First up, a confession: I am definitely not a gamer. I’m not sure why that is the case – I am a nerd after all so it should be right in my wheelhouse – but I suspect I always had other things taking my time and gaming just passed me by. I once spent a pleasant weekend with Lara Croft but otherwise I am just not immersed in that world.

I don’t have kids so I haven’t really had that reflective gaming experience either but I do see my 8-year-old nephew often and how obsessed he is by Minecraft. His total absorption into the Minecraft world is incredible: not just the games but the Lego, books and YouTube videos. He is still very young but I can see already how that environment is ripe for brands to build relationships with consumers, by entering their space and building connections.

As I have mentioned previously, I chair the DMA’s Customer Engagement Committee. The CEC is a group of agencies and brands who look at two things – first of all, why people are loyal to particular brands, and secondly what brands can do to influence that loyalty. We believe that, from the brands perspective anyway, loyalty can be influenced by a combination of great data, tech and creativity but we also consider other areas such as people, culture, organisational structure and such like.

The in-game brand experience

As part of this, we do a lot of research into what consumers are looking for and what they are captivated by. As part of this research, we also look at new or interesting trends. One of those trends that has come to the fore is the in-gaming brand experience. Our research shows that while 16–24-year-olds are the most likely to game, 14% of over 65s and nearly a quarter of those between 45 and 54 game daily – that is a massive number. Especially when you bear in mind all the other gamers are the consumer of the future. Brands talk about over 50s as being an older market, but as many as half of them game regularly!

And, as you would expect, COVID has had an impact. You have to assume that the increase in digital engagement experienced during the last 12 months will only amplify these trends and the move towards pastimes such as gaming. In lockdown, I believe games and social spaces have played a really key role in people’s mental health and increased general social contact.

When we’re all free, we would expect some short-term reduction to this trend, but long term, I expect this trajectory to continue. After all, gaming isn’t location fixed, it is mobile thanks to the use of bespoke devices as well as phones and watches. Gaming is both social and mobile, a perfect combination for many people, and this is partly responsible for its popularity.

How brands can engage

Given the ubiquity of gaming, how can brands engage consumers through gaming? The key thing here is that it is not about advertising inside the game. Although that is possible, it is not always welcome. Amazon advertised in an NBA game in the US a while back and upset many of the gamers, who felt that if they had paid for a game it was unfair to be sold to by another brand.

However, there are definite possibilities for brands to become part of the experience. An excellent example of this is what Burger King have done with Stevenage FC in EA Sports FIFA 20. By sponsoring the bottom team in English League 2 they both helped sell real shirts for Stevenage but also saw gamers all over the world select Stevenage as their team. By tying rewards to virtual goals scored, they increased their profile and got way more brand coverage as a result. It is a lovely example – watch it here.

Image showing Stevenage FC's Burger King football shirts
Image courtesy of Stevenage FC

A number of luxury fashion and sports brands are now doing this, as well as the entertainment sector with gigs or film premieres inside fortnight. It’s not just the big brands though: Prostate Cancer UK have used their connection to football to advertise on the virtual hoardings around the pitch in FIFA, gaining clickthroughs to their website. There are definitely opportunities if brands are willing to think laterally.

But it could go beyond just about being in the game. With communities building up around games, there is the opportunity for brands to re-position themselves, to lose previous stereotypes, and to engage audiences that they have not had a chance to build relationships with up to now. Gaming appeals to people across all ages, gender and ethnic groups. For brands struggling to engage a diverse audience there is the prospect to re-set and make this happen. Not just with the players but also the creators, the ambassadors and the influencers.

The question of compliance

The final area that interests me is that it raises some interesting questions around compliance. My nephew is only eight but I can see that Minecraft is a gateway game. Pretty soon it will be World of Warcraft or Halo or whatever the latest big game is. With so much protection around marketing to children, how does the gaming community ensure that this is policed in the right way? There are obviously the same protections as there are for films, or with responsibility lying with the parents, but that is very different for the brands who are part of the in-gaming experience and something they have to consider.

As ever with opportunity comes a challenge that needs to be contemplated. Overall, there can be no doubt that there are big opportunities for brands to use the in-gaming experience to engage new customers. How this evolves over the next few years, and from my own point of view how data gets harvested, matched and used, is going to be fascinating. Even for a non-gamer like me.