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Reach, relevance and respect: Understanding the gaming opportunity for brands

Gaming is a mainstream marketing platform for brands, but marketers need to ensure they reflect and respect the gaming ecosystems they appear in.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“People have been gaming for a long time, but the pandemic has given more insights into how people are spending their free time.” Verta Maloney, Co-Founder and Chief Community Officer at the *gameHERs is reflecting on the growth of gaming in the post-pandemic world. Physically restricted, the opportunity for gamers to escape the confines of their homes and the restrictions of the pandemic to instead travel to new virtual worlds and connect with friends has been in the spotlight. While for parents, the conflicting desire for their children to connect and belong lives side by side with the perennial cry of, ‘Please come off Fortnite and do your homework.’

But it’s not just parents who are grappling with the new. Many marketers are also ‘newbs’ when it comes to capitalising on the power of gaming. For while the industry has espoused the power of gaming for some time, many brands have sat on the side lines. This challenge was discussed on the UK House stage at SXSW on the power of blurring online and physical worlds. A wide-ranging panel discussion hosted by the Wall Street Journal’s Katie Deighton explored the ways in which brands are realising the power of gaming and virtual worlds as a media channel of the future.

The most successful brands marry a truth about the product with a truth about how the game is played. They are part of the party.

Martin Beverley

Brands, ready up

Martin Beverley, Chief Strategy Officer at adam&eveDDB, underlined the fact that a growing number of brands are looking to invest in gaming because it delivers both cachet and reach. Yet this doesn’t automatically equate to success. “The most successful brands marry a truth about the product with a truth about how the game is played. They are part of the party,” he explained.

According to Beverley, the best examples of brands entering the gaming world are those which understand what that gaming ecosystem is about. They don’t simply interrupt, they add value.

He pointed to the example of the Nike Air Jordan in Fortnite, a collaboration which saw the creation of a themed game as well as Jordan outfits and Air Jordan shoes. It’s a collaboration that Beverley noted played to the mechanics of the game, namely the desire to show-off.

Uber Eats Twitch partnerships are based on the fact that gamers often find themselves too busy to cook, as well as gamifying the experience with special discounts linked to game performance. Fast Food brand Wendy’s, which has a ‘never stop gaming menu’, successfully became part of Fortnite’s new game mode ‘Food Fight’ by destroying in-game freezers to underline its core brand message, ‘Fresh, never frozen beef’.

New brand ecosystems

Platforms like Fortnite have become cultural hubs in their own right with distinctive behaviours, characters and attitude. But the vast gaming ecosystems themselves are built not with brands in mind but with the focus on attracting and retaining a player’s attention. David Jackson VP Brand at EA Sports, Electronic Arts, explained: “There are many great games out there but they’re not all readily available to marketers."

FIFA is a vast media ecosystem in its own right and one that is perhaps most easily understood by marketers as some of the branding opportunities have already been established in the real world. You don’t need to understand who Peely is to know how shirt sponsorships and stadium perimeter ads work. Jackson highlights the fact that these players exist in the real world, delivering authenticity within the game.

Jackson draws attention to the scale of the platform - over eight billion games of FIFA have been played equating to 152,000 years of football - as well as the social interaction that comes with the community.

Gaming has the potential to be more open and democratic. But it's a microcosm of the actual world. What we see play out in this space we see elsewhere.

Verta Maloney

Beyond pay to play 

Adam Whyte, ex-professional gamer and Founder of Edge pointed to the need for brands to focus on audiences. He explained: “It’s not the game titles you need to know, it’s the data set of audiences behind those games.”

Whyte warned that brands have fundamentally misunderstood both gaming and influencer marketing. He noted: “A lot of brand managers are paying for reach and views because they are metrics that aren't going to get you fired.”

Then, of course there are issues surrounding brand safety and the mental health of players. The point around safety is something that EA’s Jackson is “aggressive towards progress” within.

As he explains, methodologies for abuse are “regularly evolving”. But within vast and fast-moving communities, people will always find a way to express abhorrent views. “We established the positive play charter and, in any community, you need to have rules,” he adds.

Brand safety and brand security 

Verta Maloney takes a nuanced approach to brand safety, as she believes, like many challenges in the gaming world and beyond, that it is not black and white. “Safety is subjective,” she explains, a fact which she believes makes focusing on “brand security” more important.

At the heart of this approach is ensuring you have a diverse team. “Gaming has the potential to be more open and democratic. But it's a microcosm of the actual world. What we see play out in this space we see elsewhere,” she says.

Maloney explains that she has still been in situations where people are surprised that women are gaming despite data showing in some games, almost half of players are women. “It’s not just a pink headset,” she adds.

Gaming is by no means a new phenomenon, yet as Maloney shares, the opportunity for players to connect and control is particularly powerful in the current climate. But brands must beware of believing they can control the narrative when it comes to gaming. Progressive marketers recognise that they must become part of the story and respect the cultural ecosystems of the games they partner with.

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Gaming