The Stevenage Challenge: Digital customer engagement and brand promotion

The Italian version of this article was first published on Wired.

Brands pay millions to sponsor sporting events, soccer teams, and individual athletes around the world. But Burger King figured out that doing so wasn’t necessary. I imagine a member of Generation Z recently hired in the marketing department at Burger King was sitting in front of a PlayStation when they came up with a brilliant idea. That idea was for Burger King to sponsor Stevenage F.C.—a low-profile team ranked last in the British soccer league. That allowed Burger King to get its logo onto team jerseys, which in turn meant that its brand would appear in the world’s most popular soccer video game: FIFA 20. Stevenage was one of the worst performing teams in the well-known video game. But then Burger King launched the Stevenage Challenge. It invited FIFA 20 players to play with Stevenage players, score with them, and then Tweet or post a photo or video of a goal on another platform to receive a free Burger King Whopper. The campaign went viral. FIFA 20 players began to buy the best players to increase their chances of scoring goals, encouraged by the idea of a free Whopper as well as their desire to participate in a global trend. The end result is that Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar all ended up sporting jerseys with the Burger King logo (without the company spending a dime) and a low-ranked team in real life became the top team in the digital league.

This is a shining example of in-game advertising, a technique for transforming a video game from mere entertainment into a promotional/publicity tool for engagement with the end consumer, who is ushered into a challenge within a challenge, a game with a game, and rewarded for perseverance and competitive spirit. The Burger King campaign found a clever way to go beyond the SIGA (Static In-Game Advertising) model, as it didn’t require the usual advertising posters and banners that typically appear around the edges of sports-themed games (e.g., FIFA, PES, NBA, NHL, Tiger Woods PGA Tour) for promotional purposes; it also went a step further than DIGA (Dynamic In-Game Advertising), which makes it possible to insert messages and update them remotely, even after a game has started, by adjusting promotions based on information about and geographic location of the players. Think of the strategy used by the Obama presidential campaign in 2008, which inserted promotional messages targeted to American gamers in videogames such as Need for Speed: Carbon, NBA ’09, NHL ’09, and others.

The Burger King campaign went beyond a mere video game to use the most famous video game in the world to provide real-life rewards to players in the FIFA 20 league, and in doing so it fostered intersection between actual physical reality and digital reality. The result was a successful worldwide campaign that cost a negligible amount in proportion to the results achieved.

Burger King’s method is likely the first example of a successful merger of and synergy between in-game advertising and associative advergames. Typically, associative advergames are video games that require a minimal amount of interaction between the user and the brand/product, and the brand/product isn’t an integral part of the game. For example, in 2016 the Rollinz app launched by Esselunga—and later available in a Star Wars Rollinz version—used augmented reality functionality to allow purchasers to scan the figures they’d collected and unlock the corresponding characters in the video game.

In addition to associative advergames, there are two other types of advergaming. In illustrative advergames, the brand/product is a main feature of the game; for example, the user must collect product samples as part of the game before time runs out. That is how the Gucci app works. Then there are demonstrative advergames, in which the user can even test the product; one example is the installation Nike Reactland, based on augmented reality and provided by Nike in stores in countries such as China and the Arab Emirates in 2018. This consisted of having customers try on new React shoes and then run on a treadmill so they could be projected into various virtual scenarios on screens.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in and return to advergaming and in-game advertising, driven by the disregard of most players in this market for digital marketing tools, such as promotional emails, newsletters, pop-ups, video messages on the web, and other types of more traditional promotional messages. At this point, most users tend to skip past them, close them, click on the Skip Ad button as soon as possible, or avoid them in other ways. Statistics show that only 3.6% of users watch a message to the end, while 96% do everything in their power to avoid seeing it. In response, many brands have concentrated their resources on developing more creative forms of advertising, including exploiting the pervasiveness of video games. The Stevenage Challenge is the perfect example.

It should be noted, however, that applying sophisticated digital marketing solutions to a video game can present pitfalls for end consumers. First of all, it’s difficult for users to perceive an advergame as a form of advertising and therefore different from a classic video game. This difficulty is heightened by the emotional component, meaning the total absorption that a user typically experiences while playing a game; a user totally immersed in a game inevitably pays less attention to those elements that are not strictly a part of the game itself, such as its promotional nature. Therefore, there is a need to focus on that nature in order to make information for the user clear; this can be done, for example, by taking the concrete steps to raise awareness provided in the Digital Chart regulation from the Italian Advertising Self-Regulation Authority. Indeed, this group has helpfully established a definition of the advergaming phenomenon and in-app advertising—apps with some or all advertising content—and rules for and limitations on the use of those promotional tools for products and services with an eye to maintaining transparency about their promotional nature.

Nor should we overlook data protection issues that arise from relying upon such digital marketing solutions: those that come to mind include tracing tools in games available as apps on mobile devices that, unlike the cookies that come into play with web platforms, are not specifically categorized, even though they work very similarly to cookies. Also, appropriate steps must be taken in relation to information on the processing of data of a user playing with other “friends” on social media or outside of social media who chooses to publish the score or result on their account; here, too, the abovementioned emotional involvement of the player caught up in the game should be considered.

Then there are the cautionary steps that must be taken to protect minors, as they are very prevalent users who are strongly interested in games such as the one in question.

Basically, as much as the world of gaming is now a source of inspiration for developing marketing strategies for the best known brands, it is also appropriate for marketing strategies based on advergames and in-game advertising not to overlook implementing all appropriate regulatory measures and applicable self-regulatory norms.

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