My first E3 was in 2000. There I was, at the biggest video game tradeshow on the planet -- a world of wonder and expectations that would be my first peek into the future of entertainment. It was the year before the first Xbox was launched, and the point at which Microsoft was entering the game world with its own hardware. It was also the time that I began to think about the potential of video games beyond just personal entertainment.
I went to E3 seeking opportunities to meet publishers who might let me experiment with their creations and use them as a unique way to deliver a brand message. At the time, I wasn't sure how and when that would happen -- and, based on the puzzled stares that were the standard response from the people on the floor with whom I first shared this idea almost a decade ago, the notion was foreign, if not outright weird. A handful of advertisers were already experimenting with video games, but for the most part they were one-off attempts, narrowly focused on trying something "new" to get teens' attention.
Nine years later, video games and audiences have expanded dramatically, an evolutionary path driven by the desire of consumers of all ages, genders, and socioeconomic statuses to have a more participatory entertainment experience.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 68 percent of U.S. households now play games -- in other words, more than 170 million players. Other studies show games topping the list of favorite pastimes for both the obvious and the less-than-obvious segments of the population. The average age of today's gamer in the U.S. is 35, but there really is no such thing as an age barrier anymore. There is a game and a platform for every age, gender, taste, and free time allowance.
Certain audience segments are defecting from traditional media channels, and advertisers are finding gaming to be a highly effective option -- particularly for reaching males 18-34. Always a hard-to-reach audience, this cohort has been MIA for broadcast TV. But as Nielsen tells us, they are still in front of the screen -- they've just exchanged their remotes for gamepads. So it's no surprise that many of today's game titles feature brands from categories targeting this demographic, including auto, men's toiletries, beverage, and quick-service restaurants (QSR).
However, the broadening of game content and the acceptance of gaming in the entertainment diet of all segments of society has also created interest -- and success stories -- among some unexpected brands. In this article, we'll take a look at these surprising success stories.
State Farm extends sports franchise sponsorships to in-game
An early gaming adopter, State Farm saw games as an opportunity to extend the value of its sports sponsorships and increase the frequency and quality of the engagement experience. A long-time stadium and programming sponsor, State Farm was well positioned to tap into audiences' desire to be part of the sports action. Leveraging the realism of games such as EA's and 2K Sports' NCAA games and 2K Sports' MLB games, State Farm was able to successfully integrate and keep fresh its broadcast and stadium elements, while connecting with its target in a new way.
In a 2K Sports' NCAA game, State Farm sponsored an entire segment called College Hoops Tonight, featuring virtual representation of Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellogg, for which the anchors supplied their own voice-overs. From the dorna boards to unique branded broadcast elements, such as State Farm Play of the Game and the State Farm Home Run Derby, the insurance provider successfully translated and enhanced the traditional live and TV experience for sports fans, while also enabling hours of brand exposure. A series of brand studies conducted on these integrations revealed significant increases in awareness, consideration, and recommendation.
Dyson cleans up the mess
Some of the most creative in-game integrations have come from Ubisoft. When asked to name one of the most surprising brands among their titles, head of product placement Jeffrey Dickstein didn't disappoint, offering the Dyson Root 6 handheld vacuum as a case in point.
Looking to simultaneously position its Root 6 handheld model -- which looks like a power drill -- as a vacuum a man would use, while also enabling a first-person experience around the product's hygienic benefits, Dyson opted for an interesting appearance in the "CSI: Hard Evidence" game. In one of the game's cases, the player collects a handheld vacuum from a suspect's car. Back at the CSI lab, the vacuum is placed on the assembly table, and the contents of the dirt chamber are examined, yielding key evidence that indicates someone cleaned up the crime scene.
The positioning toward a male audience is addressed by having the vacuum in this case belong to a husband. However, the part that makes this integration work really well is that in order to get the evidence, the player has to take a good look at the product. The game allows the player to rotate, zoom in, and inspect it from every angle -- even take it apart with the push of a button without getting your hands dirty, just as you would do in real life, albeit in more mundane situations.
Of course, websites can deliver a somewhat similar product demonstration -- but they only reach customers who are already inclined toward buying and are actively seeking out the information. The beauty of the game integration is that it goes beyond the likely purchaser, delivering a 16-minute experience during which design features and aesthetics are imprinted on potential buyers who might not otherwise have been exposed to the product. How many other platforms can deliver this much exposure time without the user skipping over the advertising message completely through a DVR, or by ignoring the ad in favor of the content on a web page?
Swedish furniture becomes a must-have in the Sims world
By virtue of audience and price point, furniture may not at first glance seem like a prime category for game integration. However, the customization level of today's games, paired with pixel-perfect 3D detail, make for an ideal environment in which to showcase furniture design and utility.
Leveraging The Sims, the popular franchise that allows players to create and control a virtual world of people and environments, IKEA broke new ground in the category, creating its own co-branded retail game experience. The co-branded IKEA/Sims Furniture Stuff Pack offers the massive audience of "The Sims" an opportunity to furnish their virtual living spaces with the latest furniture from IKEA.
As the massive audience of Sims players knows, the majority of play time is spent creating and customizing worlds that reflect players' personality traits -- an ideal platform in which to showcase IKEA's vast product offering that covers every room in a house, and a wide range of style preferences. Inserting its product in "The Sims" world as an opt-in, IKEA helped players create their own interior designs -- and enabled extended interaction with IKEA products in a situation that was as close to real as it gets.
The experience was cleverly delivered not as a stand-alone but as an enhancement --which EA calls expansion packs -- to the current user base of "The Sims" players. Priced lower than a full retail game, the IKEA/Sims Furniture Pack was an immediate success that even topped the PC games sales charts for the first few weeks after its introduction.
Visa explains fraud protection via video games
Even before the success of the Wii and the music and fitness genres that helped broaden today's gaming audience, a number of forward-thinking brands saw the unprecedented opportunity for relevant brand experiences that gaming affords. Among these early adapters, Visa's integration with the "CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder" game was a stand-out success.
Looking for innovative ways to promote Visa's multiple layers of card security, the brand's media strategy agency, OMD, suggested the CSI game as an ideal platform. The game's target audience was an extension of the demos for the popular CBS show that inspired the game and was already a part of Visa's TV inventory. Beyond the target compatibility, the CSI game gave Visa the opportunity to take its message beyond passive reception to active engagement, enabling a first-person experience with the benefits that the card provides. In a unique execution, Visa's message lived within the game's script, giving the player a one-on-one experience with the brand while clearly communicating the security benefits of owning a Visa card.
In the game, a rich hotel heiress's posh apartment is found covered in blood. However, with no body found at the scene, it's up to the player to determine what happened. Taking the role of a CSI investigator, the player learns that the victim actually faked her own death to escape an abusive relationship, then uses her sister's Visa card to fund her getaway. Her almost-perfect plan falls apart when Visa's continuous fraud monitoring service flags suspicious spending activity on the account. At this point, the victim's sister explains that Visa cards come with fraud protection, which helps prevent her card from being used by anyone but herself. Could the unauthorized transactions have something to do with her sister's disappearance? This discovery then becomes the most important clue in solving the case.
A brand study on the integration showed the game enabled 10 minutes of message engagement with hundreds of thousands of players, and it helped drive a 53 percent increase in awareness of Visa's fraud protection security features.
As exciting and innovative as the examples in this article are, we are only at the beginning of a new era of advertising in games. In the next few years, we are sure to see many more unexpected brands find relevance and message differentiation through this platform. With game consoles now firmly established in the living room, and consumers spending more time with games than with other forms of entertainment, becoming gaming literate will be mandatory for marketers across the board. Done right, advertising in games will continue to be a winning strategy for advertisers.
As content continues to become more diverse, and interaction barriers break down, the opportunities for integration increase exponentially. However, the key to success for in-game advertising will stay the same: create a relevant storyline that showcases the product while also creating a valuable experience for the user. This is the best and only way to win with consumers.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.