It's in the Game: Bringing Your Brand Into Virtual Play

4 tips for engaging audiences on their terms

When Clotaire Rapaille, the famed cultural anthropologist and author of The Culture Code was asked by Frito-Lay to decode the meaning of Doritos in our lives over a decade ago, he landed on the word play. Quite suiting for a chip shaped like a giant play button and the snack of choice for throngs of teens with a penchant for playing video games. But consumers' relationship with brands and play has evolved considerably since that declaration, and so has the gaming industry. Now, it seems, every brand has a right to play.

Marketers have gotten wise to the fact that play is big business—specifically, gaming has moved out of the basement and into the boardroom. Just check Amazon's $970 million receipt for Twitch, or the rise of U.S. colleges offering esports scholarships for video gamers. Even here in Canada, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) estimates that 23 million of us are gamers—that's a lot of Doritos eaters.

With gameplay being this pervasive, it's not surprising that brands big and small are getting in on the action and doing so in meaningful ways, increasingly outside the traditional in-game media placement variety. In recent months, war veterans, mayonnaise, home furnishings and milk have all looked to gaming as a way of reaching new audiences and their marketing objectives in Canada. Here are just a few homegrown campaigns, and thoughts on how your brand can take a page out of their playbook.

"Gaming for good" has exploded recently, and two brands have taken to two different gaming platforms to get their message across. First off, the most played video game amongst 13- to 17-year-olds in Canada, Fortnite, was transformed into a virtual memorial for fallen soldiers on behalf of the Royal Canadian Legion to reach and teach Canada's youth about the sacrifices made by our military veterans. Remembrance Island cleverly took advantage of the game's "creative mode," which allowed for the recreation of well-known battlefields and the inclusion of thousands of red poppy flowers as a surrogate for Legion branding.

Pro tip #1: Forgo the logo.

Many online games such as Fortnite do not allow for in-game branding or advertisement without a lucrative sponsorship deal. So, brands that are budget constrained but rich with distinctive brand assets (aside from their logo) can benefit here by leaning into other facets of their brand. Using memory triggers associated with the brand such as color, shape, mascots, occasion, etc., can all be as strong a link back to the brand as the logo.

The second brand to turn to "gaming for good" is Hellmann's Canada, which tackled food waste in support of Second Harvest by tapping into a virtual currency inside the popular online game Animal Crossing. Hellmann's Island asked Canadians to reach out to the brand on social media for a special code to visit the branded island and turn virtual spoiled turnips into donations to Canada's largest food rescue charity. Unlike Fortnite, Animal Crossing does allow for customizable branded elements within its virtual world, which makes it a desirable environment for brands.

Pro tip #2: Create the code.

Driving gamers to unique destinations inside virtual worlds such as Fortnite or Animal Crossing requires a special code that needs to be made widely available to gamers in order for them to access your experience. Think of these as virtual coordinates of longitude and latitude. Codes are also necessary to download custom content such as branded swag for player avatars to wear. Make sure these codes are easily communicated through the comms surrounding the campaign.

Another trend emerging from the pandemic is an increase in gameplay. Some 58 percent of Canadian adults are gaming more so during the pandemic (ESAC), and not just as an escape or release from the stress of our daily lives but as an alternative to IRL meetups including dates and parties. Hudson's Bay Company turned to the world of Animal Crossing, drawn in by its customizability, to release a line of iconic Bay striped merch for the game's characters to wear and homewares to adorn their virtual homes while hosting get-togethers.

Pro tip #3: Map your metrics.

If you're big on analytics, the world of online gaming might not be your cup of tea. The owners of these games, such as Epic, the makers of Fortnite, and Nintendo, the makers of Animal Crossing, don't share metrics openly. So measuring the impact of your investment must come from other sources, such as earned media coverage or social sharing of your initiative. You may never know how much time was spent or how many gamers visited your experience.

Lastly, another trend emerging, due to the cancellations of in-class learning and educational excursions, is to move curriculums online. Dairy farmers of Ontario turned to the world-building universe of Minecraft to create a virtual day at the farm, dubbed Dairycraft, to educate students grades 1-5 about a wide range of subjects. These include structures found on a dairy farm, how nutrients affect your body, and how dairy is transformed in cheese, yogurt and butter. This content would have been delivered in person at the Royal Agricultural Fair but is now available to teachers and parents looking to keep the learning going on a platform these kids know well.

Pro tip #4: Know your role.

Understanding the role your brand plays in the world is the first step in finding a way to naturally integrate it into the ever-expanding universe of online gaming. Once you've done so, there's going to be a fit with one or more gaming franchises your audience plays. Once you've established this, go to the experts who either play or make a living building content for these franchises, and partner with them to ensure you are not forcing your brand into a world where you don't credibly belong.

As gaming continues its growth as a media channel, the "it" that Canadian voice actor Andrew Anthony was referring to in his now-famous recording of "It's in the game" for EA Sports ... may in fact be your brand.

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