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How branding in games has come of age

04 November 2021
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This article first appeared on Advertising Week written by Jiri Bures, Executive Creative Director, EMEA, Imagination.

The world of gaming has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. It used to be a solitary pursuit, with the high cost of consoles a significant barrier to entry.

But with online connectivity, the rise of mobile gaming and the new free-to-play business models and multi-platform capabilities, the nature – and appeal – of gaming has extended.

The gaming industry now boasts three billion players globally with a value in excess of $175.8bn. Gamers are an older and more diverse demographic than often assumed – the average age of a US gamer is 35, and only 29% of the gamer population is under 18 years old. The American gamer population is 54% male and 46% female.

Gaming is now a hugely accessible, increasingly social, global phenomenon so it’s no surprise that brands have increasingly turned to this market to build their presence – for not only has the breadth and scale of players increased but so too have the brand opportunities.

Cross-platform, always-on

Where once gamers were restricted to set platforms – having bought an Xbox or Playstation console with some games exclusive to specific consoles – the market has been revolutionised allowing people to move between platforms and play together. The rise of sandbox games and gaming platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox means players have more freedom and creativity, with no set completion nor limit to the time spent on them – and have introduced a new world of brand options.

On these platforms, brand involvement can be far broader and interactive than it was in the past. With console games, brand presence was often restricted to product placement or static ads within a game such as FIFA stadium billboards, so it was much harder for a brand to play a meaningful role. In addition, the point to entry was expensive and arduous – invariably with a two-to-three-year game development cycle which isn’t a marketer’s typical timeframe.

Now more sophisticated brand experiences that are relatively efficient, cost-effective and connect to a large, pre-existing audience can be quickly built. These online games have passionate fan bases and because of this, the creators take great care in curating the platforms, with brands’ involvement heavily regulated and no ‘media space’ available for purchase. For brands, this means that a successful integration will be highly valued and appreciated by the audience. So, while the entry bar in terms of demands, relevance and creativity is very high, the reward for brands is high engagement.

There are some standout examples. Ferrari wasn’t the first brand involved with Fortnite but it was one of the best thought out.

For 3 – 4 weeks Fortnite included a series of challenges focused on a Ferrari, giving the luxury carmaker access to 300m active monthly users.

Engagement and length of time spent with a brand are the critical factors for brand experience and for brands in a gaming environment, sandbox games are a game-changer. In this case, the Fortnite player needed to drive the Ferrari to reach new levels or gain points within the game – so the Ferrari enabled them to progress through the game. The player could be spending 20 – 40 minutes in that vehicle – creating a much stronger connection with that vehicle than if it was a billboard on a wall.

In the case of Gucci in Roblox the luxury brand offered a new experience in a pre-existing game – to appeal to a younger generation, build brand equity, but also to generate revenue and create alternate revenue streams.

Players could buy Gucci products through the Roblox marketplace and it garnered attention when a handbag sold for 1.5 times the price of a physical handbag. This example demonstrated the potential brand equity and revenue from players building outfits for their digital alter ego. Historically, avatar or digital personas only had a relatively short shelf life but now these environments are open-ended, allowing players to constantly update their alter egos. As a result, people are more interested in buying assets that are unique or rare – people are willing to invest in themselves in the digital space just as they would in the physical one.

Beyond Gaming

Online games are beginning to be used as entertainment channels, with live events hosted within them. Ariana Grande and Travis Scott have had concerts in Fortnite, while Lil Nas X did the same in Roblox. And these auxiliary experiences on the platforms are drawing in newer audiences.

While hosting artists on these platforms makes logical sense, inserting brands risks feeling incongruous. But O2 avoided this by building its O2 arena in London in Fortnite thereby creating a concert experience, but initiated, paid for and supported by O2. Just as in the real world sponsorship is often the infrastructure and financial support for great entertainment and sporting experiences, now that’s being replicated in these virtual worlds.

Looking forward

One of the decisions for brands is whether to build their own games on a platform like Roblox or integrate in an existing one. For brands unable to commit the time or investment needed to create their own, they can instead use gaming as a media channel and test and learn in the process.

When a brand plugs into, or integrates, in a pre-existing platform or game, it can focus on its story, and how to deliver that story, without worrying about all the other elements that exist when creating something from scratch.

As the conversation increasingly centres on the metaverse, while many envision it as a wonderful utopia where we live in a virtual world, going about our daily lives experiencing different things, the best experiences are generally curated. So, unless you create and curate a metaverse, it can become incredibly boring and that’s why Decentraland could struggle to get traction – these free, open roam worlds can lack a point or purpose. This is why platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox are the best metaverses to date – and they have the ambition to grow and evolve into very rich environments that people – and by consequence, brands – will become more invested in.