Q&A with Chris Erb – VP of brand marketing, EA Sports

Chris Erb is vice president of brand marketing for video game company EA Sports. Marketing magazine caught up with him the day after his keynote at ad:tech Sydney, in which he spoke on ‘Collaborations in a digital world’, detailing some of the partnerships, interactivity and social aspects to EA Sports’ portfolio.

 

Could you give us an intro to your role as VP of brand marketing?

I run the brand marketing across EA Sports, so we do the look, feel, tone, voice. We also do the licensing but really what’s key is the promotion stuff. We look at collaborations as a way to build awareness. It’s a very theatrical model, building relationships with brands, but we actually want to go much deeper than what the movie industries do. We want to build relationships with the brands – we have a lot of overlapping audiences, and so how do we find ways to rewards their customers, make them become our customers and get our customers to embrace theirs?

When we’re looking at partners, who’s the right authentic partner for sports? What’s the right brand that works around FIFA or basketball or football in the US? Who are the right authentic kinds of brands to work with?

Once you get that aligned on who the right people are, then it’s “Hey, how do you drive customer value or drive good experiences to the consumers through your partners?”

At ad:tech you spoke on ‘collaborations in a digital world’. What are some examples of collaborations EA Sports is involved with that also have a social aspect?

I think one of the good ones we talked about was Red Bull where they had Art of Flight [snowboarding film] coming out and we had SSX [snowboarding video game], and we had a great relationship with them already so we said “How do we collaborate on this?”

And we did so many different things, from retail signage, POS, letting them use our assets on POS at retail to taking [snowboarder] Travis Rice and making him an unlockable character within our game, which we give away on Facebook – the only way to get that code is through a tab that we had on Facebook where you enter and once we got so many people on there you get the unlockable code for Travis Rice, which is kind of a big deal – we had never had a professional athlete in SSX before.

That just shows a good overlap between the brands as well as when they did a tour of Art of Flight going from city to city, showing the movies, we had kiosks where people could play the games. In our game, we included codes for the Art of Flight movie that you could stream or get downloads from, and really share in our social media network. We’re a little over 19 million in our social network. Red Bull is even higher than that. We created some custom SSX videos with their athletes, with Travis Rice, that they could air on their channels that really felt like relevant content to their audience, not really marketing stuff, as well as us talking about things on our channel. When you look at that it shows you a bit of everything from a licensing standpoint to retail to PR to social media.

We try and do that stuff with lots of brands: Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nike. You’ve got to do something kind of cool – we’re not selling printed paper, it’s a cool industry, and it’s something that’s kind of fun. Our customers expect something cool, something that has a bit of swagger to it to make it feel cool, so how do we build programs like that?

One of the overall themes from the first day keynotes at ad:tech was content in marketing. For brands like EA Sports it seems a natural fit for brands like Coca-Cola to be present because they’d be in that environment in the real world. Do you have any advice on content marketing for smaller companies or companies that aren’t so interactive already?

I think it really depends on what that brand is trying to do. Not to talk about Red Bull again, but Red Bull is a media company, right? They make 200,000 hours of video a year. It’s a can of liquid awesomeness – a great can, but they’re a media company. It depends what brands really want to do; do they want to create compelling stories around their products or do they want to find partners that help them deliver that content to their customers.

Smart companies need to ask, “Hey, should we go out and create our own content or do we find the right content that’s relevant with our brands?” And I think once you make that decision – and that’s where EA Sports can come in – if you say we’re not in the space to create our own content but we want to deliver content to our consumers, and our customers are 18 to 34, great, video gaming is 18 to 34 in general, so what makes sense?  Is it Mass Effect?  Is it Need for Speed, or is it sports? From a smarter brand perspective, there’s no bigger industry in entertainment right now than what the gaming business is doing, so if you’re looking for content, if you’re looking for something that’s active, not passive and something that’s very compelling, I think the gaming space is the best space in the world.

Doritos in the US does really cool things about giving people early access to our exclusive content. One of the programs we did in the US is with a brand called Reeses candybars who doesn’t have any legal licences, so we did a program around EA Sports where you could save $10 on any EA Sports game with the purchase of the candy. So, again, it’s a way to dabble within sports without having a legal licence, which is kind of an interesting way to figure out the space that brand wants to play in.

With the rise of social media, digital, connectivity everywhere, is that an important part of your strategy?

Yeah, I think that you have to realise that social media is not a campaign, it’s a commitment and the basic fundamentals of marketing stay the same. Social is kind of overlaid and wrapped all around it. The coolest thing about yesterday [Ed’s note – Twitter conversations fly around ad:tech keynotes] was to be able to see the comments on Twitter and the stuff you were tweeting about the talk I gave and to instantly know what was relevant. I could see the comments that were relevant to you were relevant with someone else, and now I can go through my deck and find out what wasn’t relevant, what didn’t people talk about? So that instant  feedback loop was really amazing to see: “Okay, this was really relevant but nobody really cared about this kind of stuff”. It’s the same with the product.

When we look at our data we can see that in American football there’s a quarterback sneak, and in the real NFL it happens 32% of the time and in our games it only happens 3% of the time. Well, that’s obviously because it must not work so let’s go in and figure out why people aren’t doing it. Maybe the blocking is not right – how do we fix the blocking? Maybe we can get that percentage up so it feels more authentic, which is what we’re really about.

The technology within the game can do that and then Twitter and Facebook feeds are, “Hey, I really like this” or “Hey, you know what’s missing is this kind of thing.”  Five years ago we’d fly people down to our studio once or twice to get their feedback. Now it’s a 24 hour a day feedback loop. It changes market research, changes the way we talk about things.

And the messaging can go out in different ways. Social media is critical in the way we market the product, but also the way we develop it and the way we build consistent relationships. We’re sports fans, we feel like a really big company but how do we pull back the curtain and show we’re just like you guys, we just happen to work here but we love sports as much as you do and we’re just trying to do really cool things. Social media has really allowed us to humanise a lot of the faces around EA and say, “What do you like? What do you don’t like? And how do we address it?”

What was the rationale behind EA Sports opening retail stores in airports?

I think there’s a lot of cool things about the retail stores. It’s a licence deal so we have partners that manage stuff for us, and the idea is ‘how do we get video game controllers in people’s hands more often?’ And that’s really kind of what it’s all about – getting experiences with people. It’s a marketing play, so you build awareness of the brand within marketing by buying a poster and it’s a million dollars for a year. How are you going to build marketing around a really good experience for customers? We fly all the time. Flying can be tough. If we can have an oasis or a place where people can kind of go in and catch up on the scores of the games to be able to spend five or 10 minutes engaging with the brand, find out what’s new, it’s a cool kind of experience. Our goal is to build awareness and get more people’s hands on controllers and give a good experience to customers, and hopefully customers are feeling it’s a cool space.

How does social gaming fit into the EA Sports strategy?

Social gaming is really important, it’s a huge audience and the best way that we look at it is every kind of platform that people can game on now are going to want to have an experience where you can take your FIFA or Madden experience and be able to engage with it on every platform. The experience needs to be different on every platform: you’re not playing Madden on [a smartphone] like you would play it on your TV, but we think that you need to have a persistent relationship with your consumer over products. Social gaming brings new people into the category, and also extends your console experience across all those programs. It’s really critical for the things we’re doing.

At the core of it, we are a game company. I think games are just being experienced in different ways. You’re just not tethered to your couch anymore which you and I are probably used to. But now it’s kind of evolving – you can play anywhere, anytime.  You and I could literally play NBA Jam right now. So, being able to play games and connect with anybody in the world really opens it up to a 365 degree marketing program. It’s about having those relationships so you and I could talk about NBA Jam or I could say, “Hey, have you seen the new NHL game? It’s really cool. Let’s play.”

On collaborations, you mentioned that customer value is key to everything. How do you ensure that?

It’s really understanding what the customer value is – it’s different for different people. Value to some people is dollars off. Value to some people is making their experience better, so [the key is] really trying to understand for different franchises and different consumers. What does a partnership with McDonald’s mean? Is that a value play, and is Coca-Cola a content play?

When we’re trying to figure out partners, the definition of values is really what it means to that consumer and figuring that out and then aligning those programs with the right partners. Doritos is really about giving content experiences, so being able to pick the cover of Madden, being able to play Madden in 3D, those were key things about doing something that’s never been done before, number one; and then number two, it’s involving the consumers in the relationship with the brands. Our program with Reeses or, we have a hair salon in the US called Great Clips, it’s a dollars off play in a sweepstakes entry, so you can go and play golf anywhere in the world if you win the sweepstakes, but if you don’t, you’re saving five or 10 dollars on any of our EA Sports games. So, you just spent 10 dollars for a haircut and you’re going to save five or 10 dollars on an EA Sports game. For our audience, that’s going to seem relevant. It’s really finding out whether it’s value or content that consumers are really looking for, and then aligning those with the right brands.