The Rise of eSports

Since the advent and growth of eSports giants like Dota 2 and League of Legends, the gaming community has called for mainstream recognition regarding legitimacy. Take Colin Cowherd’s 2015 rant against esports for example. There are undeniable similarities between professional gaming and conventional sports, but the arguments have generally been ineffective in dispelling traditional beliefs formed by the collective generations of sports fans prior. While it is easy to dismiss playing video games as anything resembling an athletic endeavor, it is more complex than just noting the relative lack of physicality and declaring  as non-sports.

At their very essence,  are video games played in a competitive environment. Sometimes the games can be played one-on-one, other times, teams will square off against each other. But the key point in all of this is that  are competitive events. They are all about opposing players or teams doing battle in a real-time competition.

What’s In A Name? The traditional definition of professional sport is: all forms of competitive physical activity which, through organized participation, aim to provide entertainment to spectators and provide an income for the athletes, who in turn devote time training to increase their skills and experience to modern levels of achievement. But physicality alone cannot be the mark by which we measure “sport”. After all, look at poker. Poker is frequently broadcast on ESPN and other networks. This is equally true for chess and the National Spelling Bee. Is there anything remotely physical about playing poker? Or chess? Or a spelling bee? No.

And yet, all of these events are considered sporting events by probably the most recognizable sports network on the planet. Furthermore, players of  employ a strategies that play to their strengths while exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents. If the game being played is a team-based game, then teamwork is essential. Like any other athlete, players have tremendous reflexes, dexterity, and problem-solving skills. So, what exactly accounts for how we define “sports” and what does it mean for marketers?

The Conceptual Breakdown. Judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture is termed ethnocentrism. People born into or surrounded by a particular culture begin absorbing its values and behaviors and build a worldview centered around these principles as the norm. Within the context of , this concept explains the psychology behind a lot of mainstream dismissal. Quite simply  don’t fit easily into our cultural definition of what sports should be. We do the same thing with other cultural categories all the time. For example, people in the U.S. struggle to classify crickets as food even though they are healthy, tasty, and plentiful. So, the struggle, whether it’s crickets or esports, is a reflection of cultural norms.

While ethnocentrism lends to maintaining the cultural status quo, generational gap is a concept referring to the differences between people of younger generations and their elders. It is the conflict between these groups which has catalyzed a lot of recent cultural change. This allows for members of the younger generation to form their own identities and cultures outside of older and mainstream influences. This is important to the development of  because despite its young age, its rapid growth foreshadows a change in the mainstream attitude towards it. The younger generation is growing up participating in and watching , thus making them part of their cultural norm. Within the next five years, there will be enough members in the community to challenge the mainstream dismissal of  and even gain the respect of the older generation regarding its legitimacy. And that should have everyone involved in marketing thinking.

Going Mainstream. Regardless of how you view , they are growing in popularity every year by leaps and bounds. Esports are on the verge of breaking out of their niche communities into mainstream focus. According to Newzoo, a company specializing in esports analytics, it’s estimated that the global esports economy will grow by 41% by the end of this year to $696 million and reach $1.49 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that includes more than the game itself, it includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandising and ticket sale. Like any other sport, it means reach extends well beyond the game.

The numbers speak for themselves, but also consider this: The renowned IMG Academy, an elite boarding school and training program in Florida geared for athletes in basketball, football, and other traditional sports, recently added an esports training program that includes physical, mental, and nutritional aspects. In other words, one of the most successful and prestigious sports-focused schools in the country believes so much in the future of esports that they have developed a training program around it. The outcome of generational gap is something IMG has identified and they are betting on significant changes in how we think of sports as a society.

Legitimacy also continues to be added as traditional sports team owners such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the organization that runs the New York Mets, Sterling Equities, have begun to make multi-million dollar investments in esports leagues. Cities like Washington D.C. have even outfitted their professional basketball arenas for live esports taking a well-calculated gamble that esports are here to stay.

That growth and investment around esports has started catching the eye of big-name brands including Arby’s, Coca-Cola, Audi, and Gillette to name a few. That’s because they see an opportunity to reach a demographic sweet spot, namely males between the ages of 21 to 35. They have cash, they’ve grown up gaming, and they are increasingly hard to reach via traditional advertising. Newzoo estimates the current global  audience at 385 million people, including 191 million enthusiasts and 194 million occasional viewers.

It’s estimated that the global eSports economy will grow by 41% by the end of this year to $696 million and reach $1.49 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that includes more than the game itself, it includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandising and ticket sale. Like any other sport, it means reach extends well beyond the game.

The numbers speak for themselves, but also consider this: The renowned IMG Academy, an elite boarding school and training program in Florida geared for athletes in basketball, football, and other traditional sports, recently added an esports training program that includes physical, mental, and nutritional aspects. In other words, one of the most successful and prestigious sports-focused schools in the country believes so much in the future of esports that they have developed a training program around it. The outcome of generational gap is something IMG has identified and they are betting on significant changes in how we think of sports as a society.

Spending by eSports still falls decidedly short of traditional sports. Enthusiasts will spend an average of $3.64 per person following the sport this year, according to Newzoo. Compared against basketball, on which fans spend an average of $15 each, and the short-term gains aren’t there for many brands. But like all things with esports, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. One reason for the discrepancy is that esports content is largely available for free and the money spent on merchandise remains relatively small. But spending is rising and expected to reach $5.20 per fan by 2020. Another reason is that eSports are drawing a younger crowd with less disposable income – for now. And this is where thinking about the long game becomes important. Building brand affinity and share of culture means building connections that last a lifetime. The earlier you bring a population into the fold, the sooner you become essential to the deeper cultural conversation. You aren’t reacting, you’re creating.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if eSports are seen as sports. People in the industry can identify similarities and use conventional sports as an example to adapt and grow the eSports culture. Growth in target audience involvement is currently more important than acceptance of members outside the base. And for brands hoping to remain relevant, having a presence in the eSports environment is extremely important.

 

 

Alcohol Advertising and Symbolism

A familiar phrase is, “art imitates life.” It defines life as essential to art, but can we say the reverse? Could life imitate art? The phrase suggests that art reinforces cultural and social beliefs. Art is more than a product of reflection, it is a method by which we shape the world. Advertising is a good example to use with this theory for two reasons: first, media art caters to a broad diverse audience; and second, it is easily accessible and we see it everywhere: on television, in magazines, posters, and on billboards. Art both reinforces and constructs social and cultural categories, directing people to respond to it in predictable ways. So what does that look like?

Absolut Vodka’s long-running campaign is an example of how a broader message can be adapted to speak to specific cultural groupings. At its most fundamental level, it caters to an extensive audience and is very accessible. The standard image of the Absolut bottle is recognizable by most people, and has purposely been reproduced in every ad establishing it as a social symbol in America. Each advertisement includes a culturally significant person, place, object, or idea alongside the standard bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reveal mixed messages about culture to their various audiences masked on the surface by a culturally significant artifact.

The individual, tailored ads are separated into genres. When looking at a series of ads, we have a better idea of the collective cultural significance attached to the images. The text exists in relation to others. The image of the Absolut bottle has become a cultural icon, and the advertising aim is to make it recognizable as a distinct symbol of class to everyone who sees it. In order to make sense of the ad, the reader must identify the vodka bottle within the text. This expectation relies on the network of ads that have preceded it and the bottle-as-symbolic emblem of the brand. Instant identification of the symbol makes the reader of an Absolut ad a member of an exclusive club. The Absolut Vodka ad campaign aims to enroll everyone as a member of this club by stating that their “art” form, the vodka bottle, carries significant cultural reflections of society associated with the upper class that are relevant to all members regardless of their real class status.

The different genres of Absolut ads carry distinct cultural messages, and contain a universal class claim that is associated with the image of the vodka bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reinforce the cultural myth that American culture is defined in terms of class structure. However, it offers a mixed message about class that is defined and liquid: class can be bought. The Absolut campaign contains the idea that American culture is defined in terms of class by way of the object, setting, audience, and camera angle in the advertisement. The promotion challenges this idea by publicizing in a variety of magazines that reach people in all class structures. In effect, they are bridging a cultural class gap, by allowing such a diverse audience membership into an exclusive ad campaign. Not only is the advertisement selling the reader vodka, it is also selling the illusion of an earned societal position associated with the upper class.

The symbolic theme of class is exemplified in Absolut’s 2001 “Absolut Voted Off” campaign”. This ad was published in Entertainment magazine the week of October 19, 2001. The ad is very basic and shows four bottles of flavored Absolut Vodka grouped together on the left side of the page. The bottles are characterized by bright, warm colors such as yellow, orange, and purple. On the far right side of the page, not facing the audience, is the original Absolut Vodka bottle that is only revealing half of its cold, blue label. The text, “Absolut Voted-Off” appears at the bottom of the page. What does this ad reveal on the surface? At first glance it seems to be selling the new flavored vodkas, representing them as important and associated with a distinguished category. However, this advertisement is characteristic of the mixed messages portrayed by the Absolut advertising campaign.

When looking deeper we must ask ourselves as readers, relating to the theory art imitates life and life imitates art, what is the advertisement imitating here? The advertisement is imitating the American act of voting. This cultural activity is political at best. The objects, setting, audience, and camera angle of the ad all reinforce the belief that American culture is defined in terms of class structure, and that class can be bought. In this case, the four flavored vodkas are in a distinct class that the “Voted-Off” original vodka is not a part of. However, the original vodka is related to the others: it shares the same bottle, the same vodka, and the same text. The advertisement suggests that the original Absolut vodka bottle could gain acceptance into the distinct class by becoming flavored.

The setting of the advertisement builds on the cultural belief that America is class defined, but that movement within class structure is possible. The spotlight in the middle of the page is not highlighting either group specifically, but leaves a void that needs to be filled. But filled by whom? The ad suggests that the original vodka bottle can have a place next to the rest by leaving a space that is the appropriate size for such a transaction. However, the gap in the middle of the page can also hold a spot for the reader to fill. This involves audience participation by buying the product.

The audience of the advertisement plays a specific role in the ad, and supports a mixed message of class definition and mobility. The reader of the ad associates himself/herself as a member of the Absolut “club” by recognizing the image of the bottle within the ad. In the case of “Absolut Voted-Off,” the reader must choose which party to support, the flavored group or the lone original bottle. If the reader fills the gap in the ad he/she will be joining the class specific group that is associated with wealth: bright colors, strength in numbers, and security. The reader will also become a part of the majority that has voted off the minority. The ad is revealing a message about how culture is defined, in part, by class and is suggesting that as voters and consumers we have a direct say in which class we want to be associated with. In other words, Absolut isn’t just selling a taste, it’s selling a deeper cultural construct.

The theory art imitates life and life imitates art reveals important connections between symbolic structures and cultural beliefs. Media is mirroring important parts of American life and selling the images back with a product attached. However, the cultural and social myths that are being promoted are not always evident on the surface. And it’s at that point, at the symbolic interpretation, that meaning is made and brands are born.

 

Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

 

In the Age of Emotion

When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion.  Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff.  But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.levis-store-lighting-design-4.jpg

On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them.  We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.

And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience.  Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform.  And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption.  Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory.  While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.

For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves.  Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another.  And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt.  Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.

Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs.  In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.

 

Do Awards Matter? Hell Yes They Matter!

I read recently that awards in the ad industry have lost meaning, winner.jpgthat they now longer matter. While I would agree that their relevance has changed, overlooking their role in landing (and retaining) business shouldn’t be ignored. So how important to advertisers are the creative awards in reality? In this era of data and technology, one might expect marketers to talk about creative awards through gritted teeth. After all, much of their time is now spent trying to justify the value of every aspect of marketing at boardroom level.

The rational debate is not over creativity versus effectiveness, but about connecting the dots between creative prowess and advertising effectiveness. The obsession has fallen to data, with some justification. But with more data and more media channels, it is important to have a glue to keep the brand, campaign, or communications strategy together – that glue is fundamentally a great idea, which goes through a creative process to deliver an effective business result.

I certainly understand the nervousness that exists in the minds of our clients, who are trying to look good in front of their bosses. They need to demonstrate their value.  Makes sense. They would rather win effectiveness and not creative awards, which can be seen to carry a greater element of risk. But if an idea is not brave or does not grab attention, how can it be effective? It would be like walking into French Laundry and being served on paper plates. OK, that may be a bit extreme, but you get my point. For work to really cut through and drive a significant change in performance, it has to be highly relevant at an emotional level. And one of the primary ways of achieving relevance is through creativity. Creative awards are a benchmark against which not only great work, but also effectiveness, can easily be measured.

Creative awards also help drive innovation, explore new ways to touch the consumer, encourage the sharing of best practices. Being recognized externally for great work means that the people we employ, from strategists to designers to account folks, can be even more proud of the work they produce and know they are world class. Awards attract better talent, while keeping the best we have from looking for greener pastures elsewhere. Even the smallest shops can raise their profile with some lions, Addys, etc. Metal on the shelf and a mention at Cannes puts everyone involved on the ad world radar.

Awards are a shot in the arm, both for the agency and the clients. And clients, at least those we all dream of working with, have started to take notice because awards do heavy lifting for them as well. They raise their profile, they make them look smarter, edgier, more innovative, more effective. They make them relevant. Clients know that if you are pushing to create award-winning work for them, you are pushing to make the best work possible. And that’s a win/win for everyone.

 

84 Lumber and the Power of Brands

By now, everyone is discussing the 84 Lumber ad that ran during last night’s Big Game. For the few unfamiliar with the ad, a Mexican mother and daughter, who appear to be on their way to the United States, survive the perils of migrating from their home and ultimately come across a depiction of an imposing border wall, reminiscent of the one Trump has discussed since he burst, again, into the limelight so many months ago.

Fox rejected the spot not because of violence or nudity, but because it depicted a fairly accurate visual of what Trump’s wall would look like (if anything, it actually sanitizes the process). Not surprisingly, Fox appears to support the concept of the wall but censors any visual portrayal of it.

According to Rob Shapiro, the chief client officer at Brunner, the agency that worked with 84 Lumber to come up with the ad, “If everyone else is trying to avoid controversy, isn’t that the time when brands should take a stand for what they believe in?” I couldn’t agree more.

The reality is that brands have become political, perhaps they always were. That’s true because brands carry meaning. They are symbols that reflect not only a company’s vision, but the shared beliefs, practices, and values of the people who engage with them. Granted, some brands are innocuous, but those brand that really resonate take a position on more than their products, they take a position on their role in the world. They tell a story about who they are and where they fit into the world. And this is exactly what 84 Lumber, and indeed Brunner, chose to do. They chose to take a stand against the vagaries of The Wall and show in the cold, hard reality of what it implies. And in doing so they chose to articulate the simple truth that they will not willing be part of it.

Which, in turn, brings us back to what it was Fox took issue with. Was it the message of compassion at the end they were rejecting? Was it the entire spot and its portrayal of the journey? Was it the little girl with a flag she’d made along the way? Was it simply the door? My suspicion is that we’ll never know. Or, if is likely, Fox does provide an explanation, it will be a convoluted mix of half-truths and baseless accusations.

Regardless, this ad reflects precisely what good branding does. It brings a story to life, it drives interest, it provokes, and draws us in. And for that, both 84 Lumber and the agency should be extremely proud.