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Chains target young consumers via virtual branding in new video games

With sales of video games reaching near-parity with movie box-office revenues, restaurant chains are steadily increasing their brand presence in games as marketers in all industries boost their spending on gaming tie-ins toward a projected $2 billion globally by 2012.

Foodservice remains eager to grab larger shares of the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic that loves video games, and makers of them say those consumers are responding positively to all sorts of in-game brand placements.

Various studies affirm that brand awareness rises significantly among consumers who play the games and see logos, other marketing messages and even in-game buying opportunities.

Consumers’ purchases of video games are expected to increase at a double-digit rate this year, according to the Veronis Suhler Stevenson Communications Industry Forecast, after reaching the $9.5 billion in 2007 sales reported by NPD Group.

KFC and Pizza Hut both divisions of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc., announced this month that they will be featured in new video games. Others that have had roles in such games include Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, Sonic, Taco Bell and White Castle.

Already a gaming star, Pizza Hut in 2005 made headlines when the new EverQuest II “massive multiplayer” online game enabled players to order pizzas for delivery directly from the game while playing.

“Video games have, in fact, become a larger medium than movies,” said Peter Geisheker, president and chief executive of Geisheker Group, a marketing firm in Green Bay, Wis.

The Entertainment Software Association says 42 percent of gamers between 6 and 44 years old play online games one or more hours a week. Recognizing the interest for in-game ads, Google has launched AdSense for Games, a platform for integrating ads into online games.

Members of Microsoft’s Xbox Live worldwide network of gamers are able to see restaurant chains’ current limited-time promotions inserted seamlessly and temporarily into such in-game visuals as stadium signs and road race billboards, with billings based on the actual time gamers are able to see the product pitches.

Although some players may resent seeing ads in video games, “you are always going to turn off a small portion of people” regardless of the ad medium, Geisheker said.

“Whenever you can get your name in front of an audience, it’s a good thing,” he said, “and with the popularity [of video games], from children all the way up to adults buying these games and playing them over and over and over, you get the beautiful thing called repetition of branding.”

Advergames, the term used for marketers’ online video games that promote a brand, also generate large audiences.

More than 5 million consumers have played Taco Bell’s “Taco Fu” advergame since it was launched a year ago. The game pits players against hungry “luchadores,” who try to steal their Taco Bell food.

When Sonic Drive-In went online with its Luck of the Straw advergame in 2006 to promote various drink combinations, the game was played nearly a million times within three weeks of its launch.

Advergames closely linked to a brand’s product or service generate better feelings toward the brand than games with a weaker “thematic link” to the brand, according to a study by University of Missouri researchers. They found that consumers expressed “strong positive relationships towards brands when they played advergames with strong thematic connections to the brands.”

Placing ads in video games gives brands “a measured lift in overall consumer awareness and opinion of the products they are exposed to,” according to a study conducted by Nielsen BASES and Nielsen Games for in-game ad network IGA Worldwide.

Nielsen surveyed more than 1,300 gamers using sample game discs, and Taco Bell was among the participating advertisers. The study found that positive brand association increased 33 percent across all brands. More than 70 percent of the gamers who were most opinionated about in-game ads said they made the players feel better about the brand, which were viewed as innovative or cutting edge. More than 60 percent said the ads caught their attention and made the game more realistic.

Realism is what White Castle strove for when the chain made its video game debut earlier this year in “Arctic Stud Run Poker.” Vice president of marketing Jamie Richardson said the chain was looking for a “natural fit” to reach its young consumers and to make the experience “authentic.”

Players can grab and eat virtual Slyders to boost their stamina as they play the game, which combines racing, combat and poker.

KFC’s entry into video-game branded integration is an extension of the chain’s efforts to target younger consumers. KFC will make “innovative branded cameos” in Activision’s “Guitar Hero World Tour.”

KFC and the Guitar Hero franchise “share a fan base,” said Javier Benito, executive vice president of marketing and food innovation for the 14,000-plus-unit chain.

Pizza Hut, which has more than 10,000 restaurants worldwide, will appear in Rockstar Game’s “Midnight Club LA.” Players cruising the streets of a virtual Los Angeles will see Pizza Hut billboards and restaurants.

“We know that gaming is extremely popular with many of our consumers, especially those in the 18-to-34 age range,” said Bernard Acoca, senior director of digital marketing for Pizza Hut. “Video games give us another avenue to be where our customers are. We think there’s significance to the positive connection we create with gamers when they see our brand associated with this game.”

Echoing White Castle’s Richardson, Acoca said “Midnight Club LA” is a “natural fit” for integrating the Pizza Hut brand.

Pizza Hut and Rockstar also have partnered for an online sweepstakes to promote the launch of the video game.

“The grand prize is a $100,000 Saleen Mustang, the same car featured in the game,” Acoca said. “We think this promotion has tremendous appeal not only to gamers but to auto enthusiasts as well.”

Using enhanced graphic capabilities, programmers can create “extremely realistic environments” to provide new opportunities for branding, he said, adding that “where it makes sense to build awareness for the Pizza Hut brand, we’ll continue to explore those opportunities.”

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