Wondering how well video games work as a marketing tool for food? In this post, we’ll look at three examples of how food companies had great success using advergames (advertising games) for marketing. From a Super Mario Bros-esque mission from McDonald's to a Chex-clad warrior fighting aliens, food brands have used video games as a novel means of capturing their customers’ attention.
Any post about games effectively promoting food products would be remiss not to mention the game Chipotle used to captivate customers. We want to really dive into that example, so stay tuned for a later post covering it in detail (update: available here).
McDonald's - M.C. Kids
M.C. Kids was released in 1992 for Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and later for Game Boy, C64, Amiga, Atari ST, and MS-DOS. Mick and Mack journey to McDonaldland to get back Ronald McDonald’s magical bag, which was stolen by the infamous hamburglar. This game excelled at creating a fantasy world based on the brand. Instead of awkward product placement, the game centers around the brand unabashedly. Yet rather than coming off as clumsy or boring, it transports the player into another world where they are invested in helping the likable company mascot, Ronald McDonald. The game’s fun and challenging premise made it a success.
GamePro considered the game to be very similar to Super Mario Bros., but with "some great features that Mario lacks". Various characters from the franchise were incorporated into the game, increasing brand recognition and likability. McDonald’s cards and the instantly-recognizable golden arches weren’t just decorative features, rather they were utilized for plot advancement and power-ups.
Chex - Chex Quest
This was the first video game ever to be included in cereal boxes as a prize. It was created in 1996 as a high-quality game that would normally sell for $30-$35, but it was included for free with the cereal box. The goal was to show kids that Chex, which was typically viewed as a “healthier,” adult cereal, could compete with the likes of Trix (“Trix are for kids!”) and Tony the Tiger. It might not have been doused in sugar, but it came with an actual video game!
The game incorporated the company’s product right into the player’s identity: Chex Warrior. It’s a first-person perspective where the player wears a Chex as protection, encouraging the player to subconsciously identify with the brand. The player fights alien 'Flemoids' who use mucus as their weapon. This was a bit of an unappetizing choice to be paired with a food product, but it’s fun for kids. The Chex body armor wasn’t the only place the game was linked to the brand; it also included cereal-themed power-ups and weapons that can increase the player character’s health.
This game showcases the long-lasting effects of an advergame vs a traditional marketing campaign. The game was only promoted for six weeks, but its popularity long outlasted its marketing campaign. Promotional marketing groups considered the brand image to have been revitalized "from old-fashioned and stodgy to exciting, fun and modern."
It should be noted that the game was built on the engine of the popular game, Doom, and the game’s artist, Charles Jacobi, stated that the biggest reason for the lasting success of Chex Quest has been that it is still essentially a disguised version of Doom with basically unaltered game dynamics. The game was made on just a $500,000 budget, but it led to a huge boost in sales, and General Mills declared the campaign "highly successful." It also led to two sequels and a HD remake is currently in the works, 23 years after the original release - a testament to the longevity of its cult-following.
Burger King - Sneak King
Sneak King was released in 2006 for Xbox and Xbox 360 and was sold for $3.99 with the purchase of a value meal. Players take on the role of Burger King’s mascot, The King, and sneak around different levels giving Burger King meals to hungry characters. The player has to be sneaky because the other characters will lose their appetite if they see or hear The King coming.
The “sneaky” aspect and the fact that the other characters lose their appetite if they see you - and what they’re going to eat - is a strange concept but it was an effective way of creating suspense. This game also worked well because it was connected to the company’s mission - providing hungry people with food.
Connecting the game to the in-store purchase of a value meal provided an appealing exclusivity, as it wasn’t available to everyone. The game was a huge sales hit despite its somewhat awkward premise. It was the cheapest Xbox live game at that point in time and more than 2 million copies were sold, making it one of the top-ten best selling games of 2006.
From a marketing standpoint, it was an incredible success. Time spent in the game equates to more than 1.4 billion 30-second commercials. Just imagine how many Super Bowl ads a company would need to purchase in order to reach that kind of exposure. Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was estimated to have been seen by at least 114.4 million viewers in the United States. And while an ad is viewed once, and may even become annoying when seen repetitively, a game compels customers to continue engaging with the brand. Sneak King was attributed by Burger King's Russell Klein as being a key part of increasing sales by 40%.
The American video game and entertainment media website, IGN, reviewed it as “OKAY,” stating that it is far from a great game and closer to just a great marketing idea. The game has been described as weird, humorous, and even creepy. It possibly even has cult status; people still write about the game today. Sneak King took a well-known company mascot and used knowledge of his unique way of speaking and moving to promote the brand continually throughout the experience because the player is “The King.”
Similarities between these games
- No awkward product placements
- Made the games fun, not just gamifying
- In both Sneak King and Chex Quest, the player becomes either the company mascot or the product itself (a Chex-shaped body armor, technically). This tactic increases player identification with the brand.
- Consoles vs. computer games
- Game quality obviously improved as video game technology developed
As we can see with just these three examples, video games have been used as a compelling marketing tool for food products. The latest development in this marketing strategy is advergames for mobile. These games can be incorporated into companies’ apps, creating even easier game access than was available with the examples mentioned since 77% of Americans own a smartphone.
Not one to be left in the past, McDonald’s has continued to create various advergames. Their most recent success is the educational game for mobile, McPlay, released in 2015. Aimed at children aged 6-12, the game teaches kids new skills while they pretend to be an inventor, a musician, a hero, and more. It has been downloaded 5,000,000 times on Google Play alone and incorporates in-game scans from Happy Meal toys.
With advergames created around your brand, your customers can be transported to a digital world full of adventure and fun where they play challenges related to your company mission. Take your brand to the next level with advergames!