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Modern Marketing and the Power of Play

March 20, 2015

The New Playbook

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / venimo

With last month’s Super Bowl having come and gone, we thought it would be interesting to look more closely at the results from marketers’ ‘biggest stage’. At $4.5 million for 30 seconds, it’s surprising that a recent survey found that only about 10% of viewers this year said that TV commercials influence them to buy products from the advertisers, and more than three quarters just see them as entertainment.  We believe that traditional advertising is failing marketers. For our money, focusing on playful interactive experiences, rather than traditional one-way communications to sustain brand awareness, is the most fundamental, meaningful and lasting way to make a connection with the new generation of consumers.

The generation most coveted by marketers today has grown up immersed in interactive technology, games, and activities.  Their worldview is shaped by play, and sharing their experiences.  This generation doesn’t know any other world, and in fact demand their experiences to be playful. Anything else is boring and will likely be ignored or tuned out, and most likely not shared.

Gamification, a system employing game mechanics to make communications more sticky, has evolved from a watchful, well-intentioned eye on the gaming industry on the belief that increased interaction delivers better results.  However, even gamification does not tap into the fundamental, enduring experience that a consumer can have with a brand if done right. This is more than just incorporating a superficial layer of points, badges and rewards to “gamify” an already boring system or message.

As marketers, we need to define what the essence of successful campaigns and experiences will be in the future, and we believe they should be “playful.”  Playful experiences are engaging in their own right.  When all else is stripped away—points, status, leaderboards, and even sometimes the message itself (more on this later), the crux of the experience should be intrinsically rewarding and have the ability to capture the imagination – to allow users to get lost in the moment, to enjoy the process more than the outcome, and to lose themselves in a state of flow.  We already know of examples from everyday life: thinking three steps ahead in a game of chess, kids playing soccer until they drop, or losing yourself for 5 minutes launching digital Angry Birds at objects.  Marketers should take cues from this instinctual urge to play, and begin to build their campaigns around this insight.  This will be successful because:

Play is natural and innate. Psychologists such as Piaget and Freud believed (and multiple studies have validated) that a child’s instinct to play is a cornerstone of cognitive and social development. It’s how we first learn about the world, and it evolves with new sophistication as we grow from simple physical and mental play to more involved and challenging play, such as strategic board games and demanding sports.  Albert Einstein saw value in play - referring to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as combinatorial play. Stuart Brown, a researcher in this field, said  “If you look at what produces learning and memory and well-being, play is as fundamental as any other aspect of life, including sleep and dreams.” So if play is natural, and crucial to learning, why aren’t we incorporating more play into marketing?  Don’t we want consumers to naturally learn more about our brands?

Play can change behavior. Volkswagen’s ‘Fun Theory’ campaign showed how play could influence people’s behavior for the better.  In one example, a side-by-side escalator and staircase in a train station in Stockholm served as the perfect test to see if people could be enticed to use the stairs, simply by making them more playful.  Each stair was outfitted with touch sensitive pads and painted to have each stair correspond to the keys of a piano. As users walked up the stairs, their steps triggered sounds.  Amazingly, this simple exercise enticed travellers to use the stairs 66% more than normal conditions!

Play leads to results. Rajeev Batra, a professor at the University of Michigan, found that playing online branded games can increase brand recall by over 300%.  Play induces a state of hyper-focus that users feel when they are completely immersed in an experience.  It seems to block everything else out. Play is so effective to drawing people closer to brands because you must learn in order to progress through an experience. This is the complete opposite of being barked at by TV or radio ads.  While those mediums are more easily tuned out, a user must be completely present to play.  It’s no wonder the Super Bowl ads went right past us!

Play inspires us to talk and share. It might be hard to imagine sharing a print or banner ad, but playful campaigns are shared, amplifying the message.  And because it comes from a trusted friend, or peer, it’s been endorsed. A great example is Duracell’s recent Moments of Warmth campaign.

In this ad, for Duracell batteries (filmed in the middle of winter in Canada), the company has created an outdoor bus stop shelter that turns on a heater if the strangers at the bus stop join hands with each other, completing a circuit.  A short campaign case study has been viewed on YouTube almost 2 million times!

There is no magic bullet in arriving at a play-driven campaign; but there are a few fundamentals that will help you find the way:

First, building play requires experimentation and revision – it’s a different creative process centered on the most fundamental insights and interactions of your customers, the players. You need to allow both time and freedom to find the fun in an experience, before expanding the idea to its full potential.  This means giving creative agencies sufficient time to test ideas, and being strong enough to push back if it’s not reacting.  Start small and expand with what’s reacting.

Second, your message and brand must be inherent to the play. Make the logo bigger if you please; but the lasting value of a play-driven approach is that the audience should understand the message as a function of their experience playing. You’ll be surprised how little else must be said when you can translate the brand’s value into playful interaction.

Finally, determine the outcome you wish to measure from the outset. This is not to undermine the freedom of experimentation; but rather to ensure that the type of play you are targeting is likely to deliver the metrics that matter most to your business. For example, if you are targeting total time spent in the experience, it would be more likely to be an actual game, while if attempting to rack up impressive numbers of social shares, an understanding and solid strategy to execute within online video platforms would be essential.

With the sheer amount of noise and clutter that marketers need to overcome today, building play into campaigns will allow them to resonate and be more effective in the short and long term. We ask you, as marketers, and for the sake of our brands, isn’t it about time we started to play for keeps?

a Ludomade article

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