|Photo: Robert Gallagher|
Mr. Stoller began his career as a media planner and developer for fashion, lifestyle and technology brands in the Arnell Group before co-founding Surge Interactive for the Omnicom Group-backed shop. In 2006 he joined Organic, where he is responsible for strategy for new-communication platforms and the Experience Lab initiative, where clients learn, through first-hand experiences, their customer's media-, technology- and content-consumption habits.
Madison & Vine caught him eating lunch at his desk at 4 p.m. to talk about how brands can work into the gaming world and appeal to gaming consumers (some of whom are so hard-core they actually listen to orchestral re-creations of game soundtracks).
Why is the gaming market a place where brands should be? "We have lots of clients that are interested in video-game-based marketing, whether it is in-game integration or how you market alongside video-game culture. The business is just so big. When you start looking at the casual game market entering the home as well, it gets even bigger. Casual games have a long-standing appeal to a different type of market. A hard-core gamer would be somebody sitting on their couch, staying up all night playing 'Gears of War' or 'Halo.' A casual gamer could be a soccer mom, who between 10 and 12 o'clock she's playing 'Bejeweled' off a website, or somebody who's playing an online version of Sudoku.
"Now what's happening is all of these consoles have this great online connectivity with games that could be downloaded directly to the console. The funny thing is, you could go to some people's homes where they have the state-of-the-art XBox 360. Maybe the child is playing a game they bought at a store for $60, like 'Gears of War,' but a mom might be playing 'Bejewled' in the middle of the day for $6."
How did you first figure out how brands can enter into this space? "In 2001, myself and Jeff Bell [former corporate VP-global marketing] at DaimlerChrysler, we put together this gaming strategy for the Chrysler brands. We identified gaming as a true threat to casual time, to personal time. It was certainly taking away from mainstream media. ... We looked at the marketplace and we got an understanding as to what was the video-game experience about, where is it going to go and how can Daimler and its brands have an interesting role in it. Cultural relevance was important to us -- for example would it be appealing to Jeep to be seen by the same eyes that are looking at brands like Swatch, Nokia, Quiksilver? It was another opportunity for us, because offline we were doing that with sponsored events. If we were doing Jeep and the X-Games, why couldn't we be with the same group of brands in the virtual environments and video games?"
How do you make it culturally relevant? "The philosophy was always build the game, not embed the game. The reality is that people hate it when you just bombard them with advertising. When you are asking someone to pay $59.99 for a video game now ... and then start pasting ads in games and appearing in a nonrelevant way, that can be a consumer turnoff. But we knew that that online connectivity was going to be a huge bonus and consumer-generated media would be a big bonus.
"We did a program in 2003 with Activision and Jeep for 'Tony Hawk Underground 2.' What was great about it was that the game had online connectivity to download additional skate parks to make the game longer. We figured out that there are people out there who think that they can design skate parks that are just as good as the people who make the game. So let's give them a system where they can upload their own parks, submit them to a contest to win a Jeep and then anybody who played the game would reap the ultimate reward because they were downloading more and more levels of the game. That, to me, is a great program because Jeep is an advertiser, they have a role in the game, but they are also extending the game, they're not ruining the game."
Where are the opportunities today for brands to reach out to the gaming audience? "Games come out now and there's huge noise and excitement about the next flagship game of the quarter. Sept. 25 is the launch date of 'Halo 3,' which will probably be one of the biggest games of the year. Between now and Sept. 25, there will probably be lots of opportunities to allow people to participate in that game. There's a public beta of the game that went live [recently] as well. How can a brand do something where it enables people an opportunity to learn a little bit more about 'Halo' and provide people the chance to play a little more 'Halo'? For me, those are great opportunities.
"If I can become an enabler and to allow people to learn more about a game and get more excited about a game and perhaps make a better consumer decision about buying a game, I think I'm fulfilling a much better role than a traditional advertiser. I think I can deliver what is perceived to be a more comprehensive message because I am giving something back.
"Discovery Channel had a great example of this with 'Gears of War.' They promoted their show 'Future Weapons' at the same time they were distributing additional content for 'Gears of War.' That's the kind of stuff that is a catalyst for consumers."
Are you saying that all the real-time in-game billboards just won't work? "The reality is that gamers will create more affinity between a brand that supports a game than one that just shows up on a billboard in a game. Although, for some brands that's perfect. If you are Taco Bell or Hot Pockets -- brands that have strong associations with gamers -- it's great for you to be showing up in the game because chances are they are going to reach for you. It's a much more short-term, synapse-based purchase. For longer-term purchase, it won't work. The in-game site is wonderful for movies. It's great for Thursday nights when you are trying to get people to think about their weekend plans. They aren't watching must-see TV anymore. Now it's must-play-game, so if you can start showing up on all the billboards inside a video game like 'Crackdown,' the game not only feels more real-time, but the consumers could be compelled to consider it."