Offline Brands Turning to “Advergaming”

Miller Brewing Company and Sony Pictures Entertainment are two of the companies whose Internet marketing efforts are tapping what’s increasingly becoming known as “advergaming” — games that promote their products online.

The Milwaukee-based brewer tapped Red Sky Interactive to design an entertaining online game that would convey the brand essentials of its Miller Lite beer while appealing to its target demographic.

The result: the “Miller Lite Virtual Racing League” (VRL), an online stock car racing game that allows users to customize their vehicles, compete for sponsorship money, and run their team against those of friends.

Every week during the game, team “owners” tweak their driver’s, cars’ and pit crews’ settings, with races run during the weekend based on real NASCAR track conditions.

Users can earn “sponsorship money” to fund customized cars and enhancements by collecting codes found on CDs in specially marked packages of Miller Lite; from codes in print and Web ads; via emails all registrants receive during the season; and on Rusty Wallace’s No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Taurus during the NASCAR race season.

Where legal, participants compete nationally for prizes every six weeks and for the final grand prize — a chance to be a member of Rusty Wallace’s pit crew during a four-day trip to a stock car race in 2002.

“Miller Lite has been involved in motorsports for 30 years, but of all the things we’ve done in that time, the VRL easily is one of the most unique,” said Tony Besasie, senior brand manager for Miller Lite. “Participating in the Miller Lite Virtual Racing League is about as close as fans can come to replicating the thrills their heroes experience without actually getting behind the wheel of a racecar … There’s nothing else like this out there, and we are confident race fans will appreciate the added value Miller Lite is bringing them.”

Accordingly, the effort is designed to boost users’ view of the Miller Lite brand, through an immersive, entertaining experience, said Red Sky creative director Dan Simmons.

“This experience enriches the relationship between user and brand,” he said. “An interactive application transcends mere functionality to provide real enjoyment.”

Likewise, motion picture giant Sony Pictures Entertainment will be launching what it calls the XJL — that is, the “Extreme Jousting League” — in an online competition to promote the upcoming launch of Columbia Pictures’ medieval action adventure “A Knight’s Tale.”

In advance of the film’s May 11th launch, Redmond, Wash.-based 3D design outfit WildTangent created a game for Sony in which users can duke it out against one another in a medieval, 3D jousting arena — with “A Knight’s Tale” banners and ads posted liberally around the battlefield.

Users challenge one another via email, choose their knights’ strategy and weaponry, and battle it out in real-time 3D combat on the Web site. The more battles a player’s knight wins, the more gold their knight collects, which can be exchanged for training and upgraded equipment.

WildTangent also created a branded “visualizer” that works with major MP3 playing programs, like WinAMP. As a user plays music on their MP3 program, two knights duel in the 3D “A Knight’s Tale” arena.

Both Miller Lite and “A Knight’s Tale” games are intricate. To create a winning team in the Miller Lite Virtual Racing League, participants must contend with tire pressure, spoiler angles, gear ratios and similar details designed to make the game more realistic and fun. In the “A Knight’s Tale” game, users can customize their medieval fighting man, from the crest on his shield to the color and “make” of his armor.

“The combination of interactivity and animation is so extraordinary, it takes the audience to new heights, immersing them in the film’s actual environment,” said Dwight Caines, vice president of Internet marketing strategy for Columbia Pictures.

Integrating brand elements into online games is by no means a new thing — and it’s only going to become more widespread in the coming months, say several industry insiders.

Already, offline brands including Jack Daniels, Quaker Mills and Nabisco have all experimented with online, brand-integrated games, and several more advertisers are preparing to do the same in the near future — including Paramount Pictures and Nike.

Indeed, New York-based design shop kpe recently released a report highlighting the phenomenon, and calling “advergaming” potentially “the future of interactive advertising.” While the suggestion might seem absurd, the kpe study cites gaming’s popularity and stickiness — two factors that, when combined with a compelling brand message, are reasons to consider online games an effective advertising tool.

The practice is “a key marketing tool that should be investigated by any company seeking ‘stickier’ and more cost-effective interactive strategies,” said Matthew Ringel, vice president of strategy at kpe and co-author of the study.

“By combining a compelling brand experience with many opportunities for data capture, ‘advergaming’ is an attractive solution that redresses some of interactive advertising’s pitfalls,” wrote Ringel and study co-author Jane Chen. “Although the sector is still emerging and many initial experiments have been primitive, efforts by the more innovative players have shown promising results.”

While the kpe report pointed out that the costs of developing an online game could easily exceed those for a rich-media banner ad campaign, the potential increases in impressions, brand recognition and value-added consumer data — which users are often willing to give up for a chance to play — can offset a large investment. And, there are low-cost alternatives to a large-scale gaming platform, which repurpose existing or generic games with inserted advertising messages.

“Brand marketers wishing to ease into ‘advergaming’ can do so with simple, low-cost, reskinned games of proven entertainment value,” Ringle and Chen wrote. “Over time and with experience, brands can increase the sophistication and marketing functionality of ‘advergaming’ investments. As marketers create innovative games that provide both a compelling, immersive brand experience and seamless opportunities for rich data capture, ‘advergaming’ will increasingly become a key component for message-appropriate branding campaigns.”

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