Even if you don’t consider yourself ‘a gamer’, chances are you engage in at least some form of gaming in your day-to-day life. Maybe you keep yourself busy by playing mobile games at night while you watch your favourite series, or maybe you just don’t feel like your day has really started until you’ve completed the latest Wordle. Unsurprisingly, a growing number of marketers are starting to really understand how pervasive games have become and as a result, have started cleverly integrating them into their marketing efforts.
There’s a good reason for this move too. Good games don’t just tell compelling stories, they put the users at the very centre of the experience. And that’s something that more traditional forms of marketing struggle to do. The experience of playing a game is simply incomparable to being a passive participant in other forms of marketing where people are expected to absorb information from a billboard, video pre-roll, banner ad, or social media post and then act on it.
But in order for a game to be an effective marketing tool, it has to be designed and executed properly. To get a sense of what that looks like, it’s worth looking at how games in marketing have gotten to where they are now and to think about what role they might play in the future.
A decades-long history
The first piece of information that might surprise you is how long games have been used within the history of marketing. In 1976, for example, an arcade cabinet called Death Race was released as a tie-in promotion to the film Death Race 2000 for fans to engage with the characters in an exciting new way. By 1989, meanwhile, a company as well-established as pizza giant Domino’s felt confident enough in the potential of gaming to release Avoid the Noid – a computer game which prominently featured its mascot, “The Noid”. This is widely believed to be the very first time that a game was used as part of an advertising campaign for fast-food.
These games represent key milestones in the use of games for marketing and helped begin to shape how brands could use games to associate themselves with innovation and fun to set themselves apart from their competitors. Games were used to service this role throughout the 1990s, a decade which also saw McDonald’s launch “McKids” a platformer video game featuring its mascot characters and Pepsi roll-out “Pepsi Man” in 1999, a game where players controlled the Pepsi Man character. These games however had limited distribution which meant that they acted more as a reward for existing customers than an enticement for new ones.
By the 2000s and 2010s, in-game advertising in titles such as The Sims, FIFA, and NABA 2K started to become more common. This phenomenon ushered in a new era of marketing within games, quickly accelerated by the birth of smartphones and the subsequent rise of app-based games, with which brands quickly jumped onboard.
This was also a time when many more avenues opened up for games to serve marketing objectives beyond offering a place for advertising that interrupted the entertainment of users. For example, brands began building games into banner ads, microsites, and social media feeds among others. Many of these interactive platforms continue to be innovatively used today. By the mid 2010s, marketers were also starting to explore the potential of technologies like virtual reality and more recently, the opportunities presented by the burgeoning metaverse by integrating marketing into the gameplay of open world games like Minecraft and Roblox as well as Battle Royale titles like Fortnite. In fact, it’s now not uncommon for even musicians, who are big brands themselves, to host concerts for gaming communities in these virtual worlds with Tavis Scott, David Guetta, and Lil Nas X being a few examples of artists who’ve done just so.
Meeting customers where they are and adding value
What this brief history reveals is how readily some marketers have adapted to the evolution of gaming and the most successful campaigns have informed how marketers can better achieve two of the holy grails of marketing: meeting their customers where they are and providing value over and above what they already get from their purchases.
When it comes to figuring out where games within the marketing mix are going next, I think there’s a lot that will be revealed in the next few years. As the landscape of platforms like Roblox and Fortnite continue to evolve and mature, and as more and more thoughtful and interesting branded experiences and activations emerge that authentically connect brands to audiences through games in innovative new ways, the potential of the space will only continue to grow.
As the gambit of opportunities widens and as powerful new tools become available for brands to make use of, there is however a need to raise caution about innovation for innovation’s sake. At present, some of the first games for Apple’s potentially revolutionary Vision Pro headset are, for example, currently in development which makes it an exciting space to watch. But the key for marketing teams going forward will always be to identify which technologies and platforms actually work best to enable them to meet the demands of their customers, to provide them with value, and to always put the customer at the very heart of the experience.
Continually growing impact
Ultimately, it should be clear that games have long been a hugely useful marketing tool. Over the years, the impact of gaming and its ability to bridge the divide between brands and communities has grown tremendously and is still on the rise. At the end of the day, the brands that manage to strike a balance between getting the very basics right whilst pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to enrich the user experience, by leveraging the engaging nature of games, will see huge success in this space.