For a startup game company, does brand matter?
A while back I sought wisdom from a group of experienced tech entrepreneurs, all of whom had built successful companies:
That makes sense.
Why build a brand?
In an age of clones and cluttered app stores, having a strong brand for your portfolio is more important than ever.
Increased brand equity correlates to increased customer lifetime values.
A strong brand will convert better in cross promotion and organic adoption of apps from the same company, offsetting rising CPAs to individual titles. A friend at a large mobile studio with many games, estimated the brand uplift factor to be over 20%.
And basic brand building doesn’t cost that much, making it startup friendly.
Yet why is branding is usually the last thing on our minds?
6 months ago I would have counted myself in the “product is the ONLY thing that matters” camp, yet now I’ve switched camps…
These may be great games, but would players know these are from the same company?
On the other hand, how could a player who enjoyed Tap Paradise Cove and loves cute animals NOT want to play Tap Pet Shop?
How to do it?
Ok, so it’s important, but for us engineers or designers, where to start?
Having gone through the process with Me Girl, I found working through these 5 questions was very helpful:
- Who is the target player & market?
- What are your core brand attributes?
- What does your brand stand for? (emotional connection)
- What will identify your brand to players?
- What games and features strengthen the brand?
Let’s go through them one by one:
1. Who is the target player & market?
Yes, the easiest one! You’re making a game, you should have a primary audience in mind. eg-
- We’re making strategy games for high income males over the age of 25
- We’re making lifestyle games for adult women
- We’re making racing and sports games for boys up to the age of 14
What if you believe you’re making the next Angry Birds, a game that will be popular with literally everyone?
Creating a game like this is difficult. While you might strike it lucky, your chances for success and monetization go up if you create games designed and branded for a target group of players. Even mega hits like Temple Run and Words with Friends have their primary markets (teens and adult women).
Defining player personas, who you’re building for, lets you really dig in and understand:
- Who are they?
- When do they play?
- What do they play on?
- What other media do they consume?
- What issues are important to them?
- What challenges do they have in their lives?
2. What are your core brand attributes?
If you had to pick (and you do!) what are the 2 or 3 things that are unique to your brand. Put another way, what makes you different from everyone else out there?
Let’s look at some examples from mainstream:
- Toms - style with a social conscience
- Nike - personal achievement
- Walmart - large selection and low prices
- Personal - games that relate to my life
- Playful - games that can laugh at themselves
- Inspirational - positive games that inspire me
Once you have gone through this and settled on your brand attributes, it’s like you’ve found your North Star. It will help guide you in decisions from here on out.
3. What does your brand stand for? (emotional connection)
The strongest brands form emotional connections with consumers that often override logic and reason.
Low cost rubber and fabric stitched in a factory in Indonesia can inspire people to “Just Do It”. People will queue for days for the latest iDevice. Overpriced headphones from Beats convey urban cool and freedom from authority:
It opened our eyes - when we A/B tested taglines for Me Girl, we found emotional phrases like our final choice “Fabulously Me” converted much better than impersonal choices like “Games with Style”.
“Fabulously Me” sums our mission: to make women feel fabulous while playing our games. Regardless of age, looks, body shape, status in life, challenges…everything.
This is what our brand stand for.
If a brand stands for something - Freedom. Challenging yourself etc., chances are players will care that much more in return.
4. What will identify your brand to players?
Once you’ve locked down your targets, brand attributes and emotional connection, it’s time to bring that to life visually.
Creating a match of logo, typography, color palette, audio, UI elements and animations in a cohesive experience that conveys your values is the goal. Honestly, it’s easier said than done (we have a ways to go) But we just consciously going through the process will often result in something good.
The venerable Sims line and their “Play with Life” proposition does it extremely well, with consistent visual elements that a random 20-something on a street could identify in a second. And their music and audio right including their quirky Simlish reinforces a unique personality.
As we’ve seen with the Sims, branding elements that anticipate and can weave into future games, expansions and sequels is also important. Even more so in the age of mobile with more releases more often.
For us a future “Dance Me Girl” or “Me Girl Dancer” would fit nicely into the same family from a cross promotion perspective.
5. What games and features strengthen the brand?
Consistency is key - whether in art, storyline, mechanics, humour etc.
If Google decided to sell your personal info to shady direct marketers, how would you feel?
Likewise if you’re someone who enjoys Bubblez on Play First and returned to find them pushing a hardcore dungeon raiding MMO, you’d probably be confused.
These are extreme examples of course, but there are plenty of choices that we all face every day:
- should I add a feature to simplify UI but reduce freedom in my simulation game?
- should the game be balanced to encourage free players or heavily favor paid users?
- what types of ads should I be showing in my freemium game?
- should I add a feature that lets you lose a lot of real money investment in PvP?
- what should my next game be?
Knowing your brand values often helps in these questions - ringing an warning bell when you’re heading down a wrong path.
For example we could add competitive systems where you systematically tear down the reputation of others. Whilst “fun” from a game design perspective and helping short term numbers, it wouldn’t align with our “positive and inspirational” feel.
And on the flip side, carving out cycles to do brand building features that might not directly boost metrics but help players fall in love with your game brand can be worthwhile.
An ongoing endeavour
As we’re understanding, it’s not a one time activity - building a brand is an ongoing sustained effort that spans from game design, to engineering to marketing and even customer support.
Of course a great brand can’t rescue a bad game and it’s always a tough call to put precious cycles into something you haven’t before.
But assuming you are making good games, investing in brand building can add up to huge wins in the long term.
Big thanks to our investor Doug Glen whose Mattel experience made us “see the light”!
Was up in LA last week for my very first E3.
Glad I came. Bunch of awesome meetings mostly at JW Marriott, Millenium Biltmore and other hotels dotted around the convention center.
The time I spent actually at E3 itself, walking the show floor didn’t leave me with as positive an impression.
Take this “promotion” for THQ’s upcoming Darksiders 2*
In this day and age must we objectify women to promote an apocalyptic action game?
Yes I get it, you’re targeting a male audience. And guys just like looking at sexy girls, no matter the product right?
This type of mindset is holding the industry back.
*I use Darksiders 2 as an example, plenty more on the show floor..