Daenerys. Cersei. Arya. Sansa. With the exception of Jon Snow and a few dragons, the final season of Game of Thrones really is all about the women. Their rise to power, despite literally deadly odds, demands a close look at what underlies their survival and dominance. These women arguably emerged as leaders largely because they’ve all adhered to the three cardinal rules of a winning personal and political brand — strong identity, trusted credibility, and visible positioning.
Part of the allure of the HBO juggernaut, and what makes fans so obsessed, is that the journeys of all these women have unfolded in notably unexpected ways that speak to the nuances of power play. The only reason any of them made it as far as they have is because they’ve all harnessed the strengths of their brands to buoy them to leadership positions. However ruthless her methods, Cersei Lannister has shown unparalleled consistency and relentless legacy-building ("House of Lannister") to be her strongest power-building assets, while Daenerys has made sure her brand name is saturated throughout the kingdom. Arya’s appeal is that she is always true to her identity and mission, and Sansa’s strength is that she owns her femininity along with her power, not in spite of it. But now we are starting to see the cracks as well as the shifts: Daenerys is succumbing to the paranoia and distrust of her ranks that often comes with power, while Arya is coming into her own as a precocious woman of action.
We are now seeing these female characters, who have faced untold adversity over the course of eight seasons, grapple with power in their emerging roles and responsibilities as political figures. As noted, Cersei has been the most reliable character throughout. She always leverages the brand heritage of her family (“a Lannister always pays [her] debts”), and now she is leaning into that in her efforts to make new allies and hold on to power and influence. The opposite could be said of Daenerys, who started from nothing but has built credibility with titles that evoke progressive, forward-thinking, and inclusive ideals like “Mother of Dragons,” “Breaker of Chains,” and “First of Her Name.” She is at a loyalty crossroads with her advisors (the obliterated Dothraki, for example, and Tyrion Lannister) and (spoiler alert) now faces an urgent crisis of legitimacy. Who deserves the Iron Throne, and who can seize it as her own?
If Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that strategy is not all you need to win — you need a strong brand identity.
Arya and Sansa Stark have also ascended because they’ve played a political long game that aligns with their evolving personas. For instance, Arya's brand is synonymous with defense — fighting and righteous revenge are her sole focus, and she will stop at nothing to fight for justice. Meanwhile, Sansa's strategy is to be an effective leader to whom people look for guidance. She's reliable and the only prominent woman who has been preparing for winter since the beginning.
But now, as their visibility and potential for real power rise, so do the pitfalls and conflicts that come with that public exposure — especially for women. Sound familiar?
As the race for 2020 heats up and the field is more crowded with women than ever, GoT can be seen as a fiction-based lesson in what’s to come (symbolically) in this election. Like the prominent women of Westeros, our female Democratic candidates face particular public scrutiny that picks apart not only their biographies but also pits their personal stories against the narrative of who they claim to be and the people they represent. For instance, much like Cersei, Sen. Kamala Harris knows the value of leveraging legacy and brand heritage as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, which now seems at odds with her progressive commitment to criminal justice reform. Or take Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has a similar reputation as an aggressive prosecutor, but has also been strategic throughout her career in winning over Republican voters (a skill that Cersei has notably not been able to master). Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who is the most brand-consistent in both message and image — will need to position herself (i.e. rebrand) to appeal to a broader base if she’s going to be a contender in this election. Both she and Dany started as women for the people. In order to win, both need to maintain their brand personalities ("Breaker of Chains") to build and engage a loyal following. Finally, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is taking a calculated risk in strengthening her brand by running a "feminist" campaign. Will she be able to successfully sell herself as both feminine and brave, like Sansa?
Delving into the brand journeys of the GoT women is not just an exercise in fandom, but a helpful way to think about what we as “viewers” of this election should be looking for in both a candidate and the overall journey of their character and image. Branding is crucial, because it defines and communicates a message to those who buy in, and provides lessons on those who don’t for the purposes of building relationships. GoT has fans rapt this final season because we aren’t sure who to align ourselves with: These women are more public-facing than ever, and the scrutiny is real both on and off the screen (check out Twitter on Sunday nights and Monday mornings for literally thousands of examples of this scrutiny). The same could be said of the Democratic women who, with the exception of Warren, have had a muted or short-lived time on the national stage.
If GoT has taught us anything, it’s that strategy is not all you need to win — you need a strong brand identity that communicates your brand proposition (i.e. message, identity, and associations). The women of 2020 are no different. It would be silly and useless to make one-to-one comparisons of 2020 candidates to GoT characters, but it’s safe to say that art imitates life (and the reverse). It’s essential for both viewers of the show and voters in the election to see through the brand-making that has happened over the course of these women’s lifetimes, which has made them who they are today. Men still have the luxury of throwing their hat in the ring, more or less. Women, on the other hand, still require a strong narrative that endures before and beyond who they are in that moment.
It’s no coincidence that the final season of Game of Thrones — where all but one male contender has fallen — is a political throwdown amongst the women. There has never been a time in history when more American women have run for political office (529 alone in 2018) and have had as much access to power as they do now. There are a record number of women coming for our own Iron Throne, the White House, in 2020: What can the women running for president (or women in leadership in general) learn from the GoT women in power whose strategies ultimately left them the only ones standing in the game? What can the female candidates do to better compete in this diverse field? And most importantly, what do we as “viewers” of this primary need to look for in a leader? The future of our own Seven Realms — the United States — depends on it.
Dr. Talaya Waller is a personal branding consultant, researcher, and author of upcoming book Personal Brand Management: Marketing Human Value. The views expressed are her own.