Brand Genesis in Games

The public release of Paul Hemp’s article on Avatar-Based Marketing has inspired me to write about something that we’ve been discussing at MIT for the past couple years. That is, reverse-placement: the idea that fictional brands can be created in games, then introduced to the physical world as real products. Also, the idea that market research can be conducted within games.

Consumer product companies spend tens of millions of dollars (if not more) attempting to establish a new brand, especially in competitive retail markets. Fighting mature competitors for mindshare and shelf-space is difficult at best. Many video games, on the other hand, offer vast acres of uncluttered virtual real estate via which to introduce a new brand.

Why not introduce a cola, not initially via commercials, but via a really popular game like Grand Theft Auto? Then, after it’s been virtually consumed by millions of people over the course of tens (or hundreds) of hours of gameplay, introduce it (for real) in a few select markets, and gauge the reaction. Of course, GTA has already performed step 1; it features a cola called “Sprunk” which is well-recognized by players of the game.

And why limit marketing in games to brand messaging? Virtual environments can be used to inexpensively conduct market research, too. For example, imagine if Ford were to make functional models of several prototype cars available to users of Second Life (or any massively multiplayer video game with a real-world theme.) The model that becomes most popular with players of the game might very well succeed in the real world. It isn’t a 100% guarantee, but it’s another useful data point.

And why stop there? What if Ford were to enable and encourage players to freely modify its cars? Given the right conditions, a user-modified car might become incredibly popular within the game community. That’s effectively free R&D. Why try to guess what consumers want, when you can let them show you?

And to keep things realistic (and therefore more commercially useful), Ford simply needs to distribute design tools that account for real-world manufacturing considerations, such as cost, structural limitations, etc. I think these “limitations” would make experimenting with the design tool more interesting for players, not less… so it shouldn’t prove a problem.

PS. If you’re really interested in this topic, one of our recent graduates, Ilya, writes about and researches placements, reverse placements, and game-based R&D.

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