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As part of our deep dive into all things gaming, Murdoch Rawson of Ichi Worldwide explains the rules that non-endemic brands need to play by if they really want to reach gamers.

Plenty has been written about the rise of gaming. It has permeated popular culture and transcended once-humble industry roots to a point where ‘gamers’ are simply considered the next generation of consumers.

So we know it’s the new standard, we know it’s driven by the younger generation and we know just how valuable the market is. But as non-endemic brands increasingly target gamers, do they really know what they’re doing?

Diverting media spend from real billboards to digital ones isn’t enough. Sponsoring an eports tournament instead of the football probably isn’t going to cut it. Why? Because gamers don’t care. The next generation of consumers are smart. Lackluster brand association no longer works when your audience has been filtering out white noise since birth.

We’re talking about core gamers here. Not your mobile match-three, on-the-tube-to-work folk; these are the PC and console players. There’s a hundred ways to segment them, but there’s a unifying reason they all game: escapism. They immerse themselves in digital worlds where they become part of mesmerizing narratives and empowered through aspirational experiences.

So, why should advertising to them be any different?

You’re on the run from the cops. You’ve just ripped an unsuspecting driver out of their sports car and are hightailing it out of the city. As you’re dodging spike strips and getting out of helicopter range, you flick the radio station to FlyLo FM and are treated to the future-electronic beats of Flying Lotus, AKA Steven Ellison, signed to Warp Records. The thrill of taking out a Swat van during your getaway before launching your car over a cliff will forever be associated with those tunes, so naturally they’re added to your Spotify playlist. Maybe they get a limited edition vinyl pressing, which becomes the newest record in your collection. Warp Records x Grand Theft Auto makes sense. It creates synergistic value.

OK, so music is one thing with gaming and isn’t exactly new when it comes to brand integration. But the principle remains the same – brand involvement should be authentic. Brands need to integrate their products and services better, embedding them from the player perspective and enhancing the experience.

What if Strava, the insanely popular exercise tracking app, wanted to capture gamers? Sure, it could stick its logo on some Fifa 21 pitch-side ad boards and call it a day – footballers run, the app tracks users running, makes sense right? But I doubt it’d get gamers out of bed (or, indeed, their £380 gaming chairs).

But what if by completing real-world running challenges on Strava, I was able to increase my Fifa 21 players fitness stats in-game, making my squad stronger and more likely to beat the opposition? It becomes an organic, stickier experience with natural synergies (you can have that one for free, Strava).

What’s the harm in testing the waters? A light investment to gauge what the appetite for your brand is? It’s risky.

Gamers aren’t shy about expressing their opinions and their voices have the power to make or break a brand. Remember football fans’ response to the European Super League? Gamers aren’t much different. Their collective power has seen games remade in their vision; records set for their social responses to game developers; and company stock values can drop by as much as $3bn after games have launched – such is the community’s ability to drive industry hype through the roof or stage a mass exodus.

If gamers can achieve all that, think about how easily they could tank your brand. Naturally cynical, they can sense a hollow presence a mile away and will slate anything that feels disingenuous. If you’re a third-party wanting to break into this sphere, be sure you go about it in the right way.

So what are the rules we need to play by?

Tell a story

Gamers are used to being taken on journeys and wrapping themselves in a narrative so it stands to reason you should tell them one. Virgin Media’s recent ’Faster Brings Us Closer’ campaign tells a love story of two gamers who meet in an online video game and strike up a virtual relationship that eventually crosses over in the real world. It’s surprisingly engrossing, if not a little mawkish, but all made possible by Virgin Media’s “fastest, most reliable wifi ever”. Regardless of your own broadband experience or serendipitous love life, it’s an aspirational tale for gamers and the messaging works.

The response (in the YouTube comments at least) has been overwhelmingly positive with audiences crying out for a sequel. Hats off.

Be a part of the culture by playing to your strengths

Last year KFC announced (and actually created) the ‘KFConsole’. A functioning gaming console shaped like a bucket of chicken featuring, it featured a ‘Chicken Chamber’ warming tray inside the console designed to keep your fried chicken hot and crispy between rounds. Say what you will about hygiene, but it absolutely nailed it, firmly establishing itself as a brand leader in gaming. Even though the KFConsole will likely only ever be a limited edition collectors item, KFC played to its strengths and knew its audience, creating natural parallels between products and a clever tongue-in-cheek/self-aware campaign.

Enhance the experience, don’t leverage it

In recent years, a huge number of non-endemic brands from luxury fashion houses to FMCG’s have been trying their hand at capitalizing on the gaming revolution. Whether creating branded 8-bit games or building physical arcades in retail stores, there’s been no shortage of attempting to appear relevant by leveraging the gamer experience.

Much like Warp Records x GTA or our Strava x Fifa example (watch this space), brands need to stay true to their offering and enhance the gamer experience rather than patronize it. Philips designed its Hue Sync smart lights to augment the gaming experience with ambient, reactive lighting. Garmin developed the Str3amup app for their Instinct esports smartwatch to track gamers biometric data and broadcast it on top of their live game streams. The paths to natural integration are seemingly endless so for non-endemic brands, it’s literally all to play for.

Gamers need more from the brands that want their attention. This isn’t a plug-and-play audience, so in order to truly cut through the noise and build a sustainable platform for gamers to get on board with, brands wanting to break into the market will need to create an authentic presence that adds value.

Murdoch Rawson is a senior creative strategist at Ichi Worldwide, a Keywords Studio.

From more on what the gaming sector’s pandemic-propelled popularity means for marketers, head to The Drum’s gaming hub.