Marketing may not be an actual dark art, but it can certainly seem quite a cloudy business.
Like good front row play in rugby union, impressive results are obvious, but there’s some uncertainly about the rules, about whether or not there are any rules – and about exactly what techniques have been genuinely effective and which were just a waste of effort.
There’s also the problem of operating on the shifting sands of the public’s savvyness. Ads, slogans, campaigns and tactics from 20, 10 or even five years ago can seem incredibly clunky as new generations of consumers essentially grow up with an intuitive understanding of – and suspicion of – marketing argot.
And not only won’t they be talked down to; sometimes they won’t be talked to at all. It’s why, presumably, there is so much store set in having ‘a conversation’ with your audience. Dialogue has replaced didacticism.
Then there’s the nature of games themselves. They’re not cornflakes. You only need to pour milk on them once to work that out. Rather, we operate on the uplands between technology and entertainment. The proposition changes (mainly improves) rapidly and the selling points shift accordingly, which means the marketing must adapt.
Plus, the dynamic nature of the product has bequeathed an expanding audience. Games companies now are marketing to a very different (and much bigger) group of consumers to the one they were talking to five years ago.
Oh, and the media landscape, the marketing teams’ playground and toolbox, that’s probably changed more than anything.
You thought it was impossible to feel sorry for these guys? Well okay, there won’t be any TV appeals or Facebook campaigns anytime soon, but it’s not hard to see that these are challenging times for the team other departments call ‘that lot’.
STICK WITH THE BASICS
Interestingly, though, whilst the senior execs contacted by MCV talked at length about changes and challenges, they also referred to some constants.
Murray Pannell, UK marketing director at Ubisoft, for instance, offers: “As a discipline it hasn’t really changed, in that it’s still fundamentally about knowing your product, understanding your audience and then creating a compelling communications plan that ties the two together.” He adds, however, that in a maturing and expanding industry, “more complex communications planning” is required and, subsequently, he sees “increased professionalism” within most marketing departments.
Sony Computer Entertainment UK’s marketing manager Alan Duncan says something similar: “Despite the changing media landscape, the basics of marketing haven’t changed: start with the consumer, not the product; know where your audience are; be single-minded about your message. If you know what you are trying to say and who to, the rest will fall into place. Different media just achieve different parts of the job.”
So, the fundamentals remain the fundamentals, but the techniques, subtleties and emphases have, surely, all changed quite radically.
Sega’s European marketing director Amanda Farr picks some examples: “Five years ago, you would look at which media channel to capitalise on, whether that be TV, print, outdoor etc. Now the role of the marketer is to ensure that we follow the consumer through their ‘media day’ and then close the deal to purchase.”
THE NINTENDO DIFFERENCE
She has no hesitation in placing Nintendo at the vanguard of the most significant changes in the games industry’s approach: “In terms of spearheading, from a marketing perspective, you would have to say that they’ve been incredibly innovative in terms of broadening the audience.
“Five years ago you couldn’t have imagined TV spots where 90 per cent of the advert didn’t feature gameplay; you couldn’t have imagined an ad where the emotion of the gamer was as important as the key features of the game.”
At Yoostar, marketing manager Tina Moore (previously at Sega and Microsoft) also cites Nintendo as a key driver:
“They really stood out for me as leading these changes with their campaigns for the launch of Wii and DS. They were the first to take the social/party gaming experience to the masses via their celebrity driven TV campaigns.”
At Nintendo, marketing director Dawn Paine stresses that the company isn’t one to crow, but she knows it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge its role.
She picks out the launch of the DS, Nintendogs and Brain Training as landmark campaigns in the widening of the target audience.
And she highlights another difference in communication strategy when addressing this broader demographic: “A very important trend – at least from a Nintendo platform point of view – is the rejection of the traditional boom and bust approach to marketing.
“We discovered early on that non-gamers aren’t as interested in ‘day one’ as gamers and will pick up a game weeks, months and sometimes years after a release. This requires a different, less ‘week-one’ focused, more multi-disciplined approach using traditional methods like TV alongside experiential, PR and online.”
Back at Sony, Duncan also stresses the importance of a longer term, probably even permanent relationship with consumers rather than the big launch hit it and quit tactic: “'Brands can now have a constant conversation with their consumers through a complex network of touch points: blogs, websites, traditional media, events, editorial, Twitter, Facebook, mobile, retail, on the console and in the game itself.”
He asserts, however, that whilst “most games companies” have learned to “tell deeper stories and build communities”, no one has harvested the full potential from the new landscape – and to do so will involve “breaking down the old boundaries between the creators, the companies and the players themselves”.
Ubisoft’s Pannell also mentions the “multi-discipline touch points” of the digital world and how they reflect the changes in the way consumers play games as well as interact with other media.
“The concept of a ‘gamer’ has changed, and the fact that online, social and digital channels have grown so quickly means that the kinds of marketing techniques have had to change.
“So a modern day marketing plan will have many more layers, possibly targeting different audiences with different messages in different media at different times.”
TIME UP FOR TV?
The bulk of a major marketing spend will, usually, be on TV. It’s still the jewel in the crown of a media plan and the first question a journalist (a trade journalist, anyway) will ask about.
Last year, games companies were conspicuous in some of ITV’s biggest commercial slots. Nintendo, Ubisoft and Sony, for instance, all featured heavily in the ad breaks during December’s The X Factor final, which attracted an audience of 20m.
Moore has mixed views – an acknowledgment of the medium’s power tempered by question marks over its effectiveness. “TV will consistently get you mass coverage and strong brand awareness, so it will always play a part. However, it does bring with it a huge amount of wastage and it is becoming harder and harder to guarantee that your audience are actually going to watch your ads without fast-forwarding through them.”
Nintendo’s faith in mainstream TV advertising is obvious. This is a firm that innovates, but maintains a distance from the fadding crowd. It certainly doesn’t do flim flam. Paine says: “We’d argue that appointment viewing is still very much alive and well. The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, I’m A Celebrity and Corrie still represent ‘must-see’ viewing for huge chunks of the UK population. It’s not an exaggeration to liken The X Factor in the UK to the Super Bowl.
“It’s important not to become too enclosed in a bubble where people think shows like Mad Men, Lost, The Sopranos, West Wing etc are the biggest shows on TV, when they’re actually quite niche and have much smaller viewing figures”
Paine is obviously far too polite to say ‘don’t disappear up your own arse’, and thank goodness for that. But do bear it in mind, anyway.
She concludes: “Reports about the death of certain media channels are, in our view, exaggerated. We still find TV advertising for a mass brand and mass audiences very powerful.”
Back at Sega, Farr agrees that “a 30 second slot on a big ITV show for the right product is both highly desirable and highly effective”.
Farr’s starting point is “the demise of appointment viewing on TV”, which means “no one show or channel can deliver our audience”.
She also sees things changing and new opportunities arriving over the coming months and years – not least because TV companies need TV advertising to work:
“Commercial television is just what it says, commercial. It is funded by advertising, so the stations will always look at how effective they are and what sort of return on investment they offer.
“If you consider that you now have pre-roll sponsorship and this year will see product placement as part of the TV world for the first time, you can see that the marketing world is changing.”
Pannell also backs up Paine’s view about the ‘death’ of TV being exaggerated: “Certainly moving spend into digital channels can help in terms of improved targeting and the ability to measure ROI. But, that said, I have no doubt about the power of TV advertising to drive sales. It may be ‘expensive’, but there is no other medium that can reach so many consumers at the same rate.”
Away from TV, the biggest talking point in marketing is social media. It always seems a bit grizzly to measure anything in terms of ‘eyeballs’, but if you do, then the numbers are, appropriately enough, frightening. But, because of the maverick roots and organic development of most big social networks, they’re not usually overtly commercial, and steps down that road are often resisted by the user.
Paine’s description of Nintendo’s attitude to the space reflects that culture: “We don’t have a formal social media strategy. Our policy on this is that we believe social media should be an environment where people can interact and have conversations together without brands and ads getting in the way.”
At Yoostar, Moore says the sector can be harnessed, but also points out that it’s a two-way street; that the new media can inform all areas of marketing, not just be a platform for it: “Through social networking, consumers are making more information about themselves available, information about their hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc. And this gives us a currency to work with when targeting them.”
Sony’s Duncan believes that “social media has had a profound impact on marketing”, but talks about “providing the right assets at the right time for the community to self-inform and build energy and excitement around a title”, rather than imposing pre-packed messages. It’s a sentiment, expressed differently, but one that isn’t a million miles from Nintendo’s non-policy policy; an acknowledgement that what’s needed is a lightness of touch and a willingness to let the consumer play a part rather than be a passive recipient.
Pannell’s view is that “in an environment where the old rules no longer apply, we all need to get a better understanding of how we can harness the consumer’s ability to drive the message in an informal and viral way.
“There is still much to learn for everyone in this area, whether that’s understanding social media as a tool for managing an online community or corporate image, or understanding how best to use these networks as a media channel to drive brand awareness and purchase intent.
“For me the jury’s still out on whether, for example, spending marketing budget on adding 50,000 Facebook ‘Likes’ translates measurably into selling more games.”
New technology and new philosophies in hardware development coupled with pioneering peripherals and key software brands have all expanded the audience for games – changed the definition of what games are, in fact.
At the top end, driven by the best teams in the business, the industry’s marketing has evolved just as dramatically and been an integral part of the process.