Spot On: Marketing and Games

Or: What's that candy bar doing in my first-person shooter? Examining the close ties between the worlds of gaming and marketing.

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The marriage that unites marketing and video games is nothing new. Games have been used to market products, and products have been used to market video games for almost as long as games have been around. Atari T-shirts came out shortly after Atari was formed. If you were around in the '80s, you might remember that Pac-Man ended up on everything, including cereal and Saturday morning cartoons. 7up, Domino's, and Chee-tos (whose mascot, Chester Cheetah, had not one but two video games) were all brands that have been marketed through video games. And that's not mentioning the scores of recording artists who have had their music featured in games.

Increasingly, though, video game marketing efforts have become more pervasive, more integrated, and more difficult to dismiss as simple gimmicks. Jill Steinberg, director of media and promotions at Ubisoft, says the increasing pervasive trend is intentional. She says that "varied, layered marketing tactics--from the Internet to contests--are the goal for many consumer-brand companies." She also indicates the that prevalence of pairing a brand and a game is on the rise. "The true success of marketing tie-ins in the near future hinges on more than just featuring the product in the game."

Ms. Steinberg explained that it's Ubisoft's policy to focus first on whether or not a "brand fits." For example, "Sony Ericsson's tie-in with Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow is a perfect match. Ericsson's marketing strategy is to push its wireless games and target a younger audience. [Its] brand enhances the realism, credibility, and great design [of the game]. Plus, the phones look really cool."

This sort of in-game brand placement is a trend that has been steadily growing more common and subtle as video gaming and graphics have both gotten more sophisticated. Darkened Skye, released in January 2002, for example, was remarkable at the time because it managed to garner fairly good reviews (GameSpot gave it a 7.3) while still promoting its Skittles candy product tie-in.

What the industry calls "strategic brand alliances" continue to be announced every day, with even budget-priced games getting the branding touch. Activision Value has had a long-standing arrangement with Cabela's, and the company just today announced an alliance with fishing lure brand Rapala, which will continue Activision Value's focus on outdoor-lifestyle games.

Then there were the music-based games Frequency and Amplitude, which, while offering innovative gameplay, also featured the music of popular recording artists, many of them brand names themselves. In October of last year, the promotion went the other way as band P.O.D. included a trimmed-down copy of Amplitude bundled with a special version of its latest Atlantic Records release.

But product placement is not always so deliberate. Recently, Ubisoft inadvertently began advertising for an adult content portal when, in the recent release of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3, it added a URL for a Web site that the company then forgot to register. An enterprising young man found the URL vacant and decided to capitalize on the marketing opportunity that the game provided by creating a pornography portal site using the same URL.

While the "porn portal" fiasco was an isolated incident, Ubisoft is putting procedures in place that will keep this sort of incident from happening in the future and, as Ubisoft's Steinberg says, will examine "promotional content from a game-centric point of view." So in regard to posters, signs, etc., unless they're direct product placements, it's at the discretion of the brand marketing and development team as to what makes it into a game and where. "If folks look around in our games, they may find some cool familiar icons."

And game/product ties outside the game are growing stronger as well. Microsoft and Volvo have joined together on a new marketing campaign for the Volvo S40. The latest television ad from Volvo shows nothing but footage from Microsoft's upcoming Rallisport Challenge 2 game.

The Volvo/RalliSport deal wasn't a snap decision. According to Microsoft's Christian Phillips, IP business development manager, the cross-promotion was two years in the making. "One of the key things in pulling together a deal of this nature is that it can require a long lead time. Volvo has been very forward-thinking in realizing the opportunity that partnering with a great game like Rallisport Challenge 2 could do to help further its efforts at communicating that this S40 is an awesome car."

Then there's Game Over, the prime time computer-animated series about video game characters that, as part of its premiere, not only got an 8:00pm spot on UPN but also released a video game based on the series, as well as the rights to use one of the lead characters, Raquel, in fan-created films made using the game engine provided with the released game. The producers of Game Over and UPN stopped just short of providing a contest that would guarantee fan-created content for the show, though this is still a future possibility. All of this cross-promotion didn't help the series premiere in ratings, because Game Over placed dead last in its timeslot behind a rerun of the WB's Smallville.

Even the music publishing industry sees the value of using games to help sell product. Music publisher V2 recently announced that every copy of the band pre)Thing's first release, 22nd Century Lifestyle, will include a copy of a videogame specifically designed to promote the release and encourage gamers to both listen to the CD and play the game.

What does the future of marketing and video game promotions hold as the lines between the two become more permeable? Will marketing and product placement become an invasive part of gameplay? Microsoft's Phillips says no. "It needs to be something that makes sense for the game. If it's not relevant to the game, then it's not a good deal. The most important thing is that it does not jeopardize the gaming experience. These deals are not just about monetizing the presence in our products."

Ubisoft's Steinberg agrees. "Our belief is that the brand must be woven into the story in a way that is mutually beneficial to and fits seamlessly into the game. If the product integration does not feel seamless and realistic, it will not work for either party involved." And, one might add, it would not work for the game either.

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