My sense is that brand managers are approaching games in the wrong way. A few years ago they were all into creating virtual worlds but that didn’t really work out. More recently they went through a phase of creating social games, but again no luck. Now they’re keen to commission digital agencies or game developers to create gamified sites or software for brands, which will inevitably become coupon schemes, badges and leader boards.
The vast majority of these projects are utter failures because they end up creating vapid digital services with no soul. The ones that do succeed often do so accidentally (for example, because they were unexpectedly fun). Games are a cultural product, and like any other culture there is a line where commercial relationships become nakedly self-serving, and no customer finds that sexy.
Perhaps the branding industry should consider branding games rather than gamifying brands instead, if only for the reason that it’s more likely to work.
The idea of having an engaged relationship with a brand is normal. We all do it in many ways every day. Brand managers always want their relationship to be of the highest quality engagement and for users to become more than customers, but participants and even evangelists.
One tactic is to achieve awareness. If potential customers have never heard of you then there is no chance of a relationship. So the brand works to be visible. They run TV ads, sponsor sports events and otherwise seek to get markets to know their name.
Another is endorsement such as by celebrities, team sponsorship, product placement and so on. The brand owner tries to get some of David Beckham’s cool to rub off, get Keanu Reeves to use their phone, be seen as a supporter of a worthy cause like environmentalism.
Yet another tactic is the creation of something cool. An ad campaign like The Most Interesting Man in the World (for Dos Equis, a beer) is an example, where the gift of humour offsets the fact that it is an advertisement.
Then there is a fourth tactic, where the brand wants to have a conversation. This is where social media marketing and tribe building all try to pitch their tent. Authenticity plays a crucial role at this level, as does permission. The brands that get it right become significant forces.
The four tactics above keep the relationship between customer and vendor pretty clear. Whether it’s a poster campaign, a mild product placement in a favoured TV show or a short film like some of the epic Guinness commercials of the 90s, the viewer understands that the vendor is paying for your attention, and in return offering something neat.
When brand managers decide to get some of that game stuff, however, they seem to become bewitched by some notion of a fifth tactic: the one where they can transport the player into their world.
Virtual worlds, meta-games, games and gamified applications want players to come into their cool world, play in it, and have a conversation closely related to the brand. So they create places in Second Life, alternate reality games, browser based massive multiplayer games and educational social games.
Interaction, education, inspiring players to think of the brand well and even desire it are all a part of the ideas that drive this sort of thinking. Brands fall in love with projects which are supposed to inspire an idea, or align with customers, or give them that extra layer of positive relationship.
It all sounds amazing, but in practise it’s duplicitous. Not only does it have no soul, it’s obvious that it has no soul. So players show up but they’re only really there for the reward. They don’t actually want to socialise in Burger King World, but they do want free burger vouchers. So they might play along for a little while, but nobody’s really fooled.
Go Back One Step
No brand tries to make a movie set in its world (unless you count movies of books), nor albums for its product because the brand manager knows it would become a laughing stock. Even when you hear a character in a TV show utter what is obviously a paid-for line (“I’ll upload this to my SkyDrive!” is one that I heard recently in an episode of Chuck), eyes collectively roll all around the world.
There’s a division, however grey, between where commerce should end and art should begin and viewers know that. For some reason people who work in brands regard games differently, but I want to urge them to go back to what they know. Rather than treat games as some sort of fantasy island where dreams come true because people really do believe in your corporate rationale, think of a game like a venue.
What would you do at a sporting event? How would you smartly product place in Chuck (hint: not with SkyDrive lines)? Rather than worrying overly about how the brand experience is supposed to be integrated, what’s wrong with having the same relationship with a game as you do with David Beckham?
The fear with games is often that since they have settings in many worlds, this limits brand opportunities. And yet plenty of brands happily sponsor television shows that have little to do with their product. They will work to find a way to support it well, such as Talk Talk’s sponsorship of the X-Factor. Why can’t similar relationships be found for games?
The relationship between brands and games is often dysfunctional because brands don’t respect the game maker and dictate what he will make and how he will make it. There are plenty of agencies who will take on that kind of work and do their best with it, but the brief is inherently weak. So we end up with projects like the £2.8m ($4m) spent on a browser MMO to promote road safety.
Just because people are interacting with it doesn’t mean that they’ve taken leave of their senses. If, like Talk Talk and the X-Factor, you wrapped a game’s levels in some discrete branding then would anyone mind? Particularly if you made a social use of it, no. Does anyone mind that IBM get to put their logo by the score charts during the Wimbledon final? No. Would they mind if, while playing Rage, you had to drink Coco Cola for health? Yes, that’s duplicity.
Players understand, much as viewers or listeners do, where the division between commerce and art is, and it’s at the point where the brand tries to force engagement. It’s tokenism and fake conversations, soulless and pointless. So don’t gamify. Brandify.
If gamification is trying to engage customers by making them jump through hoops for prizes, then brandification would be the opposite. Brandification (or some better term) is sponsoring games as they are with smart techniques learned from Beckham and Dos Equis. A game is just real estate after all. You should think of it no differently than endorsing sports or sponsoring shows.
There are plenty of independent game developers who want to make great games and would welcome a brand relationship and its sponsorship if it didn’t significantly affect the game they wanted to make. Just like any other kind of creative project. Let the game maker do his thing, and who knows what kinds of positive upside you could have.
Imagine a brand had managed to get a great relationship going with Rovio and paid for Angry Birds. Imagine how far that would have taken that brand. But also, imagine what would have happened had the brand dictated the game. Dead on arrival every time.
Games, like any cultural product, are amenable to a relationship. The right relationship that is.
(Today’s image is Morgan Spurlock from POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Which I heartily endorse.)