This article was originally published by Next Generation.
One of the things we’ve been thinking about (as part of C3 at MIT) is how to turn media properties into lifestyle brands. This is a particularly hot topic in the realm of magazines and television. What I want to know is: what does it take for a game developer or publisher to create a lifestyle brand? And should they even try?
Defining “Lifestyle Brand”
First, let’s attempt to define “lifestyle brand.” This is more difficult than you’d think.
- From Wikipedia: A lifestyle brand embodies the values and aspirations of a group or culture. A successful lifestyle brand speaks to the core identity of its customers.
- From BusinessWeek: “lifestyle” brands .. are ones people want to wear and be identified with. MINI not only sells daily mobility, but an extensive list of apparel and accessories. Ditto Harley. Roca-Wear involves not only clothing and now sneakers, but music, vodka, a magazine and films.
- From FastCompany: So just what is a lifestyle brand? It makes life easier… It makes your world more stylish… It is an orchestrated strategy that is fully formed at a brand’s launch… Target is a notable exception…
Some disparities, here. Maybe a lifestyle brand is linked to a specific group of people, but maybe not. Maybe people want to be identified with it, but maybe that’s not necessary. Maybe it makes your life easier (wait — how does owning a Harley make your life easier?)
Can We At Least Agree On Example Brands?
Target is a favorite example of a (newly revitalized) lifestyle brand. But what does that really mean? Target customers don’t seem to be a “particular group or culture” — unless you consider the majority of Americans who like affordable yet stylish stuff a “particular group.” Nor do Target customers seem particularly inclined to “associate themselves with the brand” in the same way that Harley Davidson customers do.
So is Target really a lifestyle brand, or did they simply figure out that people like to buy nice stuff at reasonable prices? (Not to detract from the marketing strategy built around that premise, which is actually quite clever.)
Is Starbucks a lifestyle brand? People certainly make Starbucks a regular part of their lives. More importantly, many people like to be seen and to meet others at Starbucks — that’s an important driver of the company’s success. And yet, there’s plenty of debate over whether Starbucks deserves “lifestyle brand” status.
Focus, Focus, Focus
Here’s a different way of looking at the problem. If a consumer thinks about you and your products when s/he thinks about a core personal interest or desire, then that makes you part of their lifestyle! And the only way to accomplish that is via focus, in every regard. (Getting customers to desire public association with your brand is a separate issue, which I’ll get into later.)
Harley Davidson equals motorcycles + free-spiritedness. Starbucks equals coffee + treating yourself. Apple equals easy-to-use, attractive electronics + stylishness. Product + Interest. Lifestyle companies can explore tangential products and services, but they cannot stray from the emotional component of their brand message. That would kill them in a heartbeat. And therein lies the challenge for game developers and publishers, nearly all of which fit the following formula (in the minds of consumers): games + fun. How can developers differentiate themselves? One very good way is to focus on a particular consumer interest, and build games around that.
EA Sports, for example, couldn’t be more interest-focused if Larry Probst’s life depended on it. From the name of the brand, to all advertising, to affiliated websites, to associated products, you know what EA Sports stands for. More than just a genre (after all, they offer things like fantasy football), it is GAMES + SPORTS. And say what you want about EA, but they do their best to release only the highest quality products under the Sports brand. Anecdote: I think my EA sports t-shirt has gotten more compliments than any other article of clothing I own, sadly enough.
RedOctane / Harmonix are also good examples of interest-focused brands. While consumers are still becoming familiar with these companies, it might not be long before everyone is looking forward to their next music-centric titles. And if they expand into relevant segments (i.e. music other than rock, instruments other than guitars, and games that let you make music instead of just play along to it), they can inevitably dominate consumer mindshare… just as long as the games are good, and they make a real effort to court fan communities.
Enough Rules; What Are the Opportunities?
So what are some other important interest areas that haven’t been effectively claimed by a game brand yet?
How about fitness? There’s a smattering of games spread across multiple developers, but there’s no one brand you can currently turn to for all your fun-filled exercise needs.
Pretty much all the educational markets are wide open (and yes, I know they can be tough nuts to crack, but people do have a serious interest in learning when it’s actually fun).
Religion. Total no-brainer. The first company to develop a series of high-quality, genuinely fun Christian games (and call itself something appropriately biblical sounding) is going to make a fortune. There are already plenty of people trying (no comment on the quality of the attempts).
Moolah. This is America, isnt it? Making money is the national pastime! (There are already a few successful tycoon-type games.)
Getting Customers to Care What Other People Think
Once a developer or publisher has picked a focal interest, how can they get consumers to publicly identify themselves with it? To answer that question, it’s worth clarifying something. An internally directed branding decision addresses the question, “Does this product reflect who I think I am?” An externally directed branding decision addresses the question, “Does this product reflect who I want others to think I am?” We’re looking for external decisions, here.
Buying Grand Theft Auto instead of Tiger Woods PGA TOUR is, for the most part, an internally directed decision; buying a GTA t-shirt instead of an EA Sports t-shirt is externally directed. More recent examples of externally directed behavior include: propagating game media via your MySpace page, showcasing your game preferences via Xbox Live, etc. Externally-directed decisions often lead to higher sales, but they’re also more prone to fads and less stable over time. The bottom line is that fostering externally directed behavior requires constant effort and vigilance by developer and marketer alike.
Online gaming and online communities have made externally directed behavior more important to the video game industry. MMOGs, which depend on positive network externalities for success, are especially sensitive. Companies can encourage externally directed behavior by creating well-supported game and brand-centric websites, easy-to-use tools for creating user-generated content, and art assets that consumers are free to use and distribute however they so choose. Bioware is an example of a company that has always been particularly attuned to this.
Publicly-accessible achievement-based systems are another great way to encourage externally directed behavior. Intangible rewards (like badges at ClubPogo.com and Xbox Live Achievements) are not just strong individual gameplay incentives; they encourage friendly competition and growth of communities.
I don’t want to imply that creating a lifestyle brand is the only (or even best) path to sustainable success. After all, McDonald’s and Tide laundry detergent are not lifestyle brands, but they’re remarkably successful and stable profit machines. Lifestyle branding is simply one useful strategy for attacking a market. And it could prove especially useful to game developers and publishers that have otherwise found themselves lumped unceremoniously together.
If you do decide to give this a shot, just remember: the brand must be hard-linked to a specific, important component of a person’s lifestyle. Everyone wants to be the “high quality maker of fun games”, or even “the high quality maker of genre XYZ.” What’s going to make you different?
PS. Some of you may be thinking “isn’t Nintendo a lifestyle brand?” Arguably so. But their control of the hardware and their unique place in history makes them incomparable to normal publishers and developers. But that’s a story for another day…