How Would Your Brand Look on a Mobile Game?

Reaching 18- to 24-year-olds, Suzuki’s target audience for motocross bikes, is notoriously difficult. Because young people are often quick to dismiss advertising efforts as condescending and intrusive, the company has traditionally relied on sponsorships of motocross events and riders. But it hasn’t given up on looking for alternative ways to get its message across.

That may be why the company was so receptive when wireless publisher Thumbworks approached it last year about developing a branded motocross game for mobile handsets.

“In a mobile environment, we have the attention of a very attractive audience,” said Craig Holland, president and founder of Tustin, Calif.-based Thumbworks. “The youth market is … a tough group to reach. They tend to be resistant to traditional advertising campaigns, and they’re extremely savvy — they don’t allow themselves to be promoted to directly like generations past have.”

Suzuki agreed to subsidize the development costs of the game in exchange for having its name and logo attached. This brand identification is something Holland says can actually increase player involvement.

“In this example, the name ‘Suzuki Motocross,’ as opposed to just ‘Motocross,’ adds to this game’s success,” he said. That’s largely because fans of motorbike racing already identify with the Suzuki name.

Of course, the flipside of that brand favorability coin is that many brands just aren’t suited to the medium. Hence, mobile gaming is restricted to certain vertical markets.

“It doesn’t work for everybody,” Holland said. “Suzuki’s a pretty easy brand to see the appeal of, and with automotive in general, we guessed the transition would be pretty easy.”

That has turned out to be the case. In the seven months since Suzuki Motocross was released, Jeep and another top-tier auto brand (which has asked to remain nameless) signed up with Thumbworks to sponsor mobile games of their own.

The word “sponsor” is appropriate here only because the business model more closely resembles a sponsorship or product placement than a branding campaign. In the Suzuki example, the money contributed by the motor company only covers a small portion of Thumbworks’ revenue.

“The upfront payment from the sponsor isn’t the way we make money,” said Holland. “We make money from the downloads. Sponsorships just help us get into the game.” No pun intended.

BREW distribution

Most of Thumbworks’ money comes from distribution to users of Verizon Wireless’s “Get it Now” service who are downloading the content using Qualcomm’s Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) platform. (Verizon is Qualcomm’s biggest carrier partner, although there are others in the U.S., such as AllTel and U.S. Cellular, as well as six operators abroad.)

BREW facilitates compensation to publishers and developers because it assists with operator-required application testing, delivers the software via the BREW developer Extranet (a virtual marketplace) and bills operators on behalf of the application provider, ensuring that publishers like Thumbworks get paid.

“BREW is a complete business and technical solution,” said Mike Yuen, director of developer relations for Qualcomm. “From a developer’s standpoint, it lets them monetize content, and it lets carriers handle over-air download.”

For Suzuki, the distribution model aided the company’s branding goals, making the game a big success. Suzuki Motocross earned 350,000 trial downloads, almost 100,000 of which resulted in a game purchase. Each player saw the logo a minimum of five times, and most probably saw it more.

Every time anyone downloads the game it generates awareness for the brand, Holland said.

The download stats for this game are pretty strong evidence for anyone who still doubts the size of the mobile entertainment market in the U.S., and they also speak well for the branding possibilities of the wireless medium.

“The market is definitely there,” said Holland. “A year ago this time, Verizon was still in a trial period, and there was no proof that any of this would take off.”

Since then, according to Holland and Qualcomm’s Yuen, the number of Java and BREW-enabled handsets has taken off, resulting in the highest application download rates ever seen in the States. Verizon Wireless last month said its customers had downloaded nearly 12 million applications since Get It Now was officially launched 8 months earlier, with games and ringtones the most popular items.

Indeed, Jupiter Research, which shares a parent corporation with this site, recently issued findings that among small mobile apps, or applets, games have had the most traction with consumers.

“Developers specifically targeting the U.S. market should focus on Qualcomm’s BREW in the short term and work with Verizon Wireless to bring their applets to market,” according to the research.

That’s exactly Thumbworks’ approach. Of course, Holland and company had the early advantage of a long-standing insider relationship with Qualcomm during their days at Nine Dots, when Qualcomm was a client and Thumbworks was just a kernel of an idea (see sidebar: “Thumbworks’ Creation Myth”).

As a result of this exposure, they knew before the market did how closely that company was working with Verizon, AllTell and other carriers both in the U.S. and abroad. And they knew these carriers craved quality gaming content.

“We were using these guys for messaging and to write some of our speeches,” said Qualcomm’s Yuen. “In the process, they saw the opportunity in BREW and therefore formed their own company.”

That early exposure, combined with the founders’ background in marketing, uniquely positions Thumbworks within the nascent advergaming space.

But Advergames Suck, Don’t They?

Wait a minute. Aren’t all advergames lame?

Usually the answer is yes, says Holland, but he points out that Thumbworks’ business model encourages quality games, not just one-off Frogger clones with a brand slapped on top.

“It doesn’t benefit us to build something schlocky,” he said. “It’s not good for the brand and it’s not good for us, since our business model is geared more toward the buying of the game.”

On the other hand, only so much is technically possible with a telephone screen, which keeps user expectations for these games at a fairly modest level.

“The nice thing for us is that a handset is a very limited computer, [which puts us] more in the casual gaming category,” Holland said. “That helps us a lot, because we aren’t creating a game that’s so in-depth that we have to spend an enormous amount of money to develop it.”

Based on successes they’ve seen in this market, certain brands are looking to up the ante. A game currently in production for Jeep, called “Jeep Off-Road Jam,” may be deployed via a co-marketing relationship between the DaimlerChrysler brand and Verizon Wireless. Another new game, also for an auto manufacturer, will employ a more elaborate campaign, integrating a Web site, an advergame and an SMS push.

Clever brand marketers are finding in mobile advergaming a new avenue to reach the young people who are ever more stubbornly ignoring their sales pitches. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune, either. The demand for quality games is there, and so is the distribution platform. All that remains is for content developers and marketers to intelligently work together to position brands where they’re welcome, in front of the people who want to play.

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