The Queen’s Gambit Phenomenon. What’s it All About?
Bear with me, because this article is going to sound a bit like a TV and movie review. I promise I’m going somewhere with this and will make a connection between viral trends and entrepreneurship.
I hope I’m not being too bold in assuming you’ve heard about Netflix’s incredibly popular miniseries The Queen’s Gambit.
In case you haven’t seen The Queen’s Gambit, it’s about a young girl who discovers she is a chess prodigy. Her natural skill, when honed, to make her one of the best chess players in the world.
During the course of the show, the main character, Beth Harmon, learns and grows as a spectacular chess player. She also navigates the vicissitudes of her own unique journey in life. It’s a life replete with challenges. They include being sent to an orphanage, addiction, and the tumultuousness of friendships and romance.
I also hope I’m not being presumptuous in assuming you’ve seen it mentioned this show has had some effect on people. I certainly hope so, it’s a very popular viral trend. What I’m referring to is the greatly increased interest in chess that has followed the show’s debut. It stands to reason board games of all kinds increased in popularity due to COVID. Chess was no exception. But it’s impossible to deny the effect the show has had on public interest in chess. This is particularly noticeable in young girls and women. Traditionally, they’ve been one of chess’s smallest demographics.
Sometimes we strive to not leave the fictional world behind completely as we arise from our couches. Or pre-COVID, movie theatre seats. Fiction, just like any real story that serves as a source of profound inspiration, can spark a strong desire to alter the trajectory of one’s life. It can catalyze a motivation to become something greater than we previously thought we could be.
The Queen’s Gambit is an Excellent Example of This
The world of chess has traditionally been a man’s world. The names of the chess greats that come to mind are Bobby Fischer, Gary Kasparov, and Magnus Carlsen, to name a few. As far as I know, a woman has never been ranked as the greatest chess player in the world.
The Queen’s Gambit sparked a viral trend by turning the expectation of male dominance in the chess domain on its head. The result is it has engendered a strong desire in young girls and women around the world to push boundaries and stand out in a similar way to its protagonist. All it did was appeal to the innate desire to be something great that all of humanity shares.
It’s not a story of a chess prodigy so much as it’s a story about exceptionalism in general. Beth is clearly exceptional in many ways. She’s undeniably world class at her passion so naturally. She also broke barriers and is incongruous with the world she inhabits. Though it all, she remains fearless enough to be herself.
How the Queen’s Gambit Really Amplifies a Flight of Fancy Into a Full Viral Trend
The Queen’s gambit goes beyond normalizing being odd and exceptional, it glamorizes it, and that resonates very effectively with people. This is what viral trends are made of.
Beth is an oddity in addition to a wunderkind, and this is something she struggles with. She has unusual mannerisms. She often has trouble connecting with people. This includes her peers and men she has romantic attachments to.
Above all else Beth is a true trailblazer. She’s set very apart from the world she inhabits. On some level, this is something most people can relate to. As I’ve mentioned before, society expects conformity, and by extension, often denies us the ability to express our individuality.
Given how much her struggles and idiosyncrasies can remind viewers of their own, and what she goes on to accomplish, it’s not hard to understand why she is an effective role model.
Early on in the series, Beth’s original chess teacher, the janitor at the orphanage says to her, “You’re astounding”.
Beth has the characteristic of being a young girl in common with every young girl across the world, obviously. This allows young girls who watch the show to see themselves in her and as they feel the desire to be told they’re astounding as well, come to believe, thanks to the effective storytelling of the show, it is possible for them to be astounding if they’re determined enough to do something astounding.
There’s a very sage lesson in the The Queen’s Gambit phenomenon for entrepreneurs, which I’ll come back to in a bit.
This is Not the First Time A Viral Trend Was Spawned By On-Screen Media
For many slightly older folks, and some younger ones who are a fan of older movies, you may recall a movie from the 80’s called Splash, starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah and set in New York City. For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s about a man, Tom Hanks, falling in love with a mermaid, Daryl Hannah.
In one scene, Tom Hanks’ character asks the mermaid (whose fishtail has turned into legs after she came onto dry land) what her name is, to which she doesn’t have a ready answer (because mermaid names are impossible for humans to understand, or something like that).
So, she looks up at a street sign and sees Madison Avenue, and answers Hanks’ question with “Madison”, to which an incredulous Hanks’ replies, “that’s not a real name”, which is unsurprising, since at the time, that was not a common name.
According to the book Freakonomics, this scene set off a viral trend in the United States. It led to a noticeable increase in baby girls being named Madison. According to the Social Security Administration, the name “Madison” was the 216th most popular name in the United States for girls in 1990. Madison was the 29th most popular name for girls in 1995. It finally became 3rd most popular name for girls in 2000. In 2005, the name finally cracked the top 50 most popular girls’ names in the United Kingdom. Articles in British newspapers credit the film for the name’s popularization.
What happened with the scene in Splash is similar to what has happened with The Queen’s Gambit. A work of fiction has inspired behavior in a great deal of people. The fantastical, and highly desired idea of a romance so powerful it cuts across worlds conveyed through effective storytelling has compelled people to act in a way that allowed them to pursue their fantasy in reality.
So, What’s the Point?
Art like the Queen’s Gambit and Splash create the viral trends I’ve described because of how it speaks to us, for lack of a better way to put it. We see in these stories who we are, oddball individuals for instance, and what we want to become, exceptional or a star crossed lover, and thus in them we see something resembling a path to follow to the outcomes we desire.
Art can evoke any of our emotions and often does so for many of them at once. That’s kind of the point, to convey elements of the human experience through emotional expression. Through art we leave behind the mundanity of life and enter the world of the fantastical, like one with mermaids and underwater kingdoms.
And while we can’t remain in such a world, we can continue to dwell in it somewhat by holding on to the pieces of it that we can, which I think is why we saw so many couples, entranced by the fanciful romance of Splash, name their daughters Madison, a first name previously almost unheard of.
Similarly, it’s why so many young girls, who previously had not cared for and known little about chess, now pursue an avid interest in it.
We see in stories a way to grow towards being the people we want to be and living the lives we want to live.
What Do Viral Trends Like These Mean For Entrepreneurs?
As the above examples demonstrate, storytelling is a powerful medium for connecting with your audience.
Entrepreneurs need to become good storytellers to relate the value of what they’re making to their intended customers.
An effective marketing message will be a story about someone who uses the business’s product or service, and how they’re very much like someone from the business’s intended audience. It will make customers not only see the person they are as a natural user of the business’s offering, but who they want to become through the use of those offerings.
Ultimately, entrepreneurs need to sell the idea that a customer will become their idealized self, at least in a certain sense, through the use of a company’s product or service.
JTBD posits that there is a “job-to-be-done”, hence the name, underlying the obvious purpose of a purchase. As the JTBD link discusses, a restaurant discovered most of its milkshakes were being sold in the morning. Their customers said they needed something relatively tidy to eat. They wanted something easy to consume while driving, unlike a donut or bagel, that could stave off hunger until lunch.
The working assumption before discovering this was that flavor or texture were the reasons people bought milkshakes. No one really supposed they were being bought in the morning. Likewise, no one supposed they were being bought for such utilitarian reasons.
By digging deeper than surface level and intuitive reasons as to why people bought milkshakes, the restaurant was able to get a much better idea of what customers want from milkshakes. Naturally they got better at marketing them.
It’s an Applicable Lesson for Every Industry
I’ve sold SaaS solutions for most of my career. A great example of JTBD in an entirely different industry from fast food would be in cyber security. Cyber security professionals ostensibly buy alerting solutions for more and better alerts of suspicious behavior to prevent hacks. But the real reason goes deeper than that.
They want to stave off hacks to protect their company from harm. The avoidance of harm is a first principle, something that cannot be further reduced. I’ll get into that concept another time. It’s the fact that hacks can harm or even destroy businesses that lead companies to buy cyber security solutions rather than the functions they offer, like better alerting.
Cyber security professionals also want to protect themselves from harm, namely, losing their jobs if and when a breach occurs. So, when you sell an alerting solution to a cyber security professional, it’s not imperative you demonstrate the alerting features so much as you show how your solution will complete the job they need done, protect the company from harm, and protect themselves.
I’m Oversimplifying, But I think You Get the Point
I think for many businesses, this principle can be taken a step further. Buying a milkshake may not make you Superman. But there are many products and services that I think can affect people similarly to The Queen’s Gambit. Just gotta get the messaging right.
Let’s go back to cyber security for a moment. It is of course important that companies are not hacked and the people responsible for making that so keep their jobs. But, there are also more strictly positive externalities of doing so.
Cyber security professionals who demonstrate they are responsible for staving off breaches can vaunt themselves to expert, almost “rock star” status in their field and reap the according benefits, like promotions.
So, with that in mind, if you can strike the same chord as The Queen’s Gambit or Splash and convince cyber security professionals, or whoever your intended customer base is, your solution will make them into rock stars, or chess champions, you can expect the line of customers for your business to extend out of the figurative or literal doors.
A lot of this may seem obvious, and if it does, you probably need to check your own bias. I think many obvious conclusions only appear so in hindsight. If you think about why someone buys something, like shampoo for instance, and continue to explore why after your initial reaction, you’ll eventually find a much deeper reason that isn’t wasn’t as obvious as clean hair.
Last but not least, my predictable call to action. What would any of my posts be without imploring you, the reader, to come weigh in and share your thoughts?