The Return of Tabletop RPGs: Musings from GenCon and the Branding of Inclusion

gen-con.jpgGrowing a Belief

Gaming is not going anywhere, but the business does need to grow. Even with the successes and growth of RPGs in recent years, there is always a need to secure old fans and new fans alike. As the industry matures, the established brand names wield the power to influence, build, and shape gaming culture as a whole. Brands like Paizo Publishing and Wizards of the Coast are among the foremost cultural creators, especially considering the recent mainstream popularity of properties like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D is, for the world, the bastion of play). Of course, gaming culture mimics culture as a whole, reflecting or even predicting waves of great social change as they happen. When calls for accessibility, inclusion, and diversity ripple through the country, they also sound in the gaming community. Brands recognize this. They also understand that their core audience is at risk should they pivot too quickly to answer. This creates a limiting cycle wherein a brand cannot evolve for the sake of preserving its core audience, and the core audience defends the brand to the point of excluding potential new fans. Likewise, society takes baby steps forward while simultaneously bolstering the status quo. But in looking ahead for both culture and gaming, these trends signal the strongest long-term return will come from investing in and standing with this inclusive, belief-based audience. And each of these challenges is a tremendous opportunity if brands focus on them correctly.

While belief-based messaging is not new, the trend within advertising and strategy is in a rekindling stage. This means researching, pinpointing, and applying the ideals shared by customer and brand alike, allowing brands to get themselves a piece of their audience’s cultural pie. And it’s more than penning some messaging that strikes a fleeting chord with a tenuous audience – it’s shaping a brand oeuvre that, while nimble, will stand with its target audiences and embody their beliefs throughout their lives. At the same time, value exploration lets a brand rediscover and project its own authentic personality and voice, meeting overlooked or untapped audiences halfway and effectively breaking out of the self-defeating cycle of audience preservation. It leverages the belief that a brand isn’t so much an object as it is a dialog. It’s a tactic that both strengthens a brand’s link with established customers and strategically hones branding to attract new fans. This belief-based approach has proven itself valuable and lasting, and we use it to bring the same enduring brand legacy to clients.

GenCon 2018 – The Year of Inclusion

Being headquartered in Indianapolis gives us a vantage point for attending and analyzing GenCon every year, which allows us to watch the evolution of the con’s internal culture and also its effect on the city and larger gaming world. This year we observed that diversity and inclusion featured as centerpiece topics for many panels and as major considerations in convention participant guidelines. While the con carried on with its usual electricity, these voices for inclusion stood out as louder and more numerous than they have been in years past. The national zeitgeist has been around movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and representation, accessibility, and gender nonconformity. Ever a microcosm of the larger cultural conversation, these audiences’ voices are finally, actively being heard at GenCon and in the gaming world, and they are waiting for a response. While they wait, it creates a reverberating cultural dissonance between rapidly evolving cultural demand and what influential brands slowly say and make.

While some segments of gaming culture have made strides to represent these values, the demand for outwardly inclusive products is not being met by the major players in the market. Any movement toward these values is usually driven by proactive community members rather than brands themselves. Of course, smaller brands have popped up with products and communities that serve these belief-based buyers. Blue Rose and even well-established games like Shadowrun are considered inclusive RPGs. Outside of RPGs, One Deck Dungeon and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn are well-received for their representation. Major brands may actually have comparable products that would serve this audience well. But overall, big brands seem tentative about directly catering to those outside their core – in all likelihood because they do not want to risk alienating segments of their cornerstone players. And if you looked at overall sales and brand awareness, these major brands would appear to be winning; D&D and Magic the Gathering remain the biggest names in the RPG and deck-building game markets. On the other hand, brands taking belief-based stands and fostering inclusion-focused communities are responding to this potent cultural calling and gaining long-term edge because of it. In the end, it is up to the bigger market leaders to recognize this shift and join in riding the wave now, rather than being left rudderless in the current. Being one of the biggest names in gaming, Wizards of the Coast is in a unique position to both capitalize on this demand and expand its keystone audience in the process, influencing much of the industry to do the same.

Recently, our research focus has been on roleplaying games. And Dungeons & Dragons is the grandfather of them all. Roleplaying games are, at their core, inclusive. In an ideal world, all audiences recognize that they provide a dynamic system of play and a fantastical world that anyone can adapt. The basic system is a sandbox for

people to build whatever adventure they want to play and be whoever they want to be. So, a brand might focus on this versatile content, touting its inclusiveness and their willingness to rewrite the source materials. Yet, for its myriad merits, D&D has become stereotyped and, effectively, owned by a niche audience. The universal appeal of the brand and the game itself is still there, but this core audience has culturally constructed walls impeding adoption. In other words, many of the core audience are perceived as gatekeepers. An RPG is only as good as those playing it – and D&D’s current core, targeted audience is loyal, but not perceived as inclusive. Wizards of the Coast is presented with a worthy challenge: both the product and the audience need to become more welcoming to diverse, new fans, but only the product seems directly controllable.

Focusing on shared values solves this disconnect among brand, product, and audience. And integrating the correct shared beliefs both into what a brand says and does publicly and the brand’s parent company itself will only further this connection, creating lasting brand love. Streamlining this integration and closing the gap between audience and brand ideals allows the brand to bottle cultural lightning for themselves. For a brand like Wizards of the Coast, inclusivity should be the value integrated first on the controllable side – the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the integration standing in the way of any knee-jerk claims of inauthenticity. A diligent transformation will spurn some fans but invigorate others to adopt and practice these values. It all starts with the brand itself, changing the product and the culture from within, and then without. To put it simply, a shared value approach amplifies the brand’s stand for inclusivity and diversity and transforms the core audience from gatekeepers into welcoming advocates, opening the floodgates for long-term returns.

Importantly, when it comes to inclusivity and diversity, a brand must show – not tell – its intended audiences their shared values. Continuing the example, Wizards of the Coast has spoken of inclusivity as a marquee value for a long time, but the meaning of the word loses effect on these potential audiences when it’s not fully ingrained in brand infrastructure. This means not focusing the conversation on small updates, but going above and beyond internally to get product elements right. This means not only relying on a trusted team, but bringing in diverse writers, creatives, and community leaders to work with them. This means not campaigning to point out the steps you’re taking, but behaving as usual while thoroughly melding these values with the brand’s day-to-day process. And those potential audience members who have been critical before will be the ones paying attention to this internal shift, adopting the game out of curiosity and appreciation for the brand’s evolution. It is a slow, deliberate, and thorough process that culturally galvanizes increasing long-term audience payoff. It is added value without taking away any offerings the core audience loves. The value-based audience pays close attention to authenticity when deciding which brands they share their values with, meaning in this case, the practicing is leagues more important than the preaching.

As curious new folks take an interest in the brand, the gatekeeper members of the core audience step into action. Some fans act as a welcoming committee, excited by the prospect of new players. While others become more entrenched, seeing themselves as righteous defenders of the purity of their game and brand. These feelings are not all bad, as the passion can be redirected in Wizards of the Coast’s favor. But, by standing for inclusivity, Wizards of the Coast takes back ownership of its brand. Core audience members, gatekeepers or otherwise, will tend toward reflecting the brand and practicing shared values. New people are interested in the game, which the brand shows them means better products and new adventures. A growing audience then acts as a catalyst, rather than a trap trigger. Beyond controlling the product, a brand with a firmly held belief can, via ripple effect, influence its current audience, bolstering the welcoming committee by converting others from territorial soldiers into fierce brand advocates.

So What

In the end, a brand taking a stand for something is a big idea. It’s a change, no matter how steady the adoption or smooth the transition. Yes, brands like Wizards of the Coast may lose some people from its core audience. But if a brand officially aligns itself with a value it, theoretically, always had, those fans were never core brand evangelists to begin with. Simply, those who don’t share brand beliefs will self-select out. And this is, in the long-term, ultimately a positive. This venting of wall-builders will allow new fans in, healing, diversifying, and growing the core audience. It is a long play brand strategy built on the brand’s values, broader audiences, and a growing foundation of fans. Standing with those who call for inclusivity, diversity, accessibility, and visibility is a brand investment in a burgeoning audience that will become part of its core audience in the future, allowing Wizards of the Coast and similar tabletop gaming brands to reclaim ownership of their principles and, potentially, lead the entire industry forward.

 

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Post Pop: Identity as Brand

How Brands Shape Identity (And Why It Matters)

Coming out of anthropology, I have always been interested in social and cultural interaction, identity, and how we display ourselves in a public venue. This interest was driven to the forefront of my mind again recently when attending Indy Pop Con, an event dedicated to cosplay, anime, comics, and gaming. Because brands that have the most resonance and sustainability are focusing more and more on cultural groups as significant points of marketing, it becomes increasingly important to understand the nuances of who is actually speaking and being spoken to in specific contexts. Whether it’s cosplay, choosing your next car, or even buying beer, there is a central question we need to ask ourselves: how do self-presentation strategies impact who people choose to be in a given context and how does that shape marketing?

Identities Change. Anthropologist Erving Goffman used the imagery of the theater to portray the importance of social action. But unlike others who have used this metaphor, he took all elements of acting into consideration. A person’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. In other words, whether in the real world, the virtual world, or the juncture where the two meet, we negotiate what we let people know about ourselves and by extension, how we feel about a brand. Take gender, for instance. Marketers frequently target based in part on gender. We build campaigns with women or men in mind. However, for many people, especially younger people, the notion of a binary gender construct is becoming a thing of the past. And in virtual environments, players to switch genders fairly freely. Whether we’re talking about cosplay, gender, or anything else, what this means is that how people perceive themselves is more fluid than it has been in much of the past. Companies that don’t take these notions of identity into account in their marketing and advertising efforts do more than miss an opportunity. They risk alienation through irrelevance. Now, here’s where shit gets nerdy – yeah, I’m putting that out there. For those who aren’t that excited by the nerdy, skip the next paragraph.

Importantly, we don’t simply adopt personas as a façade; it’s much deeper than that. Identity is constructed according to context. The theoretical model used in anthropology and sociolinguistics is rooted in the idea that we construct identity – that we create or adapt both inward and outward expressions of ourselves in accordance with the moment. Think of it as a form of high-stakes theater. In a social interaction, as in a theatrical performance, there is an onstage area where actors (individuals) appear before the audience; this is where positive self-concepts and desired impressions are offered. But there is, as well, a backstage – a hidden, private area where individuals can be themselves and drop their societal roles and identities. This backstage makes it no less “real” – it simply means different notions of identity apply.

As we communicate with people, we share different parts of ourselves, adopting slightly different personas, so to speak, to reflect the context. We display and act upon sides of our personalities we want to stress with one person but conceal with another. That doesn’t make us less “authentic.” Rather, authenticity is dependent on the situation. In a nutshell, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Now, back to the less geeky stuff. What this means from a marketing and advertising perspective is that people gravitate toward brands that they can adapt to a given context. People (because we’re talking about human beings, not consumers) will choose brands that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each person on an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, those choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of contextual identity.  For example, a woman may choose to buy a pair of Doc Marten’s as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the she considers herself a post-punk soccer mom, the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both her own and her tribe’s perception about her desired identity. As a result, people use brands both to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In other words, the brands we chose send a message about who we are in different contexts. The brands we chose are communication tools we use to express our different personas.

Putting It into Practice. So what is a brand to do when it comes to marketing and advertising? What do we do with this idea of the fluid, contextual self? Simply put, think differently:

  • Think in terms of building your share of culture. The stronger the associations people have between your brand and their cultural affinity, the more likely they are to see your brand as inseparable from their own identity. That builds more than loyalty, it builds an unbreakable link between your brand and how they see the world.
  • Contextualizing the brand. This doesn’t mean abandoning a consistent brand message. Rather, it means creating a brand, campaign, or messaging platform that can adapt according to the contexts in which it will be used. Know the cultural standards of your audiences and design a plan that fits their worldviews in a given context.
  • Build flexible strategies. Brand and campaign strategies should be thought of in terms of ecosystems, not pillars, where every channel plays a unique role in relation to the audiences. This allows your message to remain relevant as people shift from one contextual persona to another.
  • Don’t throw out the segmentation just yet. Segmentation schemes are still useful for speaking to macro-behaviors and broader cultural patterns. That means they represent a good starting point when developing a marketing plan. But they are a starting point. Don’t let them become the end all and bee all of your strategy.
  • Mediocrity breeds indifference. Be willing to create buzz, even if some of that buzz is occasionally negative – it’s better to be loved by many than to be liked by all. Learn to be comfortable with the fact that depending on the context, a brand is interpreted and used differently. This isn’t to say it’s a free for all, but it does mean that much of the conversation around the brand will occur in unexpected ways. Turn that to your advantage.
  • Finally, remember that people want a reason to embrace your brand and will find a way to do it if your brand helps them reaffirm their identity.

While only a generation or two ago one’s identity was prescribed according to traditional groupings of class, religion, nationality, region, race, etc., the world has today rapidly become one enormous, fluid and unstructured mass where identity is more nebulous. Brands have become badges, controlled as much by the buyers we don’t understand as the ones we do. A brand’s strength is semiotic in nature. It provides a message for an individual as much as a product, retail setting, service, etc. A shopper isn’t just buying a hammer or a pair of shoes.  He is buying an adjective, a sense of self, a membership pass into one of several “tribes” to which he belongs. Knowing that gives you significantly greater power in the marketplace.