Will Brands Embrace In-Game Marketing In The Age of Coronavirus?

by Rudy Sanchez on 09/08/2020 | 5 Minute Read

There was a time, not too long ago, that video game worlds were flat-literally. Popular games such as Super Mario Bros. were side-scrolling, 2D adventures where narratives unfolded in cut scenes between levels. 

But over the years, video games have grown in complexity, becoming expansive and immersive sandboxes for players to get lost in. And with the rise of virtual and augmented reality gaming, video games are becoming environments approaching the level of Star Trek’s holodeck, providing opportunities for brands to engage with consumers virtually.

That’s why it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign use a social simulator to engage with the public. Last week, the Biden team created virtual yard signs for players of Nintendo’s smash hit Animal Crossings, engaging with supporters, who can now show support for their candidate as well as virtually campaign within the game’s digital space.

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Not only has the requisite technology reached critical adoption levels, but the pandemic has also forced anyone with a message, including politicians, to adopt in-game communications this year. Social simulators are rife with opportunities to engage with the public, as in-game items are mostly cosmetic and don’t require careful game-balancing. Back in March, no one could have predicted the massive popularity of the game as the pandemic tightened its grip on the world. But the game's idyllic pleasures were well-suited for a world in need of escape and relieving anxiety. 

And while many of us might want to keep politics out of our virtual escapes from reality, it’s hard to deny that many of these spaces will become the next frontier for brands to infiltrate.

Developers such as Epic, makers of the acclaimed battle royale title Fortnite, has opened their platform, creating dynamic and engaging events in real-time to promote the film Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, holding an in-game presentation with a sneak preview of the movie, which included a significant plot reveal, the kind of unveiling typically held for an in-person event like Comic-Con or Star Wars Celebration. While the timing predated COVID-19 restrictions, it still shows that the technology is primed and ready to be leveraged by bold, pioneering brands.

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As large music festivals and concert venues were forced to shutter amid coronavirus concerns, Epic and artist Travis Scott used the opportunity to create a virtual concert experience that wasn’t a detached, virtual attempt at recreating a live experience. Instead, it was a live event that was wholly new in many ways, using the digital canvas to create a performance that you can’t replicate in a physical space. Even Burning Man has gone digital, shoehorning its sense of community into a virtual space at the Ethereal Empyrean Experience, giving Burners a chance to gather with one another while they explore interactive art and virtual universities.

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Of course, all of that might sound like a far-fetched idea for a brand not already in that space to consider in-game marketing. But Americans confined to their homes have turned to their consoles, PCs, and phones for entertainment while parks, beaches, trails, bars, theaters, and other places of leisure and recreation are now closed. Many games and consoles have built-in social and communication features, serving as a proxy to in-person socializing in the age of COVID, and if you can't see your friends or want to commit to a Zoom happy hour, it's not a terrible band-aid.

Even in countries where the spread of the pandemic is more controlled to the point of gradual easing of social restrictions, many large events are still verboten, making virtual in-game marketing more appealing, even if still an exotic strategy for most brands. For the foreseeable future, typical brand-building tactics that rely on gatherings of people, from large concerts to local 5Ks, are off the table.

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Augmented reality games such as Pokemon GO use the existing world and adds a layer of gotta-catch-em-all on top, with brands such as Sprint, Starbucks, and Baskin Robbins adding their physical locations into the game layer through sponsored gyms and stops, seeking to convert players IRL (in real life) by attracting them to storefronts via games. These brand partners are relying on the in-game incentives to engage with captive players.

Emails get trapped in spam or remain unopened, and you can't see a storefront sign from the comfort of your homes, same with billboards, but in-game messages have a better chance of being received, as the player’s focus is entirely in the game, with fewer potential outside distractions. This kind of engagement can be appealing to brands finding themselves drowned out by the noise on social media as well.

Crossing over into digital worlds might not work for every brand, but video games have evolved to a point where creative marketers can interact with consumers in ways traditional and social media simply can’t. Fewer eyes are on print or TV ads as consumers flock to ad-free streaming, and social media has become saturated with competition for attention from all directions. So when more than 10 million folks attend a Marshmello concert via Fortnite, marketers take note.

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Watching other people play games on streaming platforms such as Twitch and eSports competitions are also luring eyeballs away from other media. Wendy’s recently commissioned a fantasy RPG campaign, partnering with popular tabletop gaming channel Critical Role play it on-air. Brands presented in-game will suddenly have the reach of millions during major game tournaments in addition to regular play as well.

Brands have more options than ever before to engage with consumers, and with ongoing limitations to social gatherings, digital realms may provide a solution that allows brands to communicate with the public as more traditional venues continue to be impacted by the coronavirus.

The morass that is 2020 has also accelerated a consumer's adoption of virtual and digital participation of activities that used to necessitate physical congress. Augmented fitness services such as Peleton recreates spin class in the home, and Warby Parker’s app lets consumers try on glasses from anywhere but a showroom. Instead of spending months and thousands in expos and trade shows, brands can unveil new products in virtual spaces. Using video game engines, consumer avatars can interact with digital versions of a product, making the value proposition more apparent than a press release, video, or live streaming keynote. In some cases, consumers can also shop virtually using video game technology, walking into an in-game store, try out clothes, get feedback, ask questions, and finally checkout, all within the game space. 

It’s not the holodeck yet, and it's certainly not the X-Men's danger room, but we’re close enough for brands to start considering video games the next frontier of their marketing strategy.

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