Brand managers know better than most that one of the most jaded and cynical demographics to truly connect with is also, by far, the most desirable: Gamers, now representing Generations X and Y fully. The average age is up to 37 years old, with a 60 to 40 male female split. They're digital, social, savvy, and they have disposable income and ready access to it. One of their most unique characteristics is that they absolutely abhor being blatantly marketed to, but once an affinity bond is created, they'll not just be brand loyal, they'll become vocal brand advocates.
The two approaches that are fairly commonplace are traditional advertising -- print, web, in-game, etc. -- and integrated marketing. The latter probably should be explained further. Unlike slapping a banner on a website or billboard inside a racing simulation, integration requires a lot more effort. It can be a customized Facebook game, which surmounts the "fun to play" hurdle, or it can be deep co-marketing with an endemic entity that gamers know and trust. What it cannot be -- and I can't stress this enough -- is overt, or, God bless you, condescending (i.e., "The Official Food of Gamers!!!") You're brand will certainly go viral, but for none of the right reasons and with none of the repercussions that you'd want.
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Very few marketers have executed their target marketing well when it comes to game consumers, despite the vast majority of brand managers and agency folks being gamers themselves. Why? It boils down to sticking your neck out, a very dangerous career-threatening move. That's why 99 percent of communications are traditional ad buys. Straight-forward, leverage the national campaign, message as-normal. Not to take anything away from the many endemic media outlets that we're partnered with, but I don't think it's a secret that print ads, banners, and buttons just aren't as effective as they used to be, especially with gamers. They notice them, sure. Maybe a certain percentage read and acts upon the message if it's clever and enticing enough. But resonate? No. Rarely.
To truly connect with gamers you'll need to create an affinity bond. And to accomplish that requires skill, dedication, and no, not money -- likely much less than you'd spend on a traditional ad buy, actually -- but patience and a holistic approach. Here's a great real-world example: Red Bull decided years ago that it wanted to connect with game consumers, a full half of whom fall squarely in its wheelhouse. It knew it couldn't compete with the spending power of Coke or Dr. Pepper, but it doesn't really compete for that same mindshare anyhow. Taking a step back, the prior brand manager began connecting with endemic brands and doing stealth engagements at shows, conferences, concerts, and expos. The current brand manager then stepped up the brand's efforts by supporting eSports, competitive gaming, and approaching cyber athletes in the same way that it does motor cross racers or skateboarders. And in the past year it also created LAN events, bringing in its sponsored athletes for training sessions, complete with medical conditioning. This past summer Red Bull paid to underwrite individual memberships in the non-profit gamer group that I run, removing the value proposition challenge and communicating to enthusiasts that it truly cares about gamers and gaming by supporting them (via supporting us) and creating a strong affinity bond in the process.
As a case study, Red Bull got it so right that Forbes magazine is now keeping a careful eye on its successes and highlighting them in a new weekly column dedicated to brands engaging gamers and eSports. Redbull also helped us pay closer attention to that market segment of our own membership and through the process, aided other brands in seeing the various ways that they too could integrate, but also partner with consumers directly.
Sponsoring eSports athletes and underwriting memberships aren't the only ways to establish that bond, of course. Event marketing done well can resonate, but typically not for the length of time or depth of impact. You want to be unique and for your efforts to empower and enable consumers, to create a tie that binds and an atmosphere where the messaging is heard and understood, so be careful about pigeon-holing them or stereotyping gamers; the days of that being the actual demographic are over. Think honest, direct, holistic, creative, and long-term. Again, that doesn't require a lot of funding -- in fact, if it does, you're probably headed down the wrong path.
Hal Halpin is president of the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA).
On Twitter? Follow Hal at @HalHalpin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.