Building A Long-Term Brand Strategy With Mobile & Virtual Games

Building A Long-Term Brand Strategy with Mobile & Virtual GamesEarlier this week, I had a great conversation with my friend and founder of the MIX Agency, Vanessa Camones, at the Web 2.0 Expo here in San Francisco. During this conversation, we were speaking about a new company that was launched during the event that focused on building games across a variety of platforms. It was during this conversation, where I thought more about the impact of social games on brands…thus the reason for this post.

Social gaming can be expensive…especially for brands. So why should brands use them? Because of their long-term goals and the capability to serve them effectively. Now, most people, if not all, will immediately tell a brand not to go forward with creating their own brand and just go right ahead and contact a game producer and work out a deal where your product could be advertised. That’s probably the cheapest and fastest way to get your brand, product or campaign noticed…whether it’s by having Coca-Cola bottles magically appear in Farmville or using Bounty paper towels to mop up the blood in Mafia Wars, these are short-term, but also short-lived programs.

I was eating breakfast one day and happened to look at the back of a box of cereal that was on the kitchen table. The box of cereal was for Honey Nut Cheerios and on the back of the box, there was an advertisement for a virtual game you played online where you helped the Honey Nut Cheerios bee find his way through several levels to find his long-lost honey. Quite ingenious that they managed to come up with this idea, but could this translate into sales brand loyalty for other companies and products? What about for small businesses?

Well quite frankly, for small businesses, you’d need to have a large budget in order to support your building a brand-centric mobile application and/or virtual game, but it’s possible that something can be done. However, as I stated earlier, one clear way for small businesses would be to partner with an existing publisher and have some sort of branded advertisement on the game to draw more attention to your product and company needs. But let’s think more about the long-term benefits and programs that businesses could utilize…creating a totally branded mobile application and/or game designed to keep a user entertained and build brand loyalty – because after all, shouldn’t that be one of the biggest objectives of having a company-focused social application: to build brand loyalty? I would think that by securing that from users (who may just be potential customers), would be a big win for any business.

AUDI RELEASED A GAME CENTERED AROUND IT’S BRAND – JUST HOW DOES THAT WORK?

Audi and their mobile applicationAt the most recent Ad-Tech conference here in San Francisco, one of the keynotes was given by the Chief Marketing Officer of Levi Strauss & Co, Jaime Cohen Suzlc who brought up the case study of car manufacturer Audi and what they did with a mobile game to help brand their company. In this instance, I find that it works for the company. Why? Because it’s not wholly centered around a campaign designed to sell cars in the short-term. With banner advertisements and commercials airing on television, we’re probably more used to seeing promotions that are running for “a limited time only” or through a certain date. The point is that current advertising is finite. This type of advertising and promotion just can’t exist with virtual games or mobile applications. Companies should focus on more long-term strategies and this is what Audi did in their situation.

In mid-2009, the car manufacturer released a game for the iPhone which lets users take one of their brand new models out for a virtual test spin. Instead of having to go into the dealership to take a car out for a drive, thereby complicating people’s lives and making appointments, Audi felt that their iPhone app would be good to promote two things: having people virtually experience driving their A4 sedan and also have fun…because when it’s all said and done, all mobile applications and virtual games should be entertaining and captivating. CNET explains the what people could experience with the mobile app:

The Audi A4 Driving Challenge 2.0, which is a free download from the iTunes App Store, is played by holding the iPhone in landscape orientation. Thumbs are used to press the gas and brake buttons in the lower corners, while steering uses the iPhone’s accelerometers and is handled by twisting the device like a car‘s steering wheel. Players race the Audi A4 2.0T Quattro against the clock in a time trial style on any of five courses of increasing difficulty. Once all five courses have been cleared in the allocated time, the player is given the option to upgrade to the 3.2 Quattro model and subsequently the R8.

What Audi has done is a pretty good representation of what mobile apps and virtual games should be about for brands. It’s not about explicitly direct advertising of the A4 sedan, but you can have fun driving the car nevertheless. If you became enamored by the vehicle, then you would be inclined to go try out the physical product. Audi is not broadcasting “$5000 back or 2.5% APR” on the app. This mobile app could very well stand on its own as a game that people would play just to drive cars during some downtime. Regardless of the intent, the purpose is clear: brand loyalty and awareness is being established. Players will not be driving non-Audi cars in the game as the company would have complete control over the vehicle models that are offered.

Audi mobile application screenshots

As you can see in the above image, Audi is letting game players choose various tracks to play and they are even updating the application to allow users to customize their vehicles. As Antuan Goodwin of CNET wrote in his review piece on the iPhone app:

Of course, at it’s core, the game is a marketing app for Audi’s vehicles, but it’s not an overt one. At no point did Audi make me sit through a commercial or a sales pitch. The link to the iPhone optimized site sits quietly on the main menu screen for you to click or ignore. I think this minor amount of advertising is well worth being able to play a cool, free game.

This goes to show that an iPhone app like Audi has great promise for a brand that wants to venture out and create its own mobile app – make it engaging and have the soft sell and you’ll most likely have a long-term success strategy in place that will continually reap you benefits.

WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS?

Now that you’ve seen an example of a brand executing a mobile application that has lasting engagement opportunities, you might be wondering what to do next? Well first you need to examine your opportunity and see if your company has the financial infrastructure to create a mobile application or even a virtual game. Don’t simply go out and hire developers or contract with an agency to help you plan one out. It’s not as simple as saying that you “want a virtual game” and it will happen without a hitch. Mobile and virtual games can be quite expensive, depending on the level of complexity and technical needs. In fact, compared to building a landing page or even a full-fledged website, you’re going to encounter some real financial impact. So make sure that you look closely at your budget before committing to the plan.

And while I’ve looked at Audi’s iPhone application in this post, there are probably other examples that you can look at. Regardless of how many mobile application or virtual games are created by brands, as with most, if not all, marketing programs, not everything is well suited for a brand to execute. For example, it might not make sense for Tide to create a virtual game, but might look good advertising within an established one. But Major League Baseball would obviously function very well as a mobile application, which they already have out there. Athletic clothing and shoe manufacturer Puma is advertising on a virtual soccer game, but could they succeed as their own created game? Possibly. What about Wal-Mart? Best Buy? Dell? Maybe not the parent companies of brands, but individual subsidiaries might have a chance.

Look at what the market needs and make sure that it’s engaging and you’re not forcing your marketing onto the user. Yes, they will know (and possibly expect) to be subtlety be influenced to buy your company’s products, but in this day of age, who isn’t surprised by the attempts at commercialism. As I look back at the Honey Nut Cheerios example I mentioned earlier in this post, if I play the virtual game where I have to free the honey, I know that in the end, while I might “win” the game, the intent is to encourage me to buy more cereal…specifically Honey Nut Cheerios. Anything else might be far-fetched.

So will your company be building its own mobile and/or virtual presence? If so, what tips do you have to share?

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.