Marketing towards gamers is often awkward and ham-handed. In late 2012, for example, the image below caused some frothing in the gaming community.
That’s video game personality, journalist, and show host Geoff Keighley sitting next to a pile of Doritos (“nacho cheese” flavored), Mountain Dew (“red” flavored), and a co-branded poster for Halo 4. Some people used the image to call Keighley’s journalistic integrity into question 1 but what bugged me about it was how the PepsiCo people were going about marketing this stuff. By taking a gaming celebrity –supposedly the epitome of a “true” gamer who is an expert on the hobby– and surrounding him with Mountain Dew and Doritos, the idea was that this is the kind of food you should like if you’re a gamer.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. There has been a lot of consumer psychology research in the last couple of decades showing that tying a product to a person’s identity can be very effective.2 You can easily argue that Apple has made a killing in marketing an identity to go with their products. Most of their recent advertising campaigns don’t even mention hardware specifications; they just talk about what kind of person you can be if you own their little doo-dad. Apple’s famous “Think Different” ad from 1997 lauded the crazy “square pegs in round holes” characters like Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pablo Picasso. In a way, this is very similar to Keighley’s ad for Doritos and Mountain Dew except in Apple’s case there’s not even a product in sight –just a bunch of people and the Apple logo. But the message is clear: buy our stuff and you will be a misunderstood genius, too. I’m reminded of this every time I see someone sporting an iPhone case with a conspicuous hole in it that serves no other purpose than letting the Apple logo on the back of the phone show through.
Some companies, though, are so bold as to define what it means to be a gamer and tie it to using their product. Gamefly, the rent-by-mail service for game disks, had the claim that “You call yourself a gamer? You HAVE to have this service” as the tagline for one of its commercials.
Even worse is “Gamer Grub.” Their website pitches plastic pouches of Pizza and PB&J flavored …Goo? Kibbles? I’m not sure, but their aim is to relieve gamers of the decidedly non-radical process of chewing. The marketing makes it clear that if you’re a gamer, this is what you should eat: “the first performance snack formulated especially for gamers” 3
Some recent research by Amit Bhattacharjee, Jonah Berger, and Geeta Menon published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research4 shows how this kind of marketing can backfire, as in the case of Gamefly’s “You have to have this or you’re not a real gamer” message. The researchers argue that while we do prefer products that reinforce parts our identities –especially when that identity is somehow made more salient– we have to feel like it’s us deciding that the product reinforces our identity, not the marketing. In fact, if the advertising or marketing message tries too hard to explicitly link our group identity to the act of buying or using the product, it can backfire and we are less likely to buy it.
Bhattacharjee and his colleagues did a series of experiments where they manipulated whether or not the marketing language explicitly tied the product to an identity or membership in a group. For example, consider the following pairs of messages used in ads for DirectTV’s sports packages and Charlie’s All Purpose Soap, an environmentally friendly cleanser:
- “If you call yourself a sports fan, you gotta have DirectTV!”
- “DirectTV. All the sports you love, all in one place.”
- “Charlie’s: The only good choice for green consumers.”
- “Charlie’s: A good choice for green consumers.”
The first statement in each pair explicitly ties the use of the product to membership in an identity-defining group. The second simply references that identity.
The results were consistent across five experiments: if you highlight the influence of external factors (like the marketing) on brand/identity relationships, people will reject them more often than if you allow them to make those associations under their own agency. In the case of the Charlie’s soap messages, those who saw the second pitch were, on average, a full point higher on a 5-point “Purchase Likelihood” scale: 2.74 vs. 3.78. That’s huge when you’re talking about thousands of potential customers.
We need to feel that WE are deciding that a certain product –a soft drink, a snack chip, or a video game console– is placing us in a group that defines our identity. Don’t try to shove us into an identity-defining group. Only we can shove ourselves into an identity-defining group. I suspect this has implications beyond marketing, too. Other appeals to tribalism like “you’re only a true gamer if you play on the PC” or “You’re not a real gamer if you you’ve never been to PAX” or even “Only casuals play that character in DOTA” are likely to fall flat for the same reasons.
Besides, I prefer Cool Ranch Doritos.