Game of War has a Mariah Carey problem. How can I tell? The mobile ads in the current campaign for the mobile app are changing at a furious pace, and many ads are running that do not feature Ms. Carey. This is likely a sign that the ads that initially broke with the campaign are not performing to the levels that Game of War owner Machine Zone desires, and may be underperforming the previous campaign.
The trades covered the launch of the new campaign featuring Ms. Carey, and gave the creators credit for juxtaposing Ms. Carey's 1993 hit song Hero with a background of medieval warfare in the main campaign video. Many writers credited the main video with being funny and a little campy … which can work very well in video. But Machine Zone uses static ads for Game of War on most mobile platforms, including in-game ads. The ads, which feature the highly retouched chanteuse in medieval armor, a sword held casually over her shoulder, are unable to communicate any of the elements that supposedly make the original video engaging.
This is not an uncommon problem when the genesis of the campaign is a one-liner that requires audio and/or video to sinks its hook. You can also tell that the creatives are limited to a few similar images of Ms. Carey. The core image -- heavily, heavily retouched and likely the product of several dozen rounds of approval -- has probably become a set of handcuffs to the creative team. If the team did not shoot enough alternative poses and angles at the photo shoot they are stuck, because they can't afford to get her in the studio again. And even if they have few alternates to work with, getting approval to use them is a hill they may not want to die on. I can imagine that there is a cottage industry of people around Ms. Carey that would make securing approval on additional imagery a living hell. So they have changed the layout, cropped the image in a myriad of ways, and picked it clean on different backgrounds, but it doesn't look like anything is working because ads without Ms. Carey keep making it into the rotation.
Tweaking a campaign to maximize performance is smart, and savvy teams can be relentless in their pursuit of better performance. But sometimes it feels a bit desperate, and this is one of those times. For me the situation raises a host of questions and some probable lessons in what to do, and what not to do when working with celebrity talent on a mutli-platform campaign.
The first question is why did Machine Zone switch from their Kate Upton campaign to Ms. Carey in the first place? The rights to use a celebrity in a campaign are negotiated up front and expire after a set time period. Buying the rights out permanently is typically prohibitively expensive. Odds are the rights on Kate Upton were up. Machine Zone may have made the decision not to renew, or perhaps they had always planned to move onto a new campaign. In my experience ad agencies will aways push for new creative because a new campaign is a pathway to higher revenues.
In the 60 days following the launch of the Kate Upton TV ad, Game of War: Fire Age in-game purchases reportedly doubled, suggesting the ad campaign was having a significant impact. An article in Fortune suggested an attempt to raise $500 million in additional funding was tied to the expense of the Upton campaign. Now Kate Upton was still an "it girl" when the campaign featuring her was a talking point of the 2015 Superbowl. She had been in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition five times, on the cover three times, made eating a burger x-rated in Carl's Jr. commercials, and was still (and is still) an internet phenomenon.
Her demographics certainly skewed young, and much younger than Mariah Carey's. And like her demographics, she herself is very young, turning just 23 years old this June. Mariah Carey is 45 years old. She is attractive and accomplished and has high name recognition, and she could not be more different than Kate Upton. While Kate Upton's fans find her anywhere they look on the Internet, Mariah Carey's fans find her plugging away at Caeser's Palace five nights a week, or on the Ellen Degeneres show.
I am a tad older than Ms. Carey and have pretty broad musical tastes, but I cannot name a single one of her songs. Apparently 18 of those songs have hit number one. Who knew? I think you have to be at least in your mid-fifties to be a fan of hers, if not older. The song that was chosen for the launch video ad was a hit 22 years ago! That means you have to be in your ate 30s nor early 40s to have any nostalgia for the song, or to have a good chance of even recognizing it. I don't have anything against Ms. Carey, she has just never really been on my radar. It was not until her cameo in Adam Sandler's ridiculous movie You Don't Mess With The Zohan that she appeared as a blip and I thought, "hey maybe she has a sense of humor?"
So was the switch to Ms. Carey a deliberate, strategic move to appeal to older consumers? There are plenty of research studies that show the consumers who spend money on free-to-play and freemium mobile games tend to skew much older and much more female than console and PC game players. There is no secret there. Was Ms. Carey proposed by the creative team to reach an older, female audience? Or had they had already thought of the basic video concept and sold her in on the creative alone? Or did some senior executive decide he or she wanted to work with a celebrity that meant something to them? I have no insight into the decision, I simply don't know. But beyond sticking with a celebrity campaign it was a remarkable change in direction.
Another questions is why is the creative toolkit for the campaign so limited? To this question I suspect the answer is simple: money. The more simple the ask of the celebrity, the more limited the nature of the creative, the less expensive the production costs are and the less expensive the usage rights. I have run into this in plenty of negotiations myself. I have heard CEOs say "go big, but limit the costs as much as possible." Which is like buying a Lotus and saying you can't leave the driveway. Actually, more like renting a Lotus and saying you can't leave the rental lot.
The problem with throttling a celebrity-based campaign in that manner is that you choke it of the funds you need to have an impact worthy of the investment in the celebrity. You run into a return on investment problem, and nothing draws my ire like spending money with no ROI. I always counsel right-sizing the budget to maximize ROI. I'd rather have money available to inject into a campaign that performs better than expected than locking into an aggressive ad buy that underperforms.
We can also ask why Machine Zone used an established celebrity at all? There can be great value in finding an up-and-coming or just discovered performer. Find the next Kate Upton but sign her the year of her first Sports Illustrated issue. Or just use an attractive model. They could have even licensed the Mariah Carey song if they were married to the creative, but spent millions less by substituting a model for Ms. Carey in the ad itself.
When Machine broke the Kate Upton campaign they were making a statement. They took a big step out of their peer group, which had produced limited broadcast advertising most of which was comprised of animation. Signing a celebrity and running a Superbowl ad was a statement about where the brand wanted to go and it was a way to differentiate the brand for consumers. The decision to stay the course and sign another celebrity suggests the first campaign succeeded and Machine Zone wanted to double down. The ROI on that decision is an unknown at this point, but we will continue to see clues in how the campaign plays out over the coming months.