How Starbucks Went Viral From Game Of Thrones Product Placement Snafu


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And How Hollywood Branded Joined The Viral Moment

If you haven't heard, someone accidentally left a coffee cup on the set of Game of Thrones while filming, and it made an appearance in the final edit of the 4th episode - causing quite a stir among people talking and joking about the cup, to the chagrin of HBO. So many people assumed that it was a Starbucks cup (which we now know it wasn't - in fact Paper Cup in Belfast appears to hold that honor) that it became a viral conversation and earned Starbucks BILLIONS of media impressions.

And when I was interviewed about the blunder by Market Watch, then Business Insider, CNBC and Money... it turned into quite the viral story for our agency. As of today's blog posting, Hollywood Branded has earned over 3 billion media impressions at a tune of over $50 million media dollar value. Yep, it's a little unreal.  In this blog post, Hollywood Branded shares five of the most asked questions by reporters about Starbuck's perceived product placement appearance in Game of Thrones, and more details on the resulting worldwide PR phenomena. 

GOT Starbucks

Wins Are Coming

As soon as the 4th episode of Game of Thrones aired, besides discussing the all important question of who will claim the iron throne... was what cup of coffee they'll be enjoying while sitting on it.

The accidental coffee cup placement is a PR bonanza bigger than anything anyone expected.  Even our own agency has benefited massively.  The first article I was interviewed for by MarketWatch went viral.  Then came another interview opportunity with Business Insider, and another with CNBC which again went viral – each building upon the former. And the articles and videos keep coming. The comments I have provided, my name and Hollywood Branded, the agency I own, has now been published by over 300 media outlets. And it is still growing.

As of Wednesday morning, Hollywood Branded had received over a billion impressions online and TV around the world. That is crazy and pretty unheard of for an agency.  The PR value was over $14 million dollars and those numbers are so staggering that it is hard to fully grasp the impact.  Think about it – a billion media impressions?  All over the world, in literally every country, and that’s not even counting the social media impact. Or the TV impact, as we were not measuring that - or the print mentions from all corners of the world.

Critical Mention

3 days later, our agency reached over 3 billion media impressions to a tune of $55 million media value.  And it is still growing - and will continue to grow for some time. Because that is the beauty of the internet and pop culture.  It's a staggering amount of impressions.

Here's a Facebook video Money Magazine made about my comments on the placement.

But then let’s take a look at the metrics for Starbucks.  These aren’t made up numbers – they are provided by the PR analytics tool our agency subscribes to – Critical Mention, a very respected third party source. All I have to do is search key words and digital articles, radio and TV mentions are listed with the reach and a description.

Here are some quick numbers we pulled that will already be bigger by the time you're reading this:

  • Right now, the total online value is $3 billion dollar for Starbucks.
  • That is with a reach of 53 billion online news audience around the world – at least in the countries the software monitors language from, which is a lot.
  • And 1 billion TV impressions across the US on a national TV show. We don’t have TV tracking in other countries, but it is over another billion media value in the US alone. 
  • And there have been over 17,000 press clips worldwide and growing, globally.
  • Plus all the social media – hundreds of thousands of posts and shares. And word of mouth chatter. We aren’t even measuring either.  
  • And the print coverage we aren't tracking.

And most of the reporters asked me similar questions overall... which I'm going to share in more depth with you below.

product placement guide

1. How Much Brands Pay For Product Placement In A Movie Or TV Show

This is a topic I love because there is no definitive answer, which I know reporters don’t love.  Let's start off by discussing the difference between Brand Integration and Product Placement.


Brand Integration

“Brand integration” is where larger storyline content opportunities occur – as we are often paying to have the producers include certain messaging and specific logo shots. Fees can range anywhere from the tens of thousands to a million or even more, based on the brand and the content, and the distributor. 

Whether it is a global property, a production franchise that has existed for more than one season or one film, the audience size – all of this plays in to the cost. As does how the brand will be integrated into the scene.  But many productions aren’t allowed to take money, based on their ad sales divisions requiring media dollars first, or because their distribution platform just doesn’t. 

HBO and Starz are both like this.  For the majority of their partnerships right now, Netflix doesn’t allow fees to be paid either, although there are some exceptions. The reason these networks and SVOD platforms don’t like taking money is two-fold.  For one, they don’t want to offend their subscriber base – those people who are paying to have commercial free content.  Secondly, they don’t want to impact the creative freedom of the production.  They don’t want a brand to say – "oh, show my logo better, oh, include this messaging point." They want any brands that they do include – because all of them DO include product placement – to be more organic and natural.  So some TV content is just off limits to brands – despite having brands lining up to pay money for the brand integration.


Strategic Co-Promotions

Where those networks like to partner with brands are through strategic cross promotion – just like movies have embraced.  Like how Heineken partnered with James Bond.  Or Budweiser leveraged Game of Thrones.  There is just now getting to be crossover on HBO/Netflix for these types of partnerships – and TV networks are incredibly far behind the game here and missing out. 

The win here is that the brands use their advertising and retail space to give attention to the production.  The brand wins because the production is (hopefully) cool enough to lend some of its pop culture star dust to the brand.  And the production wins because now more people are driven to be aware of the production – and will watch (more eyeballs for TV networks who make money on advertising, more box office budget for filmmakers who make money on the backend, and more potential new subscribers for OTT platforms like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.) 


Product Placement

If so many production’s WON’T take money – or they need to be really sold in on the brand before considering it – agencies like ours have to be incredibly nimble and find ways to have the production benefit from the brand partnership to get the production to want to include the brand in the content.  

This is why we offer ongoing placement every month in targeted content by having our team canvas Hollywood and providing loan of the brand’s product to relevant targeted TV and film content.  Much like a PR agency, we do a lot of pitching, a lot of digging for opportunities, tons of relationship building, and get ‘earned media’ results from this – where the brand typically does not pay the production to have been featured in the content. 

We warehouse the product, send it out to a production, and then we get it back again to go out to another production.  We provide ROI metrics on the exposure and reporting, video sizzle reels for internal usage and social media content opportunities. Our retainer clients also get the opportunities for fee based deals presented to them.   And we price these programs based on the type of advertising purchased by the brand, as that will heavily factor into the types of opportunities we can secure - with or without additional fees paid to production.

Our programs are priced based on the life stage and advertising capability of the brand, as we love working with brands of all sizes, and helping even smaller brands get the opportunity to grow through the power of pop culture. 

We are like a PR agency for brands with the medium being TV and film.  Brands who do these programs get MASSIVE global exposure for really low spends, as we can often secure opportunities for them in content without additional dollars being paid.

For a brand, you have to be actively embracing product placement if you truly want to have the ‘magic’ that this marketing practice can bring you.  Sure, some brands will have wins by luck and buying their way in, but usually those are one hit wonders and not full blown strategies that are built out that pay out for years – or decades – to come. 

The producer possibly may get the money, but very often it is just the network or studio who are the ones getting the money – and that means the productions really could not care about fee-based deals. They just care about creating the best content they can. And free product helps offset their budgets.

The people who are actually in charge of bringing and building the story, the set, the props, the whole production to life – they don’t see a dime of fee deals. And these are the people who can make unbelievable things happen for a brand.  They have budgets they have to keep within to make the set look awesome, and brands who loan their product to the production help offset costs, where the dollars can be spent in other places, making the content even better.

On the flip side, productions who have lower budgets and are independent, who don’t have a distribution partner yet, are often SUPER hungry and eager for fee based brand deals – because for them, every dollar counts.  We typically do not encourage our clients to work with productions that are not fully financed however.  Too risky.  But if the production is an independent property, it has at least one cast member who is well recognized, and has financing, then totally worth it for a brand. Someone is going to pick it up, or it will be sold to Netflix or Amazon etc.  I like to tell productions that brand dollars should be the ‘icing on the cake’ not the cake (aka financing.)


2. How Do You Value The Massive Amount Of Free Advertising Starbucks Received?

According to the PR subscriptions service we subscribe to, Critical Mention, Starbucks and Game of Thrones has been mentioned over 17,000 times, to a value of over 4 billion dollars at this point, and reaching over 53 billion people. And it is still growing.

We're going to keep on running the metrics but it is unheard of to have had this happen. This is a once in a lifetime collision of opportunity for Starbucks. But really, as I mentioned before – this is just the tip of the iceberg because what isn’t being monitored or estimated is the word of mouth and social media on top of this. The exposure Starbucks got is worth more money, and reaching a wider audience, than they will ever be able to secure through PR again. Starbucks managed to be incorporated into the hottest pop culture phenomena of our year – the culminating season of Game of Thrones. 


Other brands did partnerships with HBO to celebrate this season – from Bellagio’s water show, to Bud Light and their Super Bowl ad, American Red Cross and their blood drive, Oreos, the can with no name Mountain Dew stunt… and all of those got attention. But none to the extent of the snafu of having the perceived Starbucks coffee cup appear on Games of Thrones.  In fact, check out our blog one of our team members wrote about Game of Thrones brand partnerships.

And if you REALLY love Game of Thrones - we have a TON of content on our blog - just go to and then use the search bar to look up "Game of Thrones" and you will be inundated with content - as our team LOVES LOVES LOVES the show.  So do I.


3. Why Everyone Assumed The Cup Was Starbucks

The fact is, Starbucks’ brand power dominates all other coffee houses.  No one can compete with the behemoth they have created – and that is because of the strong brand they have created.  Just like most other franchises, you know what you will be getting when you go to a Starbucks as there is consistency.  And there is a Starbucks literally everywhere, globally. 

Starbucks is no longer an American brand – and if nothing else, the press pick-up showcases that, with Russia, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Korea, France, Germany, Canada, the UK and literally every country on every continent around the globe picking up press mentions and spreading the conversation about the Game of Thrones blunder – headlined by it being Starbucks. 


And it just doesn’t even matter that it wasn’t a Starbucks cup.  They have made through their branding a massive impact of being THE coffee brand people think of if they see a single logo on the side of a coffee cup.  Starbucks has become Kleenex. Or Xerox. It’s a name for an entire category of coffee.

4. Starbucks And Product Placement

Starbucks is not typically known for doing a lot of paid placement in scripted content (well... they DID do Will & Grace) – except for reality television series like The Voice which we wrote about in this blog.  Anytime you see their cups in TV shows or movies, it is much like what we do for our client Coffee Beanery – free, based on relationships, and because we are often providing complimentary coffee beans for the production to have, as that can be an expensive item that adds up quickly, that productions like to get for free when possible.


And so many TV shows don’t actually allow paid product placement.  Of course this is not relevant as 1) it wasn’t Starbucks and 2) Games of Thrones would not be an appropriate canvas for an in show brand deal based on the time period.

5. How Much That Product Placement Of The Cup Would Have Cost Starbucks In Game Of Thrones

And the hot topic of the week – what made our agency go viral in the media, is the question of how much WOULD have that cup cost to place in a show like Game of Thrones if Starbucks HAD wanted to pay for a placement. And of course, if the show wasn’t set thousands of years ago in practically another world where dragons exist.  That comes down to a few factors.  For one, the audience size.  The bigger the audience reach, the more realistic it is that a brand is going to want to pay higher dollars for a placement. 

And of course there is the star factor.  Brands like being in content that has well known actors or characters to be associated with.  And then of course, it also comes down to the brand exposure opportunity. 

  • Is it a storyline? Well that will cost more.
  • Is it a location where the action takes place?  That means the production either has to build the set, or haul their people over to that location – which costs real money to do, and a brand is going to have to compensate for that.
  • Is it a prop? If the actor is touching it, driving it or wearing it – that can be a higher premium. 
  • Or is it a set dressing item?
  • Or signage? 

And it can get competitive.  Especially with franchise properties or TV series that have lasted more than one season.  It's important to understand that most brands don’t like taking chances.  And betting on a new film or TV show, that isn’t proven, can be a big leap of faith. Even though the dollars it would cost to participate are typically less than one or two national TV commercials, and always going to get a bigger reach than what those commercial spots would be.  So what I’m saying is that brands in a large part are entirely missing out when they won't take chances on unproven properties.

If you are looking at blockbuster films – which is what Game of Thrones is comparable to (or the Super Bowl) – from Marvel’s Black Panther, the Avengers to the DC Comics world of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman, or the Transformers franchise which gets most of their brand dollars from China now, or even Netflix’s House of Cards which in its heyday commanded a very pretty penny to participate – then it’s going to cost somewhere most probably from $250 thousand to $1 million or even more for a 'brand integration'.  But it also means taking in to consideration what character is with the product. Is the logo clear and identifiable.  How long the brand will be in the scene.  Is there an insert shot. Is the scene positive to the brand. And other factors we take in to consideration when brokering a deal.

Alternatively, it could not cost a thing to the brand because the production just needed the item, and it was organic to the scene – and their product placement agency knew the magic ways of relationship building to get the brand in the scene.  After all, we do it hundreds of times a year for our clients.

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Case Studies Cut Deeper Than Swords

Some examples of our bigger brand integration and product placement partnerships include:

  • Pilot Pen + Project Runway on Lifetime and now on Bravo, where Pilot provides the grand prize, and has their FriXion pens featured while contestants are sketching – and thanks to the pen’s unique capability, also erasing!
  • Bumble + Riverdale on both CW / Netflix across two different episodes, organically weaving Bumble app usage into the storyline plot of two different characters who were single and looking to date.
  • Lacoste + Queer Eye on Netflix, where the fab 5 do a fabulous makeover in a Lacoste retail store.
  • Bumble + Ellen on NBC where Ellen helps audience members redo their dating profiles
  • White Cloud + Live with Kelly and Ryan on ABC which we implemented across two different quarters to drive traffic to new retail stores.
  • Bumble + Book Club with Paramount Pictures, where Candice Bergin’s character learns to date again and find love.
  • Bumble + Jane The Virgin on CW where Lina shares that she met her fiancé on Bumble.
  • FLIR + Ozark on Netflix when an entire subplot of the show is about how to steal a FLIR marine thermal camera by two of the main characters to make some money.
  • Canadian Club + Mad Men on AMC which is perhaps my favorite brand partnership to talk to when meeting with agencies – as everyone wants to be Don Draper, and we made Canadian Club is drink of choice.  I can’t tell you how many agencies have a bottle of Canadian Club in their office just because of our partnership with the show across the seasons!


 A Lannister Always Blogs His Debts

Want to check out some (intentional) ways that Game of Thrones has collaborated with other brands? Check out these other blog posts we've written on branded partnerships with the show!

And if you want to learn more about product placement, these blogs will help you do that too:

Ready to learn the ins and outs of the world of product placement? Check out our free e-book that breaks down the process!

Product Placement & Co-Promotions 101 Guide