Alternate Reality Gaming and Brand Campaigns

 

Word on the Net says AOL is about to launch a colossal new branding campaign to promote its redesigned portal, AOL.com, still in beta. With a large portion of its estimated $50 million budget being spent online, the company’s media plan is expected to include paid search and online branding ads on such sites as E! Online and CNN.com.

With the campaign, AOL joins a legion of companies that employ the Web to increase awareness of, and consumer allegiance with, their brands. Like many other companies, AOL may want to reconsider its approach.

The typical online branding campaign, with one-way, logo-laden banners and rich media ads, is in the process of a major overhaul. Marketers are turning to tactics such as branded online entertainment and “alternate reality branding” (ARB) to stand out online. They’re discovering an effective brand-building message needn’t be limited to 468 x 60 pixel box.

Branding needn’t be limited to ads at all. Companies such as Nestlé, which recently launched a new product called Nestea Ice, are using product-specific Web sites as the primary vehicle for delivering branding messages.

To promote Nestea Ice, Nestlé developed an entertainment portal of sorts, catering to its target audience: males 12 to 24. Every aspect of the property is consistent with the product’s overall brand message and slogan: “Stamping out hotness all across the land.” Visitors can play a game on the home page before they enter the site, view online video, and enter a contest. The site encourages visitors to interact with the brand and share their experience with friends — something few traditional online branding ads offer.

Marketers can also use alternate reality gaming (ARG), sometimes called ARB, to brand properties and products without resorting to standard (read: boring) campaigns. One such effort is for Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Swordfish”. Companies such as Audi and ABC have also developed multichannel ARG to boost brand and product awareness.

With ARGs, which typically involve a considerable online component, marketers can inform and engage without forcing a brand message on their audience. Consumers may be well aware of the motives behind such efforts, but they’re more likely to accept them given they get something out of the brand message.

ARGs can also encourage brand interaction on a deeper level for days, even weeks. A conventional branding ad is often viewed, then forgotten. Marketers’ investments go further, and consumers are more likely to forge a lasting relationship with the brand.

With so many alternatives to traditional online branding, why choose a standard campaign? Buying banner impressions on popular sites may be the prudent approach. But in an atmosphere rife with more appealing offerings, can a standard branding campaign still compete?

Branding campaigns have always been the bane of the online media buyer’s existence in many ways. Not designed to generate immediate sales, they’re difficult to justify to a client. As they often don’t include a call to action, they’re difficult to track and analyze. Increasingly, however, this is no longer the case. Online branding is being turned on its head and rebranded to deliver better results.

Whether these new alternatives are combined with more conventional ad campaigns or replace them altogether, we’ll read less and less about branding budgets spent entirely on third-party sites. Today’s branding campaign is interactive, engaging, and entertaining. There’s no telling what form it will adopt next.

 

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