15/03/2011

By Rishi Dhir, Consultant at Brandsmiths, part of All About Brands Plc

Branding borrows some of the same principles as playing games. In this article, Rishi Dhir, sets out his five principles to a successful brand.

As human beings, it seems we’re almost hard-wired to play games. Whether it’s solving a Sudoku puzzle on our commute to work, playing a game of Monopoly at Christmas with the family, or having a relaxing round of golf at the weekend with friends, games-playing satisfies an innate need to flex our intellectual, creative and social muscles.

Of course, games are nothing new: they have been a feature of most cultures and societies throughout history, sometimes even pre-dating literacy. Senet, the oldest board game in the world, was played in pre-dynastic Egypt as long ago as 3,500 BC.

The very act of participating in a game can be a satisfying experience, but winning against the odds can be highly addictive. At their best, games can create a deep sense of engagement, leading to a state of ‘flow’ — in which we are completely immersed in the experience. These core ideas of satisfaction, engagement and addiction are similarly the holy grail of brand building and in recent years brand owners have applied the principles of gaming to enhance the brand experience. Boiling it down, there are five core principles that brands have borrowed from the gaming fraternity:

Principle #1: Make it challenging. Challenges are irresistible. All games, no matter how simple or complex, challenge the player to achieve something, be it fitting different shaped pieces together as quickly as you can (as in Tetris), or successfully negotiating the underworld to become a notorious gangster (as in Grand Theft Auto). The best games make the rules and parameters very clear, so there is no ambiguity as to what you’re being asked to do, or how you need to do it.

Nike ID is a great example of the concept of challenge applied in the brand context: customers are given the tools online to design and create their own shoe, choosing the style, material and colour. Even though it's far easier to buy a ready-made (and probably better designed shoe) off the shelf, the task of building your own is somehow far more involving and satisfying. Nando’s challenges customers to avoid getting the hottest piece of peri-peri-coated chicken in a game of ‘wing roulette’.

Principle #2: Make it competitive. Competing against others to prove our superiority can add intensity to the overall game-playing experience. Board games, card games and sports all do this brilliantly well, appealing to our innate human need to out-do others.

The idea of competition was successfully applied by the state of Queensland in Australia, in a bid to boost its brand profile. It ran a campaign offering the “best job in the world” to one lucky winner for 6 months. The role was for an “Island Caretaker”, whose responsibilities would be to stroll the white sands, soak up the sun, snorkel the reef, maybe clean the pool and report to a global audience via weekly blogs, photo diaries and video updates. In exchange, they would be paid 150,000 Australian dollars (105,000 US dollars). To get the job, candidates had to compete against one another in a high profile reality-TV style game. The process attracted thousands of applicants and caught the attention of the global media, boosting Queensland’s awareness and appeal.

In a very different way, Ebay uses the idea of competition in its online auctions. By getting customers to bid against one another to ‘win’ their chosen product, they’ve injected fun and a sense of rivalry into the buying process.

Principle #3: Make it rewarding. Nothing satisfies us more than the feeling that comes from negotiating an environment and being rewarded for it. The “reward schedule” is an inherent part of every video game — it defines the rate at which rewards are given to players and is carefully orchestrated to keep the gamer yearning for more. At the start, when a lot of basic learning is going on and the player doesn’t have much invested in the game, the rewards will come close together: more powers and options, graphical effects, new equipment, new areas to explore and so on. Gradually, these rewards will come further apart. Psychologically, it’s a similar process to the kind of satisfaction gained from becoming better at a sport, like golf or tennis.

The brand equivalent of the reward schedule is the loyalty programme, designed to create an on-going sense of achievement and making the customer feel as though they are continually progressing. Health brands, such as Weight Watchers, Weetabix and Volvic use the idea of reward by encouraging the customer to consume their products to look better or feel healthier. Volvic's 14-day challenge is a great example: consumers are encouraged to drink 1.5 litres of Volvic water a day for 14 days and feel physically better.

Fiat’s Eco-Drive technology is another example: the system analyses driver technique, and gives a score on an eco-index, marking the drive out of 100. It provides tips on how to change braking, acceleration, gear changes and speed in a step-by-step tutorial to help drivers improve their economy. The system lays down a gauntlet for the driver to improve their driving style; the reward being the sensation of mastery, the knowledge that they have positively contributed to the environment (in some small way) and lower running costs.

Principle #4: Allow continual discovery. The best videogames take the player on a journey of discovery by providing an ever-evolving environment. Second Life, an online role-playing game, allows players to create an ‘avatar’ of themselves and essentially live (and even work) in a virtual world. As a truly living, breathing environment, there are always new people to meet, new things to do and new places to visit, which keeps players coming back again and again. Even apparently 'simple' games, like Soduku, with a virtually infinite number of puzzles of varying levels of difficulty offer the gamer the opportunity for endless discovery.

Facebook and Amazon keep customers in a perpetual state of discovery. Whether it’s to stay in tune with what your friends are doing, or to discover a new artist, movie or book, as a result of a targeted recommendation based on your past purchases, the content is continually updated to stay fresh and exciting, which keeps users coming back for more.

Principle #5: Incentivise collaboration. Online games, such as World of Warcraft require players to collaborate with one another, forging alliances and developing common strategies to overcome the enemy. The game itself is essentially reduced to a platform of rules and parameters, where success can only be achieved through co-operation with others. The environment encourages dialogue and creativity, both of which are intrinsically rewarding.

Groupon applies this principle beautifully: it encourages people to ‘buy together to save together’, collectively benefiting from lower prices on restaurants, spas, and other leisure activities in their cities. It works on the premise of bulk purchasing power and the whole idea of buying with your friends, makes the experience far more engaging.

What’s clear is that technology advances, particularly in the area of social media, have made it easier for brands to adopt some of these gaming principles to excite and captivate the customer. Online brands, such as Ebay, Facebook, Amazon and Groupon, are fundamentally engineered around the principles of competition, discovery and collaboration, so it’s no wonder they enjoy high levels of engagement and loyalty. For offline brands it’s arguably more difficult to ‘bake in’ gaming principles into business-as-usual activity, but well-designed product ideas (such as Nike ID and Fiat’s Eco-Drive), or campaigns (Volvic’s “14-day Challenge” and Queensland’s “Best Job in the World”) can help to not only build awareness, but also engage the customer at a deeper level with a brand’s positioning.

The trick is, as ever in the world of branding, to ensure that the principles are designed and executed in a way, so as not to appear gimmicky or superficial. They should always be tied in some way to a fundamental brand truth — but that’s not an easy game.

Join us on