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Brand-engagement from a game-studies perspective: a theoretical background to analyse the benefits of games for branding

Ludwine Dekker | 355 4090 | Game Studies | Final Essay | David Nieborg | 08-07-2011

This essays aims to show the benefits of game-theory for branding by suggesting a theoretical framework through which brands can be better understood. Kornberger notes that in branding the focus has shifted from the product to values, symbols and culture. Gamebrander.com lists several reasons why brands should use games, including a fun experience and making the customer want to interact with a brand (Gamebrander.com). Another example is Zed-Axis, a digital advertising company that claims; The interactive elements of a game creates a relationship between the product and the customer that leads to an overall enhanced corporate brand-experience (Zed-axis.com). However, these claims are not grounded in research. Though the aim to provide branding practices with a theoretical background (Braun Thom, Zicherman Gabe & Linder Joselin) or link it to (digital) cultural practices (Mathieson Rick, Gould Mark R.) is not new, the specific (potential) benefits of gaming for brand-engagement have not yet widely been researched. Both 'branding' and 'games' are much debated concepts (Huizinga Johan, Collois Roger) and in order to say something specific, this essay focusses on brand-engagement and brand-experience from the viewpoint of game-studies in two ways. The first perspective is that of Calleja's frames of involvement, and the second is that of fan-studies. The first is necessary to research whether concepts from game-studies can actually be applied to branding. One reason not to use Calleja's model is that his case-study is an MMOG, and this essay covers modding as an example to support the theoretical background. However, Calleja's aim remains to explain games as a designed experience, which is also true for branding (Kornberger, Martin). Second, a fan-theory perspective is necessary to validate the examples that profit brand-engagement. For this goal, the practice of modding has been chosen because it is an example where a positive interest creates value exchange based on active contribution. A fan theory approach will be used to analyse these practices (Sotamaa, Ollie). The first motivation to connect fan-activities to branding and game-studies comes from Harrington & Bielby; A person "becomes a fan not by being a regular viewer of a particular program but by translating that viewing into some type of cultural activity .... For fans, consumption sparks production, reading generates writing, until the terms seem logically inseparable. Second, both brand-experience and brand-engagement are two branches of branding that are directed at consumers and their practices. For example, brand-management is practised within and aimed at the company (Kotler, Philip). In addition, engaged without

experience is unattainable. A third reason to link is that, according to Chief Marketing Officer of Deloitte David Redhill:
Today brands are no longer understood as trademarks; they are not asking you to keep your hands off. Rather, theyre an invitation to participate, to actively construct meaning. This is a key point brands need interaction and engagement, otherwise they remain empty vessels.
Kornberger, Martin

Brian Phipps, a brand strategy expert, identifies several problems. First, companies create a chasm which separates consumers from companies, and second, brand-engagement is seen as a way of persuasion instead of adding value to a brand. After establishing the theoretical background (part one), the example of modding (part two) will demonstrate a value-feedback loop that diminishes the chasm and explains the gains of this disappearance.

1) Suggesting a theoretical approach

This part will focus on the theoretical background and emphasises Brakus et. al.'s definition of brand-experience: conceptualized as sensations, feelings, cognitions, and behavioral responses evoked by brand-related stimuli that are part of a brands design and identity, packaging, communications, and environments.. In addition they identify at four distinguishable dimensions that capture brand-experience; affective, intellectual, sensory, and behavioural. The link between brand-experiences can be supported through Calleja's perspective on immersion 1, since this refers to the idea of having a mental focus on an object thereby experiencing it (Princeton). The use of Calleja's framework is also relevant because it entails a person's investment of attention towards a media object, which could be brand, and the absorption of a media object by the person2. The frames of involvement are the affective, tactical, spatial, narrative, shared and performative frames. The affective, tactical and spatial frame will be compared with Brakus et. al.'s dimensions. The first comparison is that between the affective (brand) dimension and the affective (game) frame. Brakus et. al. created a model where affection is based on feelings, sentiments and emotions. Calleja explains affection as the emotional aim of a player, and games as a medium through which this can be expressed effectively. But in Calleja's case, a persons emotional aim changes in correspondence to their desires, making the same game exciting or relaxing. Affection related to brands aims at a consistent experience, but Brakus et. al. recognise that people seek pleasure and avoid pain; a notion that is underlined by Kornberger's argument that brands conceptualise desire. The affective desire can be gained by acquiring emotional satisfaction. However, seeing that a brand in this sense if rather inflexible, customer satisfaction is acquired through picking one brand instead of another. If brands could adopt the flexible affective frame that games provide, the need to switch brands in accordance to affective desires would be less of a threat. However, because of the nature of certain products, e.g. banking products such as accounts, a switch is not easy to make. This does not pers mean that a flexible brand affect is not needed; in contrary. Due to the long term experience the consumer has had with the brand, it is important to live up to different emotional aims of consumers. This is often seen in types of products that brands offer: kids bank accounts, teenager accounts, student accounts etc. (ING.nl). Though it is easy to recognise them as 'target audience products' instead of products aiming at
1 Calleja states that the general notion of immersion should be replaced by incorporation. However, the complexness of this discussion will here not be pursued due to spatial restrictions. 2 Calleja connects shared involvement and business practices: Building community helps create richer gaming experiences and, more importantly, from a business perspective it can often replace the excitement of gaming with shared involvement and participation.

affect (advertising perspective), in promotional activities a different emotion is targeted (game-studies perspective). The intellectual dimension of a brand is represented in propositions such as This brand stimulates my curiosity and problem solving. (Brakus Josko, J. et. al.). In this sense, correspondences are found in Calleja's tactical involvement frame that includes setting goals, using a certain strategy to attain such a goal and the final reward. Whether this process is satisfying depends on multiple factors. One example of a strategy that is not naturally offered by the game architecture, is that of grinding. In this case a player will continually rehearse a action in order to attain more experience or new or exclusive materials. Though the aim of the game would be to reach the goal through following the provided quests, the player is practising a strategy outside the normal framework of the game. One example that will be discussed later on is that of modding as a way of innovation and product improvement. Another example that highlights curiosity of participants, is the total conversion of Half-Life into Counterstrike. However, these are still examples of game-industry practices. Nonetheless, these are signals that the participants' love for a certain object can translate into experiencing the brand on an intellectual level. The sensory dimension supports claims regarding This brand makes a strong impression on my visual sense or other senses. (Brakus Josko, J. et. al.). In comparison with Calleja's frames of involvement, the most correspondence is with the spatial involvement: With the considerable advances in graphics and sound technology it has become possible to create vast visual worlds in which the desire for stimulation through active engagement with unfamiliar situations, can be aesthetically satisfied.. Though spatiality is a complex concept, Calleja's notion is also in line with Lindstrom who, in his book Brand Sense, argues that brands should focus their brand-experience more towards sensory experience. Some brands already practice this notion outside the digital environment, one example being the iconic Gucci store, which has to create the ultimate Gucci-experience for consumers. In a digital environment however, the spatial brand-experience remains an attempt that is often shaped in an advert-game, such as the McVideoGame, that aims at giving the consumer insight in McDonald's practices in a fun way (McDonalds). If McDonald's holistic brand-experience would be 'fun', and the game would be too, then brand-experience is achieved through the digital sensation. However, more complex brand values such as 'luxury', can be hard to translate to a digital environment. In this sense, a pleasant brand-experience can look at game environments as an example, that creates e.g. tourist moments for players, who want to take pictures of the scenery (Calleja Gordon). The benefits

for travel brands could be significant. Though by no means exhaustive, this initial comparison between brand-experience dimensions and frames of involvement will provide the basis of this essays aim to show the benefits of game-theory for branding. However, the narrative involvement frame in relation to brand-experience is hard to defend, as is the notion of shared involvement. Though it is likely that because of the extensive nature of brands, both frames 'fit' somehow, the conclusion in the case of Brakus et. al. model is that Calleja's model is not entirely transferable. One reason could be that brands simply are not games, but this essay tries to defend exactly that notion. Another explanation is that this particular game-model is simply not suited, but the arguments above prove otherwise. One suggestion is that Calleja's frames might be say more about other aspects of branding, such as brand-personality. The disconnection between the model at some points calls for further research, though 'tailoring' the notions to fit each other must be avoided. Nonetheless, support can certainly be found for the use of game-theory for branding as long a critical approach of what works and what does not is kept. One last test of Calleja's framework applied to branding is left; that of the behavioural dimension and performative involvement that entails agency of the player in a virtual environment and the related meaning making (Calleja Gordon). This will be demonstrated in the second part of this essay.

2) The company - customer chasm

This part will consider modding as a more practice oriented argument of how brands can profit from game culture. Since modding is a fan-based activity pur sang (Jenkins Henry), the game practises benefiting brands will be reviewed from a fan-theory perspective. The company-customer chasm problem refers to a 'we' vs. 'them'; the consumer is not an inherit part of the company and the person is not a member of a community. Instead of this, the customer is targeted and sold to (Phipps Brian). This indicates two problems; first, the company is not a community and their brand is a 'label' more then an inherit value that creates company culture, and second, as a result the customer is unable to be a community-member. In terms of affective and behavioural dimensions this would be a failure (Brakus Josko J. et. al.). Kornberger mentions ING as a company that does it right. Their brand values are implemented throughout their company, one of which is 'easier' that represents a clear benefit for the consumer. Instead of targeting their audience and selling them products that represent 'easier', ING works from the inside out, including ICT processes and decision making. This shows ING ignores what Hills explains as monetary value, which in advertising is translated as cost-value and selling and is rooted in a capitalist ideology (Hills, Matt). The approach of ING is explained by Hills as the actual value (exchange-value) of the exchanged object which can be traced in what people actually do with the object. Jenkins says that value exchange takes places in communities, strengthening meaning when it is processed through social interaction. This process is recognisable in modding cultures and its practices in two ways; first, the contributors are included in the process of product creation, and second; the meaning created in this process is reflected in the output. One example where a company provides the consumer with a chance to be part of the process is the modding of The Sims. Prgl & Schreier describe the use of toolkits as the opportunity for a company to increase its competitiveness beyond its internal boundaries. Though their article focusses on the innovative prospective that toolkits enable, if this game practise is analysed from the point of view of Hills and Jenkins, evidence of value exchange between the company and its consumers is very clear. For example, modifications are made to suit the players' needs and tastes, and players can get exactly what they want out of the game by adding to it (Prgl Reinhard, Schreier Martin). Furthermore, the participation in the production process includes the individual itself as well as the community, and value is exchanged through the player modifications online. Modthesims.info is one example of such an environment, demonstrating Jenkins' meaning making in communities. There is also a forum where players can debate problems and additional products of meaning making such as stories 6

and experiences. From the perspective of branding, it is almost an utopia to give each consumer exactly what they want from a brand. This is often translated in personalisation of products as seen in e.g. Amazon's product suggestions (Okonkwo, Uche). Though this might be a good service, the exchange of value and meaning making as Modthesims.info demonstrates is by far not yet implemented. It is possible to place product reviews, but this is not the main aim. Another example is Gucci that is visible in social networks where meaning is exchanged but this not yet resembles the engagement that game-fans show, because most of the posts are placed by Gucci and contributions mostly take the form of 'likes' (GUCCI). These examples show that attempts are still lacking and the chasm has not yet disappeared. One reason will now be further explored.

Monetary value redefined by the 'audience'

The notion of consumers as audience obstructs a companies' benefit from the value of 'brand-fans'. This value takes two forms; Kucklich's monetary value, and Prgl & Schreier's innovative value. Kcklich claims that though the monetary benefits from modding to the game-industry are significant,modding is often seen as 'fun' rather then a real contribution. Regarding brands, the monetary value can be greatly appreciated. Hills refers to Marx' idea of 'use-value', meaning the literal price paid for a product. Yet this is a remnant of non-capitalistic practice, and exchange-value is a holistic approach valuing a product above its original cost of production (Hills Matt). Lury recognises exactly this; that brands must reintroduce the value of a product that has been denominated by money, removing the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability (Kornberger). Branding could look closer at how the value of modding is being transferred from fans to the game-industry. One example is that of Half-Life's modification Counter Strike through the fan dedication of two college students has become one of its most famous international brands (Keiser, Joe). Few non-game companies can claim that their consumer backdrop has provided them with such an accomplishment. Second is the innovative value. According to Prgl & Schreier the game industry benefits from active problem solving and practising the trial and error procedures in product development through modding. Other industries achieve this by costly R&D departments but includes obstacles for knowledge sharing and proactive participation (Policies Study Institute, Christensen Jesper Lindgaard & Lundvall Bengte); topics that have been considered successful in modding. Edery & Mollick claim that when users and companies work towards the same goals, this can benefit innovation significantly. IKEA is one example that could extend its innovative approach to the digital environment since their 'stuff pack' for The Sims puts it within the creative mindset of consumers. Though this claim needs further research, it is not unimaginable that Sim-mods of IKEA products reflect customer wants and needs. To conclude, two disclaimers about the monetary- and exchange-value in modding practices are required. First, not all brands are suitable for modding because some products are not easy to modify. Its imaginable that modding happens when we look at nutrition products, that as a marketing promotion lets' participants share or compete through exchanging recipes. However, a brand is more a desire then a product and in this case the brand-engagement is based on a product promotion. In order to gain sustainable results, brand-fans should be given the opportunity to continue their participation (Brakus 2006). It is also important to recognise the examples above as successful examples, and a lot of modifications are not as lucky as the ones highlighted here. That does not devalue the possible contributions of modding as a way off adding value to a brand, but it does emphasise the need to research this further and think through the implementation of such actions carefully.

Game-studies as a cultural study and branding, have more in common the one might initially expect. Therefore this essay has tried to create a theoretical background for the use of games-studies in branding. Some frames of involvement support the aspects of brand-engagement that according to Brakus et. al. are measurable and usable for creating a brand-experience. This is demonstrated by the practical examples, that combine Brakus et. al's behavioural dimension and Calleja's performative frame of involvement. One important finding to acknowledge is the link that both branding and gaming share with the consumer or gamer. Without this link, the 'transfer' of game-theory to brand-engagement is weak. Another important conclusion is that, though this essay focusses on the positive convergence of branding and gaming, some problems have been found. Tailoring one theory to fit an argument is not to be recommended, and not doing so shows the holes of the narrative and shared involvement frames that do not fit brand-engagement. This mean attention should be paid when using game-theory for branding, since there are clearly some obstacles. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that 'elements of play' might be more beneficial for branding then literal game-related acts. Summarising, this means that this framework of theory highlighted the potentials of game-theory for brand-engagement but that this is not applicable to the overall field. To create a stronger framework that allows for actual use, more research is needed. Research aimed at brand-engagement should consider the gamer or consumer, and the core experience of a brand and a game.

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