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Should brands be more ambitious with their gamification strategies?

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If you've ever tried learning a language or mastering a musical instrument with the help of an app, the chances are gamification was built into the experience. Similarly, if an employer directs you to complete an online learning or professional development module, it's again highly likely the programme will be gamified.


Gamification has become a familiar part of both our leisure time and our working lives. And from a marketing perspective that presents a real opportunity. Games not only entertain and engage, they can also drive sales, engender loyalty and even change consumer behaviour. So is it time for marketers to embrace games and gamification? In the not too distant past, creating an online game to attract and engage consumers was a resource-hungry undertaking. Games were costly to create, with no guarantee that the finished product would prove successful.

But times have changed. Pete Jenkins is CEO of Gamification +, a company he set up ten years ago to provide training and consultancy services to companies seeking to utilise games and gamification techniques in their marketing strategies. In March he will be hosting a conference on gamification and customer experience. As he points out, there are now a great many providers offering "games-as-a-service" platforms. Essentially, this offers a relatively cost-effective way for games-curious brands to experiment with new ways of engaging customers. "Today you can create a game in a week," he says, "Then you can embed the link in an email and send it to customers." That sounds straightforward enough but just because you can do something, it doesn't necessarily mean you should. So why spend the money on off-the-shelf or bespoke games? What can brands expect to achieve when they go down the route of gamifying their marketing?

Standing out In A Crowd
First and foremost, games command attention and that can provide an important advantage to brands selling into crowded and competitive marketplaces. For instance, chocolate manufacturer Cadbury markets its Creme Egg brand only in the period between Christmas and Easter. The small easter eggs are prominently displayed in most UK shops in the early months of the year and they are very popular. However, the familiarity of the product also creates a marketing challenge. "Creme Eggs are the cheeky younger brother of Cadbury chocolate bars," says Camilla Yates, Strategy Director of Elvis Communications, a creative agency specialising in FMCG brands. "But they are an unchanging product in a market that is dominated by novelty."

Elvis works with Cadbury's parent company Mondelez on Creme Egg campaigning and as Yates explains, a recent Gamification of the marketing campaign provided a means to build in novelty and capture the attention of customers. After initially hiding "rare" white chocolate eggs physically in supermarkets, Elvis and Mondelez created a gamified campaign that saw images of Creme Eggs being placed within the ads of third party brands such as Honda Cars, Persil washing up powder and Pixel phones. Fans of the chocolate eggs were then invited to hunt for the eggs, photograph the images and upload the pictures to a Mondelez site. Lucky winners would be told if they had located a white egg.

So what did the campaign achieve? "Our task was to top up relevance and to make Creme Eggs cool, " says Yates. "We were looking for people to engage with the game and talk about it as well." But there was another benefit. The decision to work with 16 unrelated brands expanded the scope and reach of the campaign. In return, the partner brands had an opportunity to engage with a target audience that was mainly comprised of hard-to-reach 16-to-24-year-olds. Rather than skipping, walking past or zoning out from the ads in question, the egg hunters paid rapt attention. This illustrates another advantage of game-based marketing - it reaches audiences that conventional advertising often misses. This makes it ideal for promotions and driving sales.

Going Deeper
In that respect, you can see gamified campaigns as an alternative to conventional advertising, But gamified marketing can also be the catalyst for a deeper relationship between brands and their customers. As Pete Jenkins points out, the gamification concept has its origin in behavioural psychology. "You can use gamification to change mindset and change behaviours," he says.
One very obvious behaviour change is that players spend more time with the brand than they otherwise would, Put simply, a compelling game will keep players coming back for more. That might be because they have an opportunity to win a prize, move up to another level of gameplay or climb to the top of a league table of players. Cari Kirby is Head of Marketing at Peek&Poke, a creative agency specialising in pre-created games that can be branded and customised by clients. She cites the example of companies using gameplay to release discount codes. "Rather than just giving customers a discount code as part of a promotion, you make them work for them," she says. This sense of achievement encourages the player to seek more rewards, along with the small dopamine hits that go hand-in-hand with achievement.

Key Elements
As Kirby sees it, there are a number of elements that, individually or collectively, make a game compelling. "There are progress bars, leaderboards, the ability to unlock new levels of the game and badges are becoming very popular," she says. The common factor here is the regular reward.

It's important to remember that players will get bored, even if all the elements are in place. Virgile Loisance - CEO of Paris-based bespoke escape games creator Emeraude Escape Games - says it's important to keep things fresh. Citing an immersive metaverse-style game created to promote Netflix series Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) and snackfood brand Chupa Chups he says: "We create multiple episodes of the game with new ones released every week."

Building Loyalty
In the longer term, games help brands build loyalty through regular engagement. As Jenkins points out, Games can play an important role in keeping a brand at the front of the consumer's mind. He uses retail brand, Body Shop as an example. "Customers tend to come back maybe for or five times a year to buy gifts. So they need to be reminded of the brand at random times."

Equally, gameplay can be used to stay in touch with customers during difficult times. Peek&Poke provided a game for British pub chain Greene King during one of the Covid lockdowns "They wanted to stay in touch with their audience when everything was closed. They created a hopper game. There was also a special offer of 25% off a dinner when everything reopened. Gamification techniques can also be used in loyalty schemes that don't actually involve any gaming. For example, a customer might be moved into a higher tier (releasing new special offers) with the promotion based on purchases. Again the principle is the same. Reward drives engagement. Invitations to play a game can be contained within advertising, on a website or sent as part of a CRM email programme.

Knowing the Customer
Games produce an enormous amount of data. Some it is purely related to the game itself - how many people played and for how long. How many dropped out. In addition, games that require registration to play, provide a wealth of information on the age, location and contact details of players. Depending on the purpose of the campaign, brands may also analyse conversion data. Permission to harvest the data is a given but Jenkins argues that this is not difficult to obtain. "If a game is fun you will be happy to play," he says. Indeed, players may offer more information - or earned data, as Jenkins terms it - in return for rewards. "For instance, if a customer runs out of plays, he or she might agree to fill in a survey to get extra plays," he says. Gamification strategies work because they tap into a desire that most of us have to compete. In encouraging play, brands can introduce new products, keep themselves at the forefront of customer minds, build loyalty and gather valuable data.

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