Digital Transformation

Playing for Keeps: How Brands Should Use Gamification

You don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy a good game. That’s why gamification—the tactic of integrating gaming or gaming elements into a marketing strategy—has turned into a $2 billion industry. When a brand gets it right, everyone can play along, and brands have started to get it very, very right.

Despite the potential for gimmicks or blatant marketing, brand games have seen a resurgence thanks to great pushes from names like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and even luxury companies like Hermes. These companies prioritized fun gameplay and the thrill of competition over traditional intrusive advertising.

The gaming trend was so effective that my agency, The1stMovement, decided to give it a shot. We parlayed our love of tower defense games like Plants vs. Zombies into developing a learning platform for Cisco engineers. It wasn’t exactly easy—with all the details that go into game-building, plenty can go wrong from idea to execution. But there’s plenty to gain if the audience buys in.

When used properly, gamification taps into our competitive nature, like reaping rewards with a push of a button, sharing and comparing running data with others, or racking up a high score in our favorite arcade games. Instead of marketing with the typical product or service information, brands can creatively draw in potential customers with just the slightest hint of branding. And when used successfully, it can also lead to a loyal community that brings in new people.

As games become more ubiquitous on mobile platforms, gamification has certainly earned its place in the spotlight. Here’s what we learned about making brand games the right way.

Build a platform, not just a campaign

An effective branded game should focus on engagement, which requires momentum. Getting a fanbase takes patience, so you can’t treat your strategy like a standard campaign with a hard end date. Games, even ones meant for marketing, should be iterative. It’s not just about giving a game time to find an audience; it’s about giving gamers the chance to play and make suggestions so you can improve the experience.

Navigation apps like Waze and Fuelzee offer on the road guidance, but they are also examples of creating an evolving platform that embraces gamification. Waze lets drivers earn points by providing accurate updates on traffic, road conditions, police presence, and other specific details. Fuelzee, meanwhile, gives product discounts for reporting on gas station prices. Both apps provide rewarding gameplay that strives for long-term engagement.

Respect the narrative

Gaming and (good) marketing have at least one thing in common: storytelling. They should aim to create an emotional response from an audience. So it’s important to always start with a strong narrative.

Even the simplest games tell a compelling story. In Angry Birds, players fight against the green pigs that have stolen their eggs. In Candy Crush, players are on a quest to solve the problems plaguing the Candy Kingdom. Picking the right story ultimately comes down to your industry and offerings. The takeaway, though, is brand games that put a similar level of effort into good storylines will find new levels of success.

Inspire loyalty

If you build a good game, loyalty should be the natural response. However, there are plenty of other steps to increase the odds that users stick around. To name a few: free-to-play models, uncomplicated instructions, an endless number of levels, simple scoring mechanisms, and social sharing.

Traditional marketing often focuses too much on getting people’s attention and forgets about retaining their attention. Gamification presents the opportunity to do things better. Instead of just concentrating on immediate awareness, in-game tools like leaderboards, badges, and power-ups can drive motivation to keep people coming back.

Understand the playing field

While gamification has its advantages, it’s definitely not a magic bullet. When used incorrectly, brand games can be a distraction for your potential and current customers. At times, a brand just needs to get its messaging out quickly and effectively, cutting through the noise created by its competitors. In that scenario, using games and making your customers “work” for the information can be unnecessary.

Brands need to be cautious about using the right technology instead of the “right-now” technology.

There’s also the rising challenge of virtual reality and augmented reality. As new technologies become more prevalent in gaming, it’s best to remember that they’re still not intuitive for most players. Brands need to be cautious about using the right technology instead of the “right-now” technology. These tools should only complement the overall experience, and not be the experience itself. If a brand game is solely dependent on the customer’s proper usage of AR and VR, it will probably lead to more frustration than engagement.

As customer behavior and technology evolve and opportunities increase, the fundamental goal of gamification should still remain the same: create fun, engaging, and impactful gameplay that’s not just part of a branding exercise. If brands can concentrate on making good games first, they can stoke competition and nostalgia while fostering brand affinity. And when that happens, everyone wins.

Ming Chan is the CEO of The1stMovement, a digital agency with offices in Los Angeles, Denver, and Hong Kong.

Image by Carl Raw / Unsplash
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