Why branding matters for mobile game developers

Justin Booth-Clibborn, chief marketing officer of Psyop, explains why developers need to look beyond performance-based ads and the CPI model

"This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine," Don Draper intones as he clicks through pictures of his life on a Kodak projector. The emotion in the room is thick. As the presentation ends, an ad executive tearfully hurries out of the room. The story of the brand, the new technology, has been told; now the company just has to sell it.

Making technology an emotional experience is an aspiration for the tech elite. But even though we love Mad Men, we also tend to view it as a period drama, with little to say about today's marketing. Spending on TV, in particular, seems counterintuitive to techies, for reasons beyond our Netflix and HBO Go addictions. Most of our ads, especially in mobile, are direct response. When you're used to measuring every incoming user, TV can seem like a dumb acquisition channel.

But increasingly there's a trend of tech doing brand ads, led by mobile game developers. TV spending in mobile was up 47 percent for 2015, with 65 video game developers paying out $629 million, according to That's because branding becomes important as competition rises ( (and increased Cost Per install rates along with it), and there's no market more competitive than mobile gaming.

An alternate path to users

Mobile marketers weren't eager to jump into brand advertising. They were pushed. Over the past few years, mobile has become a bloodbath, driven by high-earning mid-core and casino games who bid direct response CPIs through the roof, as well as the slow but steady entry of massive consumer brands.

"[Supercell and Machine Zone] proved that they, at least, can see the value in brand ads. Perhaps more importantly, they demonstrated that the made-in-America art of creating a story and dream in 30 or 60 seconds isn't dead"

Two other trends have encouraged more mobile developers to jump into brand advertising. One of those trends is the mounting evidence that brand ads do have a place in a targeted, measured multi-channel strategy. Since apps and games are reliant on installs, with many of these attributed directly to acquisition channels, it's possible to measure TV by process of elimination, as well as factors like time of broadcast. Or, in more relatable terms, there's a measurable bump in downloads from having Kate Upton pull on a silver breastplate and charge through her enemies during the Superbowl. Fetch, a mobile researcher, estimated that such TV ads can increase downloads for mobile apps up to 74 percent.

The other trend is the appearance of splashy, multi-million dollar TV ads from the likes of Supercell, which hired Liam Neeson for a Clash of Clans spot, and Machine Zone, who besides Kate Upton has tagged Mariah Carey and Arnold Schwarzenegger for Game of War and Mobile Strike. These industry leaders proved that they, at least, can see the value in brand ads. Perhaps more importantly, they demonstrated that the made-in-America art of creating a story and dream in 30 or 60 seconds isn't dead.

Selling dreams

If mobile game developers and publishers are honest with themselves, they might admit that strategically based ideas and creativity isn't the top input in most of their ads. Optimal click-throughs and conversion are the driver. History repeats itself: for example, in the social game boom that preceded mobile, companies like Zynga rose ascendent with a stats-over-emotion philosophy of game design. Creativity eventually caught up to analysis in today's generation of mobile developers, whose games are creative -- but whose marketing is built on stats and analysis.

Unlike most of the punchy but soulless ads found on direct response channels, the big TV ads are actually good. Machine Zone has continued with a series of ads that show the social side of their games, and are suitable for multi-screen campaigns. Supercell has developed fun personalities for its game characters, causing fans to seek out their commercials and generating hundreds of millions of views, likes and shares.

Adding an emotional context works well in any medium, whether it's TV, print, billboard or digital. Simple trailer videos that show an app in action are no longer necessarily enough to inspire a download: effective videos must inform, entertain, and build an emotional connection with, the audience by developing characters, conveying plotlines or even inciting laughter or fear, much the same way that movie trailers try to do.

This type of creativity-fueled, emotion-driving advertising is becoming a must for social media marketing and virality as well, as social channels like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have gained immense power for distributing content directly to users and audiences. Only the best, most compelling game promotion videos will earn the likes, shares and comments to reach their peak effectiveness.

"The most common objection to traditional ads is that cord-cutting will invalidate TV advertising. While it's true that TV is declining, it's happening a lot slower than people think"

And so we'll see creativity move to the forefront of game marketing instead of remaining an afterthought. After years of rather un-creative marketing, most developers will need help with this, either finding partners who can help with the creative stage of the process, or hiring new employees who have the skills to develop and execute that type of work.

What to watch out for

The most common objection to traditional ads is that cord-cutting will invalidate TV advertising. While it's true that TV is declining, it's happening a lot slower than people think. Just 1 to 2 percent of customers will cut off their cable over each of the next few years, leaving well over 200 million monthly users in the US - hardly a channel to ignore. And even if cable and broadcast slowly die, other television-like marketing channels will emerge.

It's also worth pointing out that brand building requires time and patience. No reputable brand was built overnight. It requires repetitive exposure (there's an old adage that consumers must be exposed to a message at least seven times before it sinks in), and these days it also requires a coordinated approach across multiple channels, including not just TV but mobile, digital, and possibly even print mediums such as magazines, billboards and more. So for developers hoping to run a single TV ad -- maybe even one during the Super Bowl -- and reap all the rewards of having an "established" brand, we are sorry to say that there is no such shortcut.

Overall, brand advertising is a great "new" channel for mobile game developers, offering some respite from the ever more brutal competition in their primary advertising and UA channels. Sustained brand awareness -- built by great, creative advertising -- is one of the best ways to be heard above the din.

Justin Booth-Clibborn is CMO/Head of Business Development, Psyop and served as Managing Partner/Executive Producer from 2001 to 2012. Psyop is the creative design agency behind ads for Clash of Clans, Temple Run, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon and other major gaming brands.

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