Deepening Brand Engagement - Lessons from Video Games and Beyond

As of 2018, there are 2.2 billion active gamers worldwide (according to the Global Games Market report). In North America, video games generated $27 billion in revenue in 2017 while the Asia-Pacific region generated $51.2 billion. Globally, smartphone gamers represent 32 percent of the market, console gamers represent 31 percent, and PC gamers represent 23 percent.

A huge segment of the world plays video games, and the profile of a “gamer” is no longer limited to the nerd stereotype of the 80s and 90s. The growth of the industry and the diversity of playstyles and interests show that anyone can be (and probably will be) a gamer.

For business leaders and for marketers, video games can represent an opportunity to build an interactive portal into their brands. These portals can be designed to appeal to specific demographics and take a variety of forms, from a retro-styled gaming product to an immerse virtual reality experience. Innovations in technology are driving much of this opportunity, but this space is mature enough that we can glean a set of best practices for how to approach, evaluate, develop, and deploy brand-based games to foster engagement with target audiences.

Coffee Crisis features the Black Forge Coffee brand and incorporates music from active heavy metal bands. Full disclosure: The author is an employ at Mega Cat Studios, the developers of Coffee Crisis.

Brand engagement is perhaps the most important idea in marketing, and it is one the most misunderstood both inside and outside of the video game space.

“Brand engagement” is used so often by marketers and business leaders that the true meaning—and application—is frequently lost. Brand engagement is not the equivalent of advertising or even the broader equivalent of what is typically described as branding—mission, logo, personality, voice, design standards, etc. And brand engagement is far deeper and more complex than Facebook likes and YouTube comments.

Part of this problem stems from the infancy of the phrase. Brand engagement is a relatively new idea in terms of the available research, and researchers are still trying to figure out the best way to measure it.

Most definitions of brand engagement agree that it represents a relationship between a brand and its consumers, and that relationship is driven by interactions. For us, that final word—interaction—is the critical part. When you foster engagement—stimulating action and brand participation in your customers—the brand relationship becomes more powerful and therefore more profitable.

You should care about brand engagement because it means:

  • A powerful competitive advantage in your market that competitors cannot easily emulate
  • Deeper consumer loyalty, driving customer retention and repeat purchases
  • More passionate advocates for your brand to drive word of mouth marketing

Most businesses and their marketing teams, however, lack an in-depth understanding of audience engagement, have no process for measuring it, and do not have the tools or framework necessary to move their audiences into deeper and deeper levels of engagement.

THE ENGAGEMENT PROBLEM

When a business recognizes that engagement is important but is not sure how to leverage, grow, or apply that engagement, marketing can begin to flounder. For example, if you own and operate a major sports arena, you might have the goal of increasing engagement at your events.

But what does that mean, exactly?

Well, you want them to have more to do when they are physically present, and you want to make them more active participants in whatever event they are there to see. So, you deploy a stadium-wide augmented reality game that incorporates the wide range of digital displays at the venue, is geo-fenced for the stadium for exclusivity, and incorporates incentives for players to download and play the game.

Great. Let’s say that players download and play the game at the event. How does that help the business? After all, they already bought a ticket and were at the venue, so what did that engagement actually do to further the goals of the organization? If the game was designed properly and the engagement was meaningful, that game could be used to:

  • Drive word of mouth by encouraging fans to share the game and the experience with their social media networks, perhaps via pictures and high-scores
  • Promote specific food and product specials through push notifications or special offers
  • Generate data on fan movement and behaviors at the venue via the app on their phone which is then used to improve fan experience
  • Build community champions by highlighting the most active and most loyal fans at events

If the business simply stops at the word engagement—which is an incredibly common practice in the marketing world—downloads and plays of the game might be enough to call the initiative a “success,” at least initially. Eventually, though, the conversation around the game will come back to impact. It’s awesome that people played the game, but how did that help the business?

If you can properly frame branding best practices within a framework for increasing brand engagement, a process we call “the engagement funnel,” you can create marketing initiatives that are not only more effective for the business but also more interesting to audiences.

To reap those rewards, you first have to understand why and how branding works.

THE BRANDING BATTLEFIELD

Before we explore what brand engagement is and how you can harness it for your business, this much should be clear: The power of a brand is often the most valuable part of a business. A company like Apple is more than the sum of its assets. The true value of the brand is in the relationships it has forged with consumers over decades of innovative product development and not in how many iPhones it has sitting in a warehouse.

This may be a retread of things you already know, but the core ideas are worth revisiting.

Marketing researchers began to study the importance of branding in the 60s and 70s, and you can see early applications of those ideas in some of the most legendary ad campaigns, such as Volkswagen’s off-beat ads for the VW Beatle. “And if you run out of gas, it is easy to push” is a pretty strange line of copy—even by today’s standards—but it encapsulates the brand’s personality perfectly. It’s light-hearted, it’s non-traditional, and most importantly, it differentiated Volkswagen from its competitors.

That’s what good branding does: It resonates with a particular audience, and it sets the business apart from the rest of the landscape. When people identify with a brand on an emotional level and then have an excellent experience with the product, you begin to build loyalty that can last a lifetime.

So, surprise, surprise, branding is now super important and one of the most brutal marketing battlefields. Get it right, and you can win big. Get it wrong, and you could become the Zune of your industry.

If you look at the core ideas of what makes branding compelling and effective, you quickly shift from the passive to the active, where customers are interacting with the brand directly and using it to build relationships with the brand, with their friends, and with a community that might grow as a result of the brand.

Smarter people than me have summarized how this dynamic plays out with consumers, so I’ll let Ronald and Elizabeth Goldstein from Florida State University say it in their words (from their article “Brand Personality and Engagement” published in the American Journal of Management):

  1. Consumers use brands to distinguish a company’s offering from those of other companies.
  2. This information allows them to make efficient judgments of quality, suitability, value and can prompt quick decisions.
  3. Consumers use brands to create and display self-image and identity.
  4. Consumers can interact with the brand and even co-create it.
  5. Consumers form relationships with the brand and consequently the company that they find satisfying.
  6. Brands help consumers establish and maintain social relationships.

Each of these points is critical to your marketing efforts, but points three through six are where brand engagement starts to steal the show.

Have you ever met a Jeep fan? No, not someone who owns a Jeep but someone who owns and loves their Jeep. They have the custom wheel cover. They invested in a few aftermarket parts. They have a quippy Jeep bumper sticker that probably says something like “If you can read this, flip me over!” They might even go to Jeep events where they drive through mud and up big hills (or perhaps they just pretend to).

Driving a Jeep is like driving a Harley or wearing the jersey of your favorite football club. Your purchasing decision becomes a part of who you are and drives you to join specific communities. That’s what good branding does: It transforms a consumer decision into a deeply personal expression of self.

WHAT BRAND-BASED GAMES CAN DO

With interaction being at the heart of engagement, marketers can learn a great deal from video games, and those lessons are especially relevant when they are pulled from brand-based games.

Previous successes in the brand-based video game space include Burger King selling 3.2 million units of their Xbox games, leading to a 40 percent boost in their profits for that quarter (according to BusinessWeek). In a very different market, the U.S. military developed America’s Army at a cost of only .25 percent (please not the decimal point; it’s important) of their $4 billion recruiting budget (Zeller). One of the game's creators, Mike Zyda, is quoted as saying that the game was “the most cost-effective thing that the Army has ever done in recruiting” (Quirk).

In more recent times, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, a mobile game from the reality television star, has generated $160 million in revenue and more than 45 million downloads, according to Forbes. Red Bull, the energy drink brand, has bet big on eSports and it seems to be paying off. Cumulatively, their YouTube channel on all-things eSports has generated several million views, and their dedicated Twitch channel has over 120,000 subscribers and more than 15 million views.

The trailer for Kim Kardashian Hollywood

These are mega successes of brand-based games, and even in the short amount of time that has elapsed since the launch of these efforts, the gaming industry has evolved and expanded to enable even more varied brand-based gaming experiences.

Speaking broadly, a video game (or any other well-crafted brand engagement effort) can accomplish can serve as a vehicle for any of the following (independently or in combination):

  • Brand Awareness
  • Brand Engagement
  • Customer Acquisition
  • Product Promotion
  • Direct Sales
  • Event Engagement
  • Data Capture
  • Social Likes and Shares
  • Web Traffic
  • Increased Time on Site
  • Repeat Website Visitors
  • Natural Backlinks
  • Revenue

Like any good marketing campaign, the benefits of deploying a brand-based video game are layered. Yes, the Burger King video games generated a substantial amount of revenue, but the three games (Sneak King, Pocket Bike Racer, and Big Bumpin’) also supported the significant investment Burger King made in their King-focused ad campaign. They had created a larger-than-life character to represent the personality of the brand, and the series of games featuring him as a playable character gave fans a way to engage with him directly. Yes, the television commercials were entertaining, but the game meant active brand participation.

 Some gameplay from Burger King’s game Sneak King.

When it turned out that the games were actually fun, collectors and gamers alike flocked to Burger King locations to buy the games. That enthusiasm, in addition to generating sales of the game, also generated a viral conversation around the Burger King brand. That level of excitement and interest is difficult to create, but because the video games were well-designed and well-integrated into the larger marketing strategy, Burger King generated several million earned impressions and made a good bit of money in the process.

The scale of the Burger King campaign can seem prohibitive at first glance—that’s a lot of money and a lot of risk—but a brand-based game can find success with a much smaller budget and a very narrow audience.

Boston Scientific, a medical device manufacturer, was seeing a decline in event engagement. Expos and tradeshows were a cornerstone of their sales strategy, but market shifts meant that selling this way was getting more difficult. They still saw their target audience (surgeons, primarily) attending these events, but the prospects stopping at the booth were too few. They engaged our studio to find a new and fun way to generate attention at events.

To stand out in a sea of vendors, Boston Scientific developed a retro-styled representation of one of their tools—a device used to remove plaque in cardiovascular procedures. They loaded the game into a custom arcade cabinet, complete with buttons and joysticks, and tied the game to a leaderboard display at the booth and on the event website. The game, Plaq-man, was a hit. Surgeons stopped to play and compete, and the gameplay itself stimulated fruitful sales conversations.

Boston Scientific used this arcade set up for event engagement, using the game Plaq-man. Full disclosure: The author is an employ at Mega Cat Studios, the developers of Plaq-man.

In terms of scope and development costs, Plaq-man is several orders of magnitude smaller than the Burger King series, but it was the right fit for the audience and the goal. And that’s what matters.

LEVELS OF ENGAGEMENT

I mentioned before that the research side of branding is still grappling with how best to quantify engagement. The wide range of brands in any given space—all trying to compete in their own unique ways—makes it difficult to distill brand engagement down to universal rules, especially as technology opens new channels for brands and consumers to connect, but it’s not impossible to form broadly applicable best practices. On this front, our intense work in interactive media has given us an advantage in learning about engagement.

With our clients, we use an internal assessment system to evaluate brand engagement. Built on a mix of research and field experience, assigning data to each of these levels and tracking those metrics over time gives us a sense for the impact (and potential value) of our efforts. More importantly, however, these levels of engagement give us guidelines for how we craft marketing strategies and how we design products. We often see that a brand’s audience would gladly engage on a deeper level, but the brand has not given their fans the proper tools or channels to do so.

For example, passionate fans of a product would love to meet other people like them, but the brand itself has not created a platform or a community where that is easily possible. Sometimes fans will self-organize on this front, but more frequently they will jump to a similar product with a more accessible community. But you would never know this was happening with your brand if you didn’t know to look for it.

With levels of engagement more clearly defined, we can map a client’s marketing efforts accordingly, making it relatively easy to see if there’s a gap in the current plan.

The levels of engagement, as we define them, are represented by the engagement funnel:

  • Consuming content
  • Making small shows of support
  • Participating in conversations
  • Championing the brand
  • Being physically present
  • Creating brand content
  • Buying products*

For this whitepaper, we will run through a brief overview of these levels, but let’s talk about the asterisk first: Product purchases are not necessarily indicators of brand engagement.

That sounds strange, because product purchases can definitely signify brand engagement, but the danger is in assuming that just because someone has bought from you that they are a fan of your brand. Consumers can make a purchase for several non-brand reasons, such as convenience, cost, or lack of education. If they insist on only ever buying your product and never the competitor’s, they are likely engaged with your brand, but if they only buy your product when it’s on sale, your brand engagement may be lacking.

On to the other levels:

Consuming Content—A customer regularly reads, watches, or listens to the content you create, from blogs to social media to video. This is passive, meaning that they do not take an action following the consumption of that content, but the fact that they are giving you their attention is significant. It is even more significant if that attention is given with regularity.

Making Small Shows of Support—A like on Facebook, or the equivalent on other social media platforms, is not the most groundbreaking action a fan can take, but it is the start of a two-way relationship between the consumer and the brand. The brand shared a message, and the consumer made a small response to show that they liked what they saw. It’s small, so don’t over-interpret it, but it matters.

Participating in Conversations—This is the stage where a consumer has entered the brand bubble and is starting to identify with the community. Frequency and intensity are good markers for how developed the engagement is, but if fans are excited about what you do and are sharing their own ideas with you and with each other, you are likely on the path to a community of sorts.

Championing the Brand—When a fan takes what they love and gladly (and proudly) shares it with their network (or their tribe, as Seth Godin would say), the level of engagement has taken a critical turn. Now your fan is not only active within the brand bubble, but she is voluntarily expanding the bubble for you. This ranges from a simple click of the share button to positive reviews to public posts about your products on social media. When fans are regularly bragging about being your customer, your brand engagement is on a healthy path.

Being Physically Present—The idea here is that fans are excited to attend your events and gatherings. We apply this definition loosely as not every brand warrants a physical, in-person event (though you’d be surprised), so we talk about virtual gatherings like webinars and live-streams here as well. What sets this engagement apart from the other levels is that your fans are so passionate about the brand that they agree to be in a certain place at a certain time and actually follow through.

Creating Brand Content—The ultimate expression of brand engagement is when fans actively take your brand and build on to it, melding their self-expression with the identity of your brand. From simple Instagram photos with your products (to be clear, unpaid) to fan art to fan-organized events, brands that inspire fans to create their own brand-related content are the most powerful and most impactful form of marketing a brand can ever have, and these fans can’t be bought. You have to serve them and nurture relationships with them.

How do you move your fans from one level to the next? That’s a book-worthy topic in itself, but I hope you can see how these various levels intertwine with the branding research we discussed previously. The deeper a fan goes into brand engagement, the more their actions begin to represent their identities and also help them to create relationships not only with the brand but with their fellow fans as well.

A video game can serve one or most of these engagement levels simultaneously. The Burger King games (and the larger campaign built around the King) moved fans through the entire engagement funnel. Burger King fans had to buy the game to experience it (consuming content, making a small show of support, buying a product), and they had to go to a Burger King to get it (being physically present). The viral nature of the gameplay stimulated word of mouth around the game, and the collectable nature of the game mixed with its humor led to people sharing photos and YouTube videos of them playing the game (championing the brand, creating brand content).

If you have no intentions of deploying a game, that’s okay too. The standard ingredients for most marketing mixes are capable of moving fans deeper into the funnel if the execution is thoughtful and well-crafted. For example, a well-maintained Facebook page can at the same time present content to passive, barely engaged fans while also stimulating and encouraging fans to create and share their own fan-made content.

If you do not have that framework and measurement process in place, however, your team will often end up posting simply for the sake of meeting the weekly post quota and then celebrating the number of likes the page got in the next monthly meeting.

WORK BACKWARD FROM SPECIFIC GOALS

Though the opportunity on this front is significant, it is also not without risk. Developing an engaging, captivating brand and/or gaming experience is a challenge, and many brands have attempted to capture the momentum of gaming to achieve their marketing goals and have failed. In some cases, the games were just outright not fun to play—a shortcoming that dooms any game effort, brand-based or otherwise—but in many instances, the game concept itself was not aligned with the marketing goal.

Before you design the game, clarify what you want the game to accomplish in terms of both of the engagement funnel and the larger business goals.

From there, you can marry gameplay mechanics with the demographics of your audience to drive players toward that goal. The variety of gameplay options at your disposal are expansive, so here are some examples:

Goal: Encourage your global audience to engage with each other locally to deepen brand relationships and build community.

Game: An augmented reality game where players build and tag virtual monuments where they live and work. Players can visit and contribute to each other’s monuments, and when fans travel to a new city they can quickly see how big and engaged the fan community is by exploring the physical and virtual world simultaneously.

Goal: Generate funds and awareness for a cause-related marketing campaign.

Game: A retro-styled game that features simple, accessible controls and brings the cause to life with beautiful pixel art. The game is released on PC, Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch and sold to generate revenue, but the jewel of the campaign is a cartridge-based special edition—a version of the game playable on an original Super Nintendo packaged with a high-gloss manual and eye-catching box.

Goal: Increase relevant web traffic and create a pipeline for generating additional backlinks.

Game: A casual mobile game that uses friendly gameplay (like a tap-runner or a match-3 game) but leverages Instagram influencers (featured as characters) to drive engagement with the game and the brand. With a robust character, players can customize their avatars and join the communities led by their favorite influencers (who are built into the game as characters). These activations drive social sharing, moving social fans to website landing pages and incentivizing high-traffic influencers to link to relevant pages on the brand site.

In practice, any of these goals could be accomplished with multiple game concepts, but what makes the most sense for the brand and the audience can help guide the design and deployment process.

NEXT STEPS FOR YOUR BRAND

Brand engagement should be a long-term part of your core branding and marketing strategy, but here are the highlights every business owner and marketer should know:

  • Higher levels of brand engagement correlate with increases in revenue
  • Engagement is typically built on conversation, so if you are not talking as a brand through your content, your fans won’t have anything to react to
  • When you see brand engagement, you should reward it with attention, praise, and potentially free stuff
  • You can stimulate engagement through specific campaigns like contests or the promotion of super fans
  • Model the engagement you want to see by publicly highlighting the fans who are engaging with your brand
  • Monitor and nurture your community spaces to keep them welcoming and pleasant
  • Build an engagement funnel using the levels we summarized here, crafting a strategy that helps fans grow from one stage to another

Brand-based games and other brand engagement initiatives are most effective when they are integrated into a broader brand experience. Video games are in no way a silver bullet, and though development costs for a brand-based game can be quite manageable and lightweight in some applications, even a small budget would be wasted if the game is not supported by other, more traditional brand vehicles.

In all of the examples we explored up until this point, the game was a thoughtful part of a whole. Just as you look to keep all of your advertising and social media messages on brand, so too should you look at a video game as being a piece of the bigger puzzle. The same holds true for any piece of your brand engagement strategy, big or small.

If you make your engagement choices deeply strategic, you are more likely to tap into the major rewards of a engagement-driven world.

About the Author: Marshal D. Carper, Mega Cat Studios

Marshal is a marketing author and the Director of Brand Engagement for Mega Cat Studios, a Pittsburgh-based video game development studio. From retro-inspired collectible product experiences to virtual reality, Marshal helps brands incorporate video games into their fan-engagement strategies to help them develop deeper, more meaningful fan communities.

Sources:

Ronald & Elizabeth Goldstein, “Brand Personality and Engagement” published in the American Journal of Management vol. 12, issue 1.

Shawn Zeller, “Training Games,” Government Executive. 37.1 (January 2005): 44.

Matthew Quirk, “Fun and Friendly Persuasion,” National Journal 38.29 (July 22, 2006): 58.

 

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