Last week, EA Sports posted a three-and-a-half-minute commercial to its YouTube channel. The ad featured a bear emerging from a swimming pool while playing violin, Dave Franco's girlfriend leaving him for another man, JJ Abrams' levels of lens flare abuse, popstar Conway performing in an outlandish silver dress with neon yellow makeup, and Epic Meal Time host Harley Morenstein warning everyone about a house fire. There's also something in there about Madden NFL 15, the game the spot was designed to promote.
"Madden is a franchise that's 26 years old, and that's a little bit of a blessing and a curse."
The actual focus of the ad is a rivalry between Franco and Kevin Hart. With Madden 15 hitting shelves next week, the ad suggests it's time for Franco and Hart to put aside whatever else is going on in their lives and throw down for a few games of the long-running football sim. If it seems like a departure from EA's normal playbook for selling the series, EA Sports VP of global marketing and brand Anthony Stevenson told GamesIndustry.biz that's because it is.
"Madden is a franchise that's 26 years old, and that's a little bit of a blessing and a curse," Stevenson said. "It's a blessing because we probably have one of the most passionate fanbases in the entire video game industry, and they've been on this journey with us for the past two decades, almost three decades. The curse side of it is that our fans have been around for a while, and there's a whole younger generation. We think of them as digital natives; these are people who have grown up with everything from iTunes to Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. That's what they're used to. For a franchise that's 26 years old to appeal to that audience while still pleasing our core that's grown up with us is really a challenge."
Stevenson said this is the first year the company has focused its efforts on bringing that new generation into the game. And since those digital natives live online, that's where the campaign is. Stevenson called last week's spot "the heartbeat" of this year's Madden Season campaign. It will be cut up and shortened to 30-second clips that will air on TV, but the goal is to drive people to watch the clip online, "where the real campaign is."
"If you can get people to talk about your brand, to talk about your product in a positive way, ultimately that's what's going to lead to sales."
As for how EA Sports is specifically targeting a younger crowd, it has a few approaches. For one, there's the talent used in the ad. Stevenson said EA polled consumers after last year's Madden campaign to ask them what celebrities they'd like to see involved with the brand; Hart was "universally" popular with that younger audience. There's also a new class of celebrity for that crowd in the form of YouTube personalities, which explains why EA brought in Morenstein, who is best known for creating videos documenting the creation of absurdly high-calorie meals. The focus on youth even applied to the featured athletes in the spot, focusing solely on players age 26 or younger, like Colin Kaepernick, Richard Sherman, and LeSean McCoy. One thing you won't see in the spot is any sort of emphasis on new features.
"You're not going to attract a new audience with a feature," Stevenson said. "You're going to attract a new audience by catering to what they're passionate about, which in this case is football, competition, and the celebrity talent they like that are in the creative... The goal with TV and digital is we want to get a new audience who's not going to be attracted by 'Hey, we've got a brand new way to do playcalling.' That's not going to appeal to them. What we're trying to do is make them reconsider Madden, as, 'Hey, Madden's a cool brand. They get it. I love to compete, so this might be something for me.'"
The thinking is that the audience that cares about the new features, the core crowd who buys the game year after year, already knows what's going to be new in the game because they've been following every bit of information dripped out through EA's social media channels. And if the result is that the advertising campaign seems less representative of the end product, that's fine with Stevenson. In some ways, selling people on the product's strengths has become less important for him than sparking a conversation.
"If you can get people to talk about your brand, to talk about your product in a positive way, ultimately that's what's going to lead to sales," Stevenson said.
"You put out something that's share-worthy and you let your audience basically become brand evangelists."
He pointed to the Madden 15 Facebook page as an example. A lot of the posts made to that feed may just be asking fans who they expect to win in an upcoming Monday Night Football game.
"That says nothing about the game," Stevenson said. "Nothing at all. We're not even talking about Madden, necessarily. But it's on the Madden platform and we're facilitating conversations amongst people with common interests. And if you can do that, that's going to lead people to want to go learn more about the game. You don't have to force feed it to them."
The key when trying to reach those digital natives, Stevenson said, is to create share-worthy content.
"There's a lot of noise out there, a lot of brands putting out different pieces of creative, and the stuff that's really going to bubble up and rises up, especially with this particular target, is something that's share-worthy," Stevenson said, adding, "We're a week or so away from launch and now we have to make sure the whole world knows. And how do you do that? You put out something that's share-worthy and you let your audience basically become brand evangelists. They become a louder bullhorn than anything you could put on TV, or any amount of money you could put behind something on TV."