The year of the dog is over… here comes the year of the brand.
Our industry has seen relentless marketing battles but the war will be won on brand - and 2019 is the year to make it happen argues Eva Karagianni-Goel of Colossus Bets.
Hey big spender, spend a little time with me
In the Chinese zodiac, 2018 was the year of the Dog. A quick Google search informs me that the expected personality traits are, among others, persistence and good fortune in wealth. But anyone following the marketing developments in the industry will find it it hard to not look upon the designation with some irony and see in it a more western interpretation. From the slashing down of affiliate programmes in order to minimise regulatory risks to the ongoing discussion about self-regulation of TV-advertising in order to avoid further regulatory action, not to mention the industry’s reputation being at an all-time low in the UK, we sense the end of an era.
Industry heavyweights have long asserted themselves in the marketplace by means of their massive marketing budgets as opposed to meaningful differentiation. Free bet and bonus promotions have become the epitome of not just the ‘me too’ marketing approach that has dominated the gaming landscape, but also an unsustainable race to the bottom that compresses margins and earns nothing for the big spenders in the end.
But even without these immediate challenges, operators seem to have widely missed the mark on what matters the most to their most coveted audiences, the millennial generation and the generations that follow. And what matters is brands these audiences can associate with on the basis of the values, not just the products, they represent.
The most successful gambling brand in history?
So we are slowly but surely coming to the realisation that we are up against a brand crisis. In the past year, I’ve noticed more and more articles discussing the issue of ‘brand loyalty’ in our industry and what we should do about it. But fundamentally, we cannot talk about brand loyalty until we first establish what a brand stands for. In my view, this is currently the obvious gap for most brands out there.
Just take a step back and think about a brand - any brand, in any industry - that you admire. What associations spring to mind? Is it a shiny new product, an amazing service or something more? Whenever I conduct this experiment, the answer is always ‘something more’. To me, Apple is not just the iPhone in my hand - it is also innovation, user freedom and genius design. Amazon is not just my next delivery - it is logistics of the highest order and redefining retail. And Disney is not just the latest blockbuster - it is a whole vision of childhood that resonates with children, and adults, the world over.
And before you get going about the fact that “gambling is different and won’t allow for such broad associations”, let’s look at another example. What is the most pervasive gambling brand in the UK? The one that most people recognise? Is it Bet365, Ladbrokes, Paddy Power? These brands have definitely achieved a lot, but, as things stand, the ‘pervasiveness’ award goes to the National Lottery. Why? First, because more people play it than any other gambling product in the UK. Second, because whenever I suggest to people outside the industry that playing the lottery does in fact amount to gambling, they dismiss me by saying “well it’s not really gambling like these other companies and then they support all these good causes…”. Boom. Yes, the National Lottery does enjoy a special status but, in my mind, they also owe a big part of their success to not being thought of as gambling at all. They have achieved something we should all aspire to: crossing the invisible genre lines to brand nirvana.
A New Brand Order
So the rest of us are left to grapple with a choice:
Redefine our own brand - this is tough but essential for all the reasons discussed above.
Redefine the whole industry brand - this is even tougher as it requires common vision and industry-wide coordination but it can help all industry participants reap positive trickle down brand effects. And as the discussion about TV advertising, the next phase of ‘responsible gambling’ and other cross-industry initiatives demonstrate, it is not impossible.
Or ideally, do both - each company needs to find its own voice but no company is an island, especially in the context of an ill-reputed, often misunderstood industry.
There are definitely signs of a shift in attitude. Several brands are explicitly targeting the ‘sports fan vs the sports bettor’, taking a ‘for the love of the sport’ angle in their campaigns. And Betway’s recent appointment of Saatchi & Saatchi as their brand agency is a strong signal of looking beyond gambling for inspiration. But it’s still early days and branding efforts will need to venture much further, challenging brand executives’ not just creative but also intellectual capacity.
So there is still no recipe to speak of but here’s what I believe will be the main ingredients of this emerging New Brand Order:
A deep understanding of the values, passions and interests that matter to your customers in ‘real life’. An industry expert recently wrote that gaming “needs to aim to be ‘alcohol’ not ‘tobacco’”. Even though this is a useful metaphor, especially in urging us to think about what to steer away from (‘tobacco’), we should aim even higher than the lifestyle-driven branding that has characterised ‘alcohol’ and move more definitively towards purpose-driven branding.
A concrete demonstration via your product and marketing efforts that you actively represent at least a subset of your customers’ values, passions and interests. Practically speaking, this may mean embracing brand collaborations in areas so far unseen in our industry e.g. in support of environmental or social causes. At Colossus, for a while now, we’ve been expressing our vision in terms of “making sports bigger”, but lately, we’ve also been talking seriously about other experiences and causes we can ‘amplify’ with our involvement. Our Nordic partner, Paf, has shown the way here by taking a stance not just in responsible gambling but also broader social responsibility and has been making a difference to their locality and beyond for years.
Long-term commitment to the new brand that extends beyond this season’s content strategy. This will effectively translate into a long-term re-balancing of ATL and BTL channels to propagate the new messages and support the new brand ecosystem. Perhaps TV advertising does not need to go away at all, it just needs a new narrative.
And now for the disclaimer
When Hanneke Faber of Unilever recently proclaimed “the brand manager is dead, long live the brand activist”, criticism quickly emerged, some of it highlighting the fact that ‘purpose’ is not the only way to make a modern brand successful. In fact, for some brands it may not be suitable at all. I would encourage any executive who carries brand responsibility to pay heed to the criticism and formulate a holistic brand strategy that works for their offering. But at the same time, I cannot think of a better place to put Faber’s mantra to work than our morally and otherwise challenged industry. It may not be a silver bullet but it can certainly act as an antidote to the current void.
The time is now to move to positive, honest and assertive brands - or risk brand irrelevance for good. We don’t have long but we do have a great opportunity to take our brands from enfant terrible to enfant bien-aimé.