Why Brands Like Under Armour and Gatorade Are Making Immersive, Interactive Games

Experimenting to get consumers' attention

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It's no secret that brands are having a difficult time getting consumers with ever-shrinking attention spans to focus on, never mind notice, traditional advertising. But some marketers, including Under Armour, Gatorade and Warby Parker, may have found a solution by way of gaming.

Last week, Under Armour became the latest marketer to experiment with an interactive game on Snapchat's Discover. It Comes From Below, from RED Interactive Agency and Droga5, turns players into Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton where, with some fancy footwork, they dodge obstacles in a forest. In August, Gatorade released its first video game within Snapchat's Discover ESPN channel, Serena Williams' Match Point, from game developer Ludomade and TBWAChiatDay. Here, players get their chance to win one of her Grand Slam singles titles. And in the same month, Warby Parker collaborated with video game company Kill Screen and Highline Games to create Worbs, a "physics-based matching game" tied to the launch of a pair of limited-edition glasses.

"Brands are hungry to get your attention," said Peter Petralia, managing director of digital strategy for brand engagement firm Sullivan. "We're all super busy, we're fragmented and what a game does is it gets you sucked into something that you want to repeat again and again and again."

According to Renato Fernandez, executive creative director at TBWAChiatDay, that's exactly what Gatorade's effort succeeded in doing. The 22-level game allowed consumers to see what it would be like to compete against Williams. That conceit, which was timed to the U.S. Open where Williams was aiming to win her 23rd Grand Slam, was played by over 2 million consumers and on average players spent 217 seconds playing the game. "Not bad if you consider the average engagement rate on Snapchat is three seconds," said Fernandez.

"Consumers favor experiences and the nontraditional," noted Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker. (The company declined to share either the number of players or the amount of money it spent.) "Ultimately, it's not about the money, it's about the idea—and the ability to connect with our consumers," explained Blumenthal.

For Under Armour, which kicked off its monthlong, obstacle-laden game on Sept. 27, it was about making an "immersive experience" to catch the eyeballs of its high school and college athlete target, explained Jim Mollica, vp of global consumer engagement, Under Armour. (On its first day, Snapchat saw 20 percent of users swipe up to play. The users that played the game spent an average of 78 seconds playing, and 19 percent of those who played shared the game with one or more of their friends, per Snapchat.) 

Games also can help brands "extend the relationship beyond a purchase, beyond some kind of narrow idea of what a brand is," said Petralia, who noted that the ubiquity of smartphones has played a major role in this burgeoning trend. "It provides brands with the opportunity to become more integrated with your life and be less about a product."

For marketers interested in gaming, "the brand presence in a video game needs to be more subtle," said TBWAChiatDay's Fernandez. "We found not intrusive ways to place [Gatorade] in the environment of the game, in coolers and sidelines."

Under Armour took a similar approach, putting the Panthers QB in the brand's training gear and cleats. The game is an "endless runner," per Mollica, which means that players have to make sure Newton dodges wolves and trees to survive and keep playing.

Marketers know they must be more creative with how they approach consumers. But Petralia cautioned that the brands that do experiment with games must be certain it's fun. "If it isn't a good game, it can have a negative impact on your brand," he said.

After all, drawing consumers in, and keeping hold of them, is key. "A video game is a fun invitation for the audience to engage with the brand," Fernandez said.

This story first appeared in the October 3, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@KristinaMonllos kristina.monllos@adweek.com Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.