Last August, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old. The protests and civil unrest that followed--and the tactics authorities used to halt them--made the militarization of police forces in America a topic of much debate.
Just a few weeks later, Electronic Arts announced the hiring of Chris Bruzzo as its chief marketing officer, who would be responsible for (among other things) the promotion of Battlefield: Hardline, a spin-off to the military shooter series that reveled in the idea of a police force with access to the latest and greatest in armament and gadgetry. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz about that trial by fire at E3 last month, Bruzzo explained how the company approached promoting such a game in a tense cultural climate.
"...entertainment is a different part of the human experience. And while it might instruct us on things that are happening in other parts of our lives, it exists to entertain."
"We were very sensitive to that," Bruzzo said. "We spent time to make sure we understood what was happening in the environment. But while being sensitive to not wanting to draw on that or capitalize on it in any way, we also really came to the conclusion that most entertainment companies have to come to, which is that entertainment is a different part of the human experience. And while it might instruct us on things that are happening in other parts of our lives, it exists to entertain. Just like TV shows or movies that are a long time in production, those stories about crime, or difficult experiences in the world, those are going to continue to be important stories that people love to engage in. We don't actually suggest there's much about Battlefield: Hardline that has a lot of relevancy to things that are happening in Ferguson or places like that."
That stance toward cultural relevancy isn't applicable across EA's entire portfolio. Bruzzo clearly believes it's appropriate in some situations, as he explained when discussing the strategy for marketing Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, a sequel to a fondly remembered--but commercially unsuccessful--title.
"When I think about how to invite people into the story, I really encourage our teams to start in a really positive place," Bruzzo said. "That means asking, 'What's great about Mirror's Edge? What made it great the first time? What are we carrying through, and how is it contemporary now?' Mirror's Edge: Catalyst has its own story to tell, and it's updated. It's touching on themes that are pretty relevant today. That opening line in the trailer--'What does it mean to freely give away your privacy?'--couldn't be more at the center of our digitally engaged everywhere experience that we're having today."
If cultural relevance is a double-edged sword, so too is a high-profile license. When it comes to FIFA, the scandal engulfing football's international governing body couldn't have less to do with EA's top-selling video game football franchise.
"For us, we're very focused on the game, and on the experience we're creating for players in the game," Bruzzo said. "That's true in the case of Battlefield Hardline, and absolutely true in the case of FIFA. How do we bring the actual sport the athletes play to life in a way that connects with people?"
"If you ask young people who play Madden NFL today, a lot of them don't know who John Madden is. That's a crystal clear example where the game has completely transcended where it started and the personality of Madden."
EA actually took the same approach before Bruzzo signed on. In 2009, when Tiger Woods made headlines for a litany of personal "transgressions," EA stood behind both the golfer and its Tiger Woods PGA Tour series of games, saying their relationship was unaffected. (That relationship would be severed in 2013; the franchise spokesperson is currently Rory McElroy.) The mantra of "If it's in the game, it's in the game" may have defined EA Sports over the past two decades, but there remains a disconnect between the games themselves and the real-world entities that adorn them. People don't necessarily expect them to have anything to do with one another, and it's a distinction Bruzzo said customers have been drawing for years.
"If you ask young people who play Madden NFL today, a lot of them don't know who John Madden is," Bruzzo said. "That's a crystal clear example where the game has completely transcended where it started and the personality of Madden. The same is true for FIFA. If you ask people who play FIFA 15 this year, when you say FIFA to them, they're as likely to be talking about the [video] game. So I do think consumers understand the fiction here. And it's part of the authenticity of the entertainment. We're going to create this fictionalized environment and you're going to get to play. And that's pretty fundamentally different. It is challenging though when you pick a single endorser. That does make things a little more challenging. And yet, at times it's totally the right thing to do because it helps to bring authenticity to the game."
While Bruzzo may be new to games specifically, he has a history with entertainment marketing. A decade ago, he was vice president of marketing and public relations for Amazon when the online retailer was attempting to establish itself as a tastemaker in books, music, and film. After that, he went to Starbucks, where he oversaw the coffee giant's digital strategy, including its music business and the rest of its various media initiatives. In that time, he's seen the process of marketing entertainment of all forms change.
"I kind of feel that marketing has come apart. It is no longer a brand with some propaganda pushing a message one way to a target audience. In many ways, it really has been coming apart for a while."
"It's amazing," Bruzzo said. "'What is marketing?' is really an open question today. I kind of feel that marketing has come apart. It is no longer a brand with some propaganda pushing a message one way to a target audience. In many ways, it really has been coming apart for a while. It includes direct engagement with players and customers through social channels. It includes analytics. It continues to include creative. But today, the nature of marketing has come apart so it can get closer to the end recipient, the player and the product. And as a result, we can have a much more iterative relationship, a dialogue, even as games are being made."
The increasing diversity of games also leads to a diversity in ways to market them.
"That idea of the formulaic AAA marketing plan is also being deconstructed all the time and being blown up," Bruzzo said. "That is not an automatic for any game any more. For every single one of our games, it's what do we do right now to reach the broadest audience?"
For Madden NFL 15, that meant foregoing the traditional campaign for a "Madden Season" YouTube clip starring Kevin Hart and Dave Franco. It had almost nothing to do with that year's version of the game, but Bruzzo said it effectively conveyed a feeling of rivalry that has become the series' real selling point. As the company explores different markets--such as the smaller-scale downloadable space with the upcoming Unravel--it will embrace appropriately different marketing strategies.
"There are things about how you market that game that are fundamentally different than how you'd market a Battlefield or a Battlefront," Bruzzo said. "In this industry, we have these long lead times, and for a lot of good reasons, players want to deconstruct what the game's going to be and do a lot of comparisons. How many maps? How many modes? How many hours of play? I think it's fascinating that in the discussion about and reaction to Unravel, nobody's asking any of those questions. It's fundamentally a different construct. It's another kind of story that doesn't fall into the same [category]."
[CORRECTION]: This article originally misquoted one of Bruzzo's comments. He said, "We're going to create this fictionalized environment and you're going to get to play," and not, "you're going to get to pay." We regret the error.