When Unilever wanted to sell more anti-dandruff shampoo to men in China, it unsurprisingly turned to gaming. Citing China’s esports community of over 400 million gamers, of which 70% of were male, its Clear Men shampoo brand opted to partner with Honor of Kings, the world’s top mobile esports game to build affinity within its massive young male audience.
“We called it from battle to bottle,” quipped Essy Cinta, senior global brand manager for Clear Men, speaking at Campaign Asia’s Game Changers 2022 event in Singapore. For many product marketers, the world of gaming and esports provides a multitude of touchpoints with a young, growing audience that raise can brand awareness, provide engagement and interaction, but also ultimately must result in product sales as well.
“Gaming campaigns have to be effective. They have to come with numbers,” Cinta explained, which means that agencies and esports partners must be on board with this as well. “We need a partner who first and foremost understands our brand, its values. We need partners who understand our language and who understand gaming campaigns have to be measured. Because, believe me, the battle I have internally is way tougher than the one we’re facing outside,” she said.
But while the scale and engagement levels of gaming audiences create an irresistible target, what happens as that target keeps moving, because it doesn’t necessarily want to be marketed to?
“This is controversial, but a fan-first strategy and player-first values actually sit contrary to the requirements of brands,” explained Jamie Lewin, managing partner at Mana Partners, which this week launched a new gaming specialist offering in Southeast Asia with Publicis Groupe. “Brands think in campaigns and target audiences. Players don’t think like that at all. If you look at publishers, they think in seasons and drops and ways of activating into values of the community. I think there’s a huge requirement to shift our mindset.”
Lewin’s new partner, Oliver Spalding, chief strategy officer for media and digital at Publicis Groupe, agreed this needs to be acknowledged from the outset of any brand interaction. “We probably need to start from the standpoint that gamers and particularly gaming influencers are vehemently anti-brand and quite proudly so. In order to engage with them it truly requires that level of authenticity,” Spalding said, knowing that time put in to understand the community is critical.
“But it’s also about how we take the learnings from influencers and endorsers and not keep repeating the same campaign mentality versus ongoing engagement. The biggest challenge will be around how gamers are resistant to brands to such an extent that that they’ve effectively build their own Internet. When we talk about web3 and metaverse, gamers are the current architects of that, partly because they want to create their own environment, places where they can share away from brands to a certain extent.“
Lewin says the best value that specialist gaming consultancies like his can offer is helping people within creative and media functions to see the world through the eyes of the players. “You will not be successful if you get existing media planners and creatives who have no idea of gaming or esports and these communities to start writing and placing ads for them. They just won’t get it.”
Rethinking game publisher marketing
It’s not just brands and agencies working outside gaming communities that have to keep pace, either. Even big game publisher brands are being disrupted by competitors with more ongoing interaction with their communities.
“The larger, more traditional ones such as Electronic Arts or Activision Blizzard have a very traditional view when it comes to media marketing,” says Lewin. “They launch games like blockbuster movies,” he says noting how they build buzz to crescendos prior to release and then invest back into the communities later. But the inverse of this, Lewin says, are publishers who provide games as a service (GaaS) like Riot Games’ League of Legends that has for eleven years effectively done incremental innovations. These game-as-a-service type providers are constantly publishing and communicating, which is a more community-based mindset and has kept their game brand strong.
From top to bottom
So while new approaches are needed, it’s not impossible for brands to resonate with gaming communities and see real sale results from intuitive, well-timed initiatives. Examples Lewin cited include KitKat’s work in owning esports breaks and huge shift in brand perception and sales enjoyed by Mercedes in China through its work with League of Legends.
“There’s this wild misnomer that it’s all upper funnel,” Lewin says. “We can measure all the way through it. It takes a lot of effort in certain categories to do it effectively but it’s not just sitting upper funnel.”
In the case of Clear Men shampoo, the brand was able to provide value for gamers in form of a player power ranking in Honor of Kings that could predict odds of certain players winning, which Unilever says allowed its media placement to be turned into an entertainment vehicle. It also created media around esports trophy models and in the lead up to the 618 shopping festival was able to drive traffic from Weibo, WeChat and Kuaishou to transaction platforms where the brand saw “explosive ecommerce sales.”
"It's not just about what we put on screens," Cinta said. "It's more about the content. We need to add value."