Brand Games: Your Move

Imagine you’re a marketing director at Mars. What M&M’s news could you possibly add to your Web site? Perhaps a great new color has been added to the product palette? Does this justify consumers visiting your Web site and spending 5 or 10 minutes interacting with the brand?

Mars is not alone in its dilemma. Thousands of marketers engage in a daily struggle to develop content for their brands’ sites, content that promotes their products and builds loyalty without becoming predictable and hackneyed. It’s a tricky job. Around the world, fans of brands such as M&M’s, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi have high expectations of their preferred brands’ sites. Yet, if you were to probe these customers on the matter, I’m sure they’d have no idea exactly what they expect the sites to offer, apart from fun, innovation, and engagingness.

The answer for many brands is “advertainment.” Sites that are only rarely able to promote new lines and feature only one product can offer games. Advertainment is an interactive twist on David Ogilvy’s classic adage, “If you have nothing to say, sing it.” Now, “If you have nothing to say, play a game.”

Does the technique really build brands?

Seven years ago, I launched M&M’s first online interactive game. It was very simple. Using Shockwave, you could create a drawing using M&M’s, then submit the drawing to participate in a weekly competition. The objective was simply to add another dimension to the colorful chocolate candies by playing with them in a fun way.

Any brand-building exercise, in this case a game, should integrate the brand’s core values. The golden rule hasn’t changed. If the game can be played without the brand as an integral element, it will probably never build your brand. If the game and the brand are so interlinked they can’t work without one another, you’re on the right track.

As I surf the Web I see hundreds of advertainment sites with no link whatsoever between the games and the brands they supposedly promote (aside from the brand’s logo plastered all over the functionality). One day the game might be accompanied by an HP banner. The next, exactly the same game is used with a Virgin ad. Does that build a brand? Hardly. Imagine reusing other brands’ ads to promote your own merely by supplanting their logo with yours.

Although some cleverly crafted “advergames” are likely to work, they aren’t the sole answer to filling a Web site’s brand-building mission. You should take the concept of customer interaction a step further. Achieve interactivity. Isn’t that what the Internet is all about? If you really want to build brand loyalty, try to involve consumers more. Involve them on a long-term basis, not the short term required by advertainment games.

Not many brands dare take this step. It demands ongoing commitment that, for most marketing people, converts quickly into an ongoing item in the marketing budget. Pepsi (a former client) has taken the chance with a concept it calls “Become a Pepsi Advisor.”

On this site, Pepsi invites consumers to join its product development team and advise the company on new products. What a clever move! Instead engaging visitors for the short term with games, it’s succeeded in turning the site into a profit center (probably saving the company thousands of research dollars). It turns core customers into advocates for its brand by using them as field researchers while generating constant dialogue between the brand and its most important audience.

The challenge in a scenario such as this is one of commitment. You can’t expect consumers to provide you with tons of research value without giving something back. It’s an innovative concept. Results remain to be seen. Six weeks ago, I signed up as a “Pepsi Advisor” but have yet to hear back. Pepsi is gambling with this game: The potential return is huge, but so is the loss if it doesn’t work.

Pepsi has moved a step closer to true, one-to-one communication. If you’re prepared to go that far, your courage will pay off.

The gamble? Allowing the consumer to play with your brand.

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