convention in East London, Amazon Prime dominated the hall with an enormous stand bearing images of the series’ heroes. Within the space, attendees could try their hand channeling the mysterious, wispy ‘One Power’ magic used by Moiraine - thanks to a bit of augmented reality. Meanwhile in Lucca, Italy, a local comic store hosted a costume display allowing viewers to get up close with Rand’s sheepherder’s coat and Moiraine’s stylish navy glue garms. (To say clothing is a significant part of The Wheel of Time’s worldbuilding would be an enormous understatement.)
If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It
Along the way, Amazon has also been sure to make the most of its own platforms and ‘owned’ media. In some markets, Amazon packages have come with The Wheel of Time bookmarks, in others the boxes themselves have been printed with images of Moiraine. Amazon has made sure to leverage Twitch with events streamed on the platform in order to reach younger fans and gamers.
Opening the Waygates
In the week leading up to the launch, Amazon has amped up its mainstream advertising with outdoor executions popping up in major cities. In Stockholm, there’s a giant painted mural. In London, iconic red buses have been wrapped in grand, metallic serpents (representing the ouroboros of the Aes Sedai). In Madrid, holographic 3D stands have appeared in the subway. In Los Angeles a giant billboard featured a rotating ouroborous ring.
In London’s Piccadilly Circus, the marketing team launched a dizzying 3D animated billboard, created by Amplify, MPC and Amazon Studios, which sees Moiraine reach out and channel magic, as she fights a nightmarish, eyeless Fade. The billboard will also appear at New York City’s Big Kahuna in Times Square and Tokyo’s Cross Shinjuku Vision. It is the first time an anamorphic billboard has been used by an entertainment company to promote an entertainment series.
As the Amazon Prime team pushed The Wheel of Time to mainstream audiences, the fanbase has been both rewarded and leveraged as a marketing tool itself. High profile creators from within the fandom were flown to London to cover the premiere and the blue carpet, and packed fan screenings and events have been thrown around the world, across the US, Europe and Latin America, with a screening in Delhi too. To get an idea of the budget and excitement, Amazon Prime welcomed 50 ‘superfans’ to the Tower of London for a screening and interactive Twitch livestream [in the interest of transparency, this was an event I was able to attend thanks to a friend winning a pair of tickets], as well as hosting screenings in castles in France and Spain. The activations are ongoing - on Friday 19th, Twitch will be steaming an event live from New York.
All of this physical and digital engagement allows Amazon Prime to demonstrate to the on-the-fence that there is a mass of enthusiasm. That fantasy as a genre is neither niche nor nerdy - or if it is, you’re not alone. And it seems to be working. As a simple measure, on the global Amazon Prime YouTube channel, views of the initial teaser trailer are well over 11 million, and the official trailer has nearly 9 million views between its 360 version and normal version.
With such a complex and rich marketing strategy, the show has been given as great a chance as any new show has to succeed. It all now rests on the quality of the show itself. Most serialised shows take time to build up work of mouth, but fans are thankful that the second series has already started shooting, and Amazon has built a huge studio complex in the Czech Republic to house the production so the company has some faith in the show's longevity. As they say in the Westlands, ‘The wheel weaves as the wheel wills…’