Become One With the Game

Games Offer Brands a Unique Way to Be the Entertainment -- Not Just Sponsor It

By Published on .

Tim Zuckert
Tim Zuckert
For all their experimentation with social networks, user-generated content and online video, marketers seem content to view games as little more than another advertising platform. Yet with 72% of U.S. consumers playing games of one type or another, according to NPD Group's Online Gaming 2008 report, they've become far too pervasive for marketers and advertisers to ignore. The untapped potential of games lies in their ability to tell stories, thereby more closely linking brand mythology with game play and blurring the lines between brand and entertainment.

Brands must make themselves engaging, immersive, interactive and entertaining -- thereby providing something of value in exchange for attention. Brands such as Axe, Mini Cooper and Burger King have relied on episodic storytelling to create narratives that consumers want to be a part of. In the process, they've done more than just break through the clutter, or better position themselves in consumer's minds; they've converted us into more passionate brand advocates.
Traffic driver: Playable banner games give Orbitz a personality.
Traffic driver: Playable banner games give Orbitz a personality.

Games remain one of the biggest untapped opportunities for marketers, for the simple fact that they are, indeed, engaging, immersive, interactive and entertaining. Well-conceived games require users' active attention and enable them to drive the storyline as they experience a world that can be entirely of a brand's making. Games represent a unique means for brands to be the entertainment rather than just sponsor it.

So what do original games get you?

Juicing sales
If you're Burger King, you get year-over-year double-digit sales growth, as well as a marketing program that has generated significant revenue. After launching three original Xbox games during the 2006 holiday season, the brand reportedly sold more than 3.5 million units in just eight weeks, at a price of $3.99 each with the purchase of a value meal -- making them among the best-selling games that year.

Tim Zuckert is president-CEO of Shift Control Media, a branded-entertainment company. Previously, he was president of Omnicom Group's TracyLocke, an integrated marketing agency.
For Orbitz, playable banner-games routinely get the online travel site higher click-through, registration and conversion rates than any other ad unit -- making games a leading driver of traffic to the site, and an efficient source of customer acquisition. And in a commoditized category, in which consumers have only limited, need-driven interactions with brands, it helps give Orbitz a personality.

According to a 2007 study from Parks and Associates, 34% of U.S. adult internet users play online games weekly. The medium bests social networking and online video as the most popular form of online entertainment. The average age of those players is 33, and, according to the Entertainment Software Association, there are more women 18 and older playing games (31%) than young men under 17 (20%).

Much of this expansion is driven by the accessibility of casual games on the web, on new platforms such as Nintendo's Wii and on mobile devices. The U.S. game market is projected to grow to $13 billion by 2010, according to PriceWaterhouseCooper's 2006 Global Media Study -- more than feature-film box-office or music sales.

Meanwhile, in a 2007 online survey, Forrester Research reported that 62% of online consumers play video games each month, while only 11% of marketers employ game-based initiatives.

So what does this mean for marketers?

Missed opportunities
It demonstrates that there's a burgeoning mainstream audience increasingly receptive to branded entertainment in the form of original episodic games and willing to grant brands their attention in exchange for enjoyable experiences. So far this opportunity has been more or less squandered, as marketers have tended to deploy shallow advergames, or ad banners and product placement in existing console games -- each of which cater to either the marketer's or the consumer's agenda -- but not both.

What not to do
Games are not a panacea; they need to be implemented strategically. As with any marketing approach, objectives and performance expectations for game-based marketing need to be considered upfront. Here are some things to keep in mind:  n A game tends to work best as a component of an integrated campaign rather than an afterthought.
  1. Just as marketers wouldn't spend all their money to produce a TV spot and leave nothing for media, they shouldn't just drop a games onto their websites with little or no media support.

  2. Don't try to tell the whole brand story in your game, or you'll risk being didactic and boring.

  3. Games are a reflection of your brand; they should be original and entertaining first and foremost.
Advergames often deliver an unfulfilling play experience and also don't tend to reflect particularly well on the brand. And brand integration with existing console games reaches only a specific segment of the gaming population and doesn't allow the brand to drive the experience in a meaningful way.

Original episodic games can counteract this imbalance by delivering a high level of play and replay value to consumers while putting the brand at the center of the experience.

So does a brand need to be interesting or provocative in order to make a good game? Absolutely not. In the Orbitz example, basic games deployed and used well were effective at making a low-involvement category more interesting and engaging. And implemented properly, games could address many of the challenges facing financial-services companies -- building involvement, generating a prospect database, creating a sense of community, even delivering a positive brand halo.

It's surprising that companies such as Geico and Aflac, which have done a fine job creating brand affinity with their lovable gecko and duck mascots, have yet to tap into the popularity of games to enable consumers to more deeply engage with their brands. Are games any more esoteric than a wisecracking lizard or an insistent duck? Not at all. In fact, they're a great way to invite consumers to enter the character universe.

Innovation requires risk. Being among the first to jump into a new medium is never an easy proposition for a marketer, but games offer a new and distinctive opportunity for brands to tell their stories to consumers -- and, in the process, to make themselves truly immersive, interactive and entertaining.
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