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Gaming Goes Broad

The decline of traditional forms of media has forced marketers to think differently when considering how to build their brands. While print and broadcast media sputter, an emerging alternative brand managers must consider is gaming.

No longer are video games confined to the enthusiast set; rather, gaming is a mass-market entertainment industry that rivals Hollywood in terms of revenue and in the kind of star power it attracts. If you need convincing, look no further than this month's E3 Expo, the gaming world's top annual trade show, where none other than Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr showed up to kick off the festivities. And it's a market that continues to innovate in order to be more inclusive, as the hands-free gaming controls introduced by Microsoft at E3 demonstrates. From suburban families to senior citizens to tween girls, consumers from all demographic groups are taking part in the video game revolution.

The relevance that the video gaming industry has achieved in today's cultural and media landscape means that in-game marketing can serve as an effective brand-awareness tool. Millions of gamers anticipate the release of top-selling titles, such as those that make up the Grand Theft Auto or Madden franchises, as eagerly as a blockbuster movie.

Accordingly, brands that integrate themselves effectively within a high-profile game can garner substantial publicity. Just as the moviegoing public knows what brand of car James Bond drives prior to seeing the film, one can easily imagine a top car brand building a similar level of buzz for its integration into a highly anticipated racing game. Product placement is a powerful method for reaching target audiences when executed within the context of the game and expertly promoted.

Video games also provide marketers with the ability to develop strong bonds between their brands and consumers. Unlike print and broadcast media, a video game is a participatory medium; there is the opportunity for a higher level of consumer engagement. Brands that can add value to the gamer's experience by taking an experiential approach to in-game marketing are the most likely to form long-term relationships with consumers.

One brand that has taken a smart approach to consumer engagement within video games is Procter & Gamble's CoverGirl. The beauty brand recently collaborated with video game publisher THQ (a client of my company DKC) to integrate its branded products into the game All Star Cheer Squad. The game, which follows the life of a cheerleader, allows the player to create the cheerleader's look using CoverGirl-branded apparel and cosmetics. In this strategic partnership, CoverGirl has created an authentic experience because it has embedded its brand into the heart of the game; it is not a peripheral distraction.

Online gaming networks—offered by each of the major console makers—present brands with a dimension of flexibility to complement the content behind their marketing messages. Online services such as Xbox Live or PlayStation Network combine the experiential nature of video games with the micro-targeting potential of online advertising. In October 2008, Barack Obama's presidential campaign targeted young male voters in numerous swing states by placing eye-catching Obama-branded billboards within 10 games on the Xbox Live network. While we cannot know how many gamers who were exposed to the Obama billboards voted for him, the message indisputably reached the target audience at the intended time and in the intended areas.

Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) take the power of the Internet a step further by marrying gaming with the connectivity ethos that defines Web 2.0. MMOGs, in which gamers come together online in virtual worlds to play with or against each other, have exploded in popularity in recent years. This is no accident. It's an extension of the social networking revolution that has transformed the consumer experience and is now an indispensible part of any smart marketer's tool kit.

Consumers are eager to form communities around brands, as any brief look through Facebook makes perfectly clear. MMOGs offer the potential for consumers to form even stronger bonds with brands through the community building that is inherent to the virtual world experience. Interaction between avatars, the virtual representation of the players, makes the brand experience seem more "real" and more meaningful as a result.

Finally, the current economic downturn will likely heighten the importance of the gaming industry, as the public turns to inexpensive forms of entertainment. Consumer-focused marketers will be well served to take note of the ubiquitous presence video games continue to take on in society and leverage its benefits as a medium.

Jeff Klein is a managing director at DKC, a leading national public relations firm. He is based in New York.

--Adweek