Zynga's Not Playing Games When It Comes to Branding

Ex-Electronic Arts Exec Wants to 'Redefine Rntertainment' for 60 Million Daily Players -- and Advertisers Trying to Reach Them

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Jeff Karp, the former exec VP at gaming giant Electronic Arts, jumped to Zynga at the beginning of August, a sign that the closely watched startup, which recently filed to go public, is serious about branding.

Jeff Karp

As Zynga's head of marketing and revenue, Mr. Karp is charged with developing the company's branding and advertising efforts, a unique circumstance at the gaming company, which has grown at a virulent rate within Facebook's quickly expanding universe. And as to which company fueled the other remains a perennial debate; it's nonetheless clear that Zynga hopes to define itself beyond one venue.

As part of that effort, the 4-year-old company now features more than 19 games on four different platforms, including, most recently, Google+, the search titan's latest foray into social media and surest answer to Facebook yet. San Francisco-based Zynga is in an SEC-mandated quiet period prior to its public offering and declined to disclose its forward-looking ad budgets, but one indication of the company's brand ambitions can be found in Mr. Karp's previous duties at EA.

As head of revenue for EA's Games label, he managed a $1 billion business overseeing all product marketing, branding, public relations and finance for various titles, including "Bulletstorm" (from producer Epic), "Crysis" (Crytek), and the ever popular "Rock Band" (MTV /Harmonix).

The upstate New York native responded to some of Ad Age 's questions via email about the company's direction.

Ad Age : Is Zynga trying to be a company that is synonymous with a brand identity, say, like a Disney, or, is it more akin to Electronic Arts, which has some brand identity but operates more like a movie studio that churns out hits with their own franchise identities?

AGE: 46
COLLEGE: Arizona State University
HOMETOWN: Baldwin, N.Y.
FAVORITE GAME OF ALL TIME: "SSX." The game had a particular reality and great game play with a lot of depth. A 5-year-old could play the game and love it, but a more rabid gamer could also jump in and take a while to master it. That was one of the core games that helped launch the PS2.

Mr. Karp: It's important for us to develop the Zynga brand overall because we want to create a halo effect for our games and our products. When a current or potential player sees a Zynga game it should stand for something, it should be meaningful to them and set their expectations. It should stand for fun, play, entertainment and true connection. At the same time, we need to establish brands within Zynga that build and grow and speak to particular audiences. So, really, it's both.

I really believe that Zynga is redefining entertainment, though, so in that way it's unfair to compare us with anything in the past. We connect with 60 million daily active players each day, which is unprecedented.

Ad Age : Zynga has long advertised within Facebook to great effect. What is its media strategy moving forward?

We're going to communicate with players wherever they are. When you're speaking to 148 million unique users each month [on Facebook], there are several strategies to take into account. I'd say our biggest opportunity, though, is the ability we have to connect directly through the games we already have, the network we've created.

Cross-promotional marketing is a major component for us. We are also fortunate that a lot of our players do the heavy lifting on our behalf through virality and sharing -- whether that 's through recommendations or connecting with friends or the blog posts.

The key for us when we talk about brands entering our game is to make sure that those partnerships and promotions are informative, entertaining and educational for our players. Lucky for us we can be incredibly selective with the partnerships we move forward with, and we won't just shove in brand promos or branded virtual goods unless they provide real value to our players.

Ad Age : What other areas of development is Zynga heading into?

Mr. Karp: We have to be where our players are -- it's that simple. We know a lot of them are on Facebook, but there's a lot of platform diversity out there. You can see a few examples of how we've grown recently, both on Facebook and off. We recently launched Words With Friends, one of our most popular mobile games, on Facebook. We just launched Zynga Poker on Google+. Internationally, we're growing as well. We just built a partnership with Tencent in China to launch games on their platforms.

Ad Age : Zynga recently partnered with Google to populate some games within Google+. Will Google+ players have to buy credits as well? Or will it be entirely ad-driven?

Mr. Karp: All Zynga games are free, and people then decide if there are components of a game they'd like to pay for. If they want collectibles or rewards -- items that accelerate their game play -- then that option is always available to them, and that 's their choice. You can't find free entertainment elsewhere. Specifically on Google+, players have the opportunity to buy credits, as they do on other social platforms.

Ad Age : Zynga already has relationships with advertisers such as Coca-Cola, Amazon, McDonald's, Walmart. What have advertisers been asking for? What do you offer them?

Mr. Karp: We expect partnerships where we can extend our brand to audiences. We want to create content that doesn't interrupt our players. We're never going to disrupt game play -- it must be additive. But there's certainly opportunity. If you look at CityVille, there's a lot of real estate on each person's game board, and there's no reason that your city shouldn't represent who you are as a player and what you're interested in. A city with the brands you like, and where those brands actually help you in game, will enhance the reality of that city for you.

Ad Age : What's significant about Zynga? It's a social network, but it's also games.

Mr. Karp: I feel strongly about the opportunity at Zynga, and really one of the reasons I took this job is because my 80-year-old uncle isn't a gamer in any sense of the traditional word, but he loves "CityVille." He's in there every day, and he's sending me gifts left and right. He's in Canada and I'm in California, and now we're reconnected through "CityVille." It's enhanced our relationship (never mind the fact that he's beating the crap out of me in terms of levels). He's an architect and he's meticulous about the way he builds his city.

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