It’s in the game

—With gaming continuing to grow, more brands want to play with their consumers. Ari Elkouby offers four tips for how to play and win—


When Clotaire Rapaille, famed cultural anthropologist and author of “The Culture Code,” was asked by Frito-Lay to decode the meaning of Doritos in our lives over a decade ago, he landed on the word “Play.”

It was quite fitting for a chip shaped like a giant play button and the snack of choice for so many video-game playing teens. But much has changed since then, and today many brands want to play with their consumers.

Gaming has moved out of the basement and into the boardroom. Amazon saw it coming, spending nearly $1 billion to buy Twitch in 2014. More recently, we’ve seen US colleges begin offering e-sports scholarships for gamers. Here in Canada, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) estimates that 23 million of us are gamers.

With gaming so pervasive, it’s not surprising brands want in on the action; the challenge is to do so in meaningful ways, and increasingly that means going beyond the standard paid-media in-game placement.

Here are a few homegrown campaigns, my thoughts on what made these efforts effective, and how brands can take a page out of their playbook.

“Gaming-for-good” has exploded recently, and two brands have taken to two different gaming platforms to get their message across. First off, Fortnite—the most played game amongst Canadian kids 13-17—was transformed into a virtual memorial for fallen soldiers on behalf of the Royal Canadian Legion to reach and teach Canada’s youth about the sacrifices made by our military veterans (disclosure: this is a program we developed at Wunderman Thompson). Remembrance Island took advantage of the game’s “creative mode,” which allowed for the recreation of well-known battlefields and the inclusion of thousands of red poppy flowers as a surrogate for Legion branding.

Pro tip #1: “Forego the logo” — Many online games such as Fortnite do not allow for in-game branding or advertisement without a sponsorship deal. So, brands that are budget-constrained but rich in distinctive brand assets (aside from their logo) can lean into those assets. Using memory triggers associated with the brand, such as colour, shape, mascots, occasion etc., can all be as strong a link to the brand as the logo.

The second “Gaming-for-good” example is Hellmann’s Canada, which tackled food waste in support of Second Harvest by playing with the virtual currency of the popular online game Animal Crossing. Hellmann’s Island asked Canadians to reach out to the brand on social media for a special code to visit the branded island and turn virtual spoiled turnips into donations to Second Harvest. Unlike Fortnite, Animal Crossing does allow for customizable branded elements within its virtual world, making it a desirable environment for brands.

Pro tip #2: “Create the code” — Driving gamers to unique destinations inside virtual worlds like Fortnite or Animal Crossing requires a special code that needs to be made widely available to gamers. Think of these as virtual coordinates of longitude and latitude. Codes are also necessary to download custom content such as branded swag for player’s avatars to wear. Make sure these codes are easily communicated through the communications surrounding the campaign.

The pandemic has resulted in an increase in gameplay, with 58% of Canadian adults playing more during the outbreak. They are playing not just as an escape from the stress of our daily lives, but as an alternative to IRL meet-ups, including dates and parties. Hudson’s Bay Company joined the world of Animal Crossing to release a line of iconic Bay striped merch the game’s characters could wear, and homewares to adorn their virtual homes while hosting get-togethers.

Pro tip #3: “Map your Metrics” — If you’re big on analytics, the world of online gaming may not be for you. The owners of these games such as Epic, the maker of Fortnite, and Nintendo, the maker of Animal Crossing, don’t share metrics openly. Measuring the impact of your investment must come from other sources, such as earned media coverage or social sharing of your initiative. You may never know how much time was spent or how many gamers visited your experience.

Lastly, another trend emerging due to the impact of COVID is to move education online. Dairy Farmers of Ontario turned to the world-building universe of Minecraft to create a virtual day at the farm dubbed Dairycraft to educate students in grades one to five about a wide range of subjects. These include structures found on a dairy farm, how nutrients affect your body, and how dairy is transformed into cheese, yogurt and butter. This content would have been delivered in person at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, but is now available to teachers and parents looking to keep the learning going on a platform these kids know well.

Pro tip #4: “Know your role” — Understanding the role your brand plays in the world is the first step in finding a way to naturally integrate it into the ever-expanding universe of online gaming. Once you’ve done so, there’s going to be a fit with one or more gaming franchises your audience plays. Once you’ve established this, go to the experts who either play or make a living buildings content for these franchises and partner with them to ensure you are not forcing your brand into a world you don’t credibly belong.

As gaming continues its growth as a media channel, the “it” Canadian voice actor Andrew Anthony was referring to in his now famous recording of “It’s in the game” for EA Sports – may in fact be your brand.

Ari Elkouby is the executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson in Toronto.