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The Future of Marketing Is Inside Video Games

Brands across industries are reaching young consumers inside the video games they’re spending more and more time playing…

The majority of Gen Z and Millennials are gaming in some capacity, and with mobile gaming democratizing play and shifting the industry, it’s long been an area that brands need to start focusing on. According to our trend research on The State of Gaming, nearly three in four Gen Z and Millennials are playing video games every week on consoles, PCs, and their phones. To put this into context, playing games is taking up almost as much time as TV watching time, and is being done more than often than movie watching—and that was before this year. Young consumers in quarantines have fueled a boom for video game brands: YPulse’s exclusive COVID research found that during quarantines, 46% of 13-39-year-olds started playing a new mobile or video game. And our most recent research shows it’s not slowing. Our Media Consumption report found that entertainment spending on gaming is growing, with the number of 13-39-year-olds reporting they have spent on gaming increasing from 34% to 48% between May and June.

It’s no wonder that The Drum declares that gaming should be “top of mind” for all brands. There are 2.7 billion gamers worldwide, and 37.1% of young gamers are 21-25-years-old, while 62.3% are under 35-years-old—so for brands focused on youth, it’s a space that can’t be ignored. Most young gamers are not consuming much linear TV—but there are innovative ways to reach them. While energy drink brands like Red Bull and Monster have a long history with gaming marketing, increasingly more surprising brands are making gaming and esports efforts as well. Brands are playing with gaming marketing and products: Puma released Need for Speed-inspired shoes, and Mario Kart introduced Mercedes-Benz vehicles. This month, Chipotle partnered with Activision to launch a “Tony Hawk burrito.” The first 2,000 customers to order the burrito through the app or its site will receive a demo code via email for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2—getting access to one of the summer’s most anticipated video games.

But increasingly, we’re also seeing more brand marketing happening inside of popular games themselves. If young consumers are spending more and more of their time inside video games—especially among those that also double as social spaces—it only makes sense that brands would want to join them in those digital worlds. Marketing inside video games is a rapidly growing tactic for reaching young consumers—and here’s how popular games are increasingly becoming home to marketing efforts from brands across industries:

Virtual Product Launches in Animal Crossing

When Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons quickly became a hit among younger consumers at the start of the pandemic, it should’ve come as no surprise that it would inevitably become a marketing vehicle for brands. First, brands like Highsnobiety and 100 Thieves used the game as a “media channel” and created virtual clothing collections for its players. Meanwhile, Glossier used the game to promote its popular pink hoodie. The rest of the fashion industry decided to jump on the trend too. Valentino, Anna Sui, and Sandy Liang have created custom garments for the game, while “dozens” of Instagram accounts have since emerged to showcase “runway-inspired designs” from Dior, Sports Banger, and Louis Vuitton. Meanwhile, beauty and skincare brands have joined the life stimulation video game, launching virtual campaigns to promote IRL products. To market their new creamy face cleanser The Rice Wash, Tatcha let young consumers “try” the new it by creating virtual island “Tatchaland.” The island was designed in collaboration with influencer Claire Marshall to channel Kyoto, Japan. Gamers can dress their avatars into Tatcha branded hoodies and robes, and virtually experience Japanese wellness rituals like visiting onsen spas and tea houses, meditate in a bamboo forest, visit rice paddies to learn about the cleanser’s inspiration, or “hangout” with the brand’s founder Vicky Tsai. To win a free travel-sized The Rice Wash in real life, players can participate in a scavenger hunt within the game. Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble’s Gillette Venus launched its Summer Skinclusive line with a “My Skin. My Way” campaign on the game that offers “skin inclusive” designs for users’ avatars. The designs include eight different skin tones and 19 skin types that can be combined in 250 ways: showing freckles, acne, hair, cellulite, scars and stretch marks, along with vitiligo, tattoos, psoriasis, and other abled bodies. In honor of National Beach Day, they will even be hosting a “Animal Crossing’ Skinclusive Summer Social” event on YouTube Live later this month. Finally, Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle brand collaborated with hip-hop artist T-Pain to promote its line of digital patterns that players on the game can use to design virtual bathrooms. The brand has asked users to share screenshots on social of how they used the patterns using the hashtag #downtherecare. Throughout the month, T-Pain will visit virtual islands to “hangout” with a select number of players.

Media Moments in Fortnite 

Ever since its meteoric rise in popularity back in 2018, brands have been finding ways to reach Gen Z inside of Fortnite. Last year, we shared some of the most popular ways that marketing was playing out from creating new game modes, like Avengers: Endgame did to promote the movie, to providing new branded skins, like the NFL did to appeal to gamers who are also sports fans. But this year—and yes, especially during the pandemic—we’ve seen Fortnite increasingly become a space for major media marketing moments. Entertainment brands are bringing their content into this virtual space as a substitute for in-person viewing as digital crowds remain more popular than real-life ones. Of course, there was  Travis Scott’s now famous Astronomical event in Fortnite—arguable the most successful virtual concert to date. During the two-day virtual concert tour, he performed songs from his Astroworld album, and debuted a brand new song exclusively on the app. More than 12 million people tuned in—“an all-time record” for the battle royale game according to the developer, and music marketing will likely never be the same. Now, even more media is being released and aired inside the game. In May, the world premiere of the new Tenet trailer happened inside of Fortnite—a move that The Hollywood reporter calls “the most significant piece of film marketing to ever hit” the game. Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated film, whose release has been held back due to COVID, is the first-ever to have a trailer released inside of a video game, though IndieWire points out that it likely won’t be the last. In a related campaign, Warner also partnered with Fortnite to create the “first-ever in-game movie night,” showing three of Nolan’s films on the Big Screen on Party Royale Island at the end of June. (The film being showed depended on the location of the player.) With an enormous audience of young players spending time in the game, it seems inevitable that more entertainment brands will follow suit, airing exclusive promotional content for shows and movies within the game—or others.

Full Ads in Console Games

To get even more fully immersed into young consumers’ gameplay, brands are experimenting with putting TV ads in console video games. In a move to reach young viewers who are watching less traditional TV, brands are incorporating commercials into some console video games. While ads are common in mobile and social games, they have been far less common in console titles. Ad tests for brands like Turner, Experian PLC, and Unilever PLC’s Dollar Shave Club within Electronic Arts game UFC 3 rewarded players for watching 15 to 30 second commercials by being given points or other rewards for “in-game benefits.” As Business Insider points out, there are “hurdles” to this marketing method, as console gamers are not used to seeing ads in their spaces. But if the ads are entertaining and feel organic to the space, young players could be increasingly open to them—especially if watching unlocks significant rewards, or even better, exclusive in-game products that will boost their play.