Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Publisher branding in video games (branding alternatives - part 3 of 3)

(Part 1 - Designer branding can be found here. For Part 2 - Developer branding, click here)

3. Publisher Branding
For the last and (for once) the least, publisher branding is another strategy one could take, as an alternative to the dominant franchise branding practice in video games industry. The idea is that a powerful enough publisher brand could come to be associated with high quality, highly entertaining games, so that the games themselves would not have to rely on past iterations of their own to get the idea across. I can almost see people snickering and going "Yeah, right" in response to that and I have to admit my own reaction is the same.

If you look at the industry today, you see that the idea behind the strategy falls apart as a result of the publishers' almost complete abandonment of the previous two alternatives. This abandonment translates into:
  • Squandering of designer brand value
  • Strip-mining of developer talent
  • Over-reliance on franchise names as a direct result of the first two, which creates a positive feedback loop
  • Low-quality, repetitive games being associated with the publisher brand
  • Publisher brand value going down the drain
Add to that the wide variety of games being offered by the major publishers, which dilutes the usefulness of the brand name for communication with the consumer, not to mention the lack of a clearly differentiated market positioning: you end up with the publisher brand meaning squat next to the franchise brand.

Examples to best practice
There are a couple exceptions to the brutal cycle above. Paradox Interactive is one publisher that does have a clearly understood brand essence, as one can easily see from the titles under its banner. If you have played more than one of their titles, though, you would realize most of them are variations of their flagship title Europa Universalis. But since the publisher has filled its niche so well, and have met the expectations of its customers so admirably, they do not have to rely on the Europa Universalis name alone for marketing. The name Paradox Interactive is enough to compel consumers to buy a game they had never heard of before. In some cases the end result may be a disappointment for the consumer, but it does not negate the fact that publisher branding had worked successfully up until that point.

The second exception would be Nintendo. The advantage they have is a headstart of a few decades, building up a consistent brand image where Nintendo = Fun, simple as that. But perhaps it would be wiser to classify Nintendo not under publisher branding, but rather under Experience Franchising.

I say experience franchising because their brand goes far beyond being about the games. It is powerfully integrated with the hardware behind it, strongly associated with the innovative dedication to entertainment. It commands respect and has earned trust due to unequaled consistency in its market positioning. Therefore a consumer does not simply buy a Mario game or a Zelda game to play on their Wii. They buy a Nintendo experience, an experience that was just as relevant in my childhood as it is today, and as it will probably be in the future. So it is no surprise that Nintendo happens to be doing much better these days in terms of growth, compared to their acquisition-fueled publisher competitors.

Can you speak of a positive EA experience that will be relevant ten years later? An Activision experience? Can you find two people who can agree on what their brand essences are and how they are differentiated?


Bill DeVoe said...

I think there may be earlier examples of this. The main one I consider is Sierra which built a name on 3rd person RPG-like games (King's Quest, et al). It may be a blend both of developer branding and publisher blending as I don't believe they made all their own games as they got bigger.
One major article that really pointed out the strategies of Nintendo was posted by a former coworker of mine at lostgarden.com (the link is: http://lostgarden.com/2005/09/nintendos-genre-innovation-strategy.html). Excellent post and very insightful into Nintendo's need to innovate.
Thanks for the posts - they were very insightful!

Taylan said...

Thanks for the link, Bill. That was a great read too. And you are right about Sierra, it's a good example. It's perhaps also a good example to a disadvantage of genre-reliant publisher branding. When the genre goes down (like the Adventure genre has), so does your brand. Which again puts Nintendo's strategy in the 'best practice' spot as far as publisher branding goes.