Why it works series - An analysis of the Fortnite brand

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Why it works series – Fortnite’s Branding

Image via Epic Games with thanks

If you want to talk about the power of branding, then we have to  talk about Fortnite. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last three years you may not have heard that the Epic Games creation  is the most popular online game in the world right now with over 250 million players globally. 

Now  I know what you’re thinking… “another Millennial that won’t shut up about Fortnite”. But this time it’s different, I swear! I’m not here to tell you about the wicked-cool headshot I got in solo mode during the battle royale last night, nor am I here to teach you the latest Fornite inspired dance craze so that you can get some shock-laughs on your nearest teens TikTok channel. (If you’re over the age of 40 and feel like you’re having a one sided conversation with a time traveler then please bear with me, the businessy bit is coming). No not this time, this Millennial is here to talk about how a game that was seen for the first time in the summer of 2017 is worth over $2bn  less than three years later because it got its branding right. So without further adieu, let’s all aboard the “battle bus”, and get ready to “dive” into the “eye of the storm”. 

Image via Fandom with thanks

*DISCLAIMER – This blog post contains abstract Fornite references that only someone who’s sad enough to have wasted countless hours of their life on a virtual island trying to hunt down fictional characters would understand*

What is a brand?

Now before we explore how a pink cartoon Llama can turn your business into a billion dollar brand, let’s take this time to remember what a brand actually is. If you have been reading up to this point whilst referring back to the Fortnite logo and thinking “meh, it’s not so special”, then you’re doing it wrong.

The best way to think about a brand is to imagine that your business is a person. The question “What is your brand?” is like someone asking “Who are you?”. You could provide the person with your name, but that wouldn’t tell them much about you. You could describe what you look like physically, but that doesn’t quite cut it either. You could tell them all about your values, dreams and darkest secrets, but even that would not provide them with the full picture. Your brand is NOT your logo. It is also not your name. It’s not what you look like, what you sound like, and it’s not the things you care about either. It is all of these things and more. 

Put simply your brand is who you are and it should live in everything you do, in the same way that all the things you say and do, and the way you present yourself visually are determined by who you are as a person. 

Why did I choose Fortnite?

Before talking about this billion-dollar, once in a generation, trailblazing brand that will likely change the face of gaming and mankind forever, let me talk briefly about something even more interesting – me. I am 25 years old. I am a die hard Evertonian. I love streetwear and fashion. And I have an unhealthy obsession with TV and film. Now the more astute of you may have noticed that of all the interesting things about me, a passion for gaming is NOT one of them. In fact the first time I bought a games console was during the coronavirus pandemic when I was looking for something to keep me entertained during lockdown. Some people bought practical things like toilet paper and tinned foods. My priorities were… elsewhere.

So of all the brands I could have picked, why Fortnite if I’m not a gamer? Well that’s because there’s one thing I obsess about more than football (sorry blues) and fashion (sorry Nike), and that is the future. 

To help you understand how deep this obsession runs let me provide you with a point of reference.  I’m probably going to be one of those idiots who volunteers to take the first commercial flight to Mars whilst NASA are still working out the kinks, and I spend my days dreaming about being murdered by the first self-aware AI in the act that sparks the robot revolution.

‘I Robot’- Image via Empire Online with thanks

As well as questionable dreams and aspirations, this obsession often manifests itself in sci-fi fandom, drooling over new tech, and most importantly in my interest in business. All my favourite brands are disruptor brands – brands that are not just predicting, but shaping the future with their innovative approach to business. And if there’s one thing you can say for certain about those crazy cats over at Epic Games Inc, it’s that they are disruptors.

Branding, business models, and the future of gaming

If you’ve never owned a game console then you might be wondering what makes Fortnite the futuristic disruptor brand that I have made it out to be? Well a large part of the answer to this question is around Fortnite’s business model. First let me take you down a seemingly random rabbit-hole about Spotify and the evolution of the Playstation.

Now if you’re a fellow futurist, or someone who pays attention to business and technology trends, then you may have heard the phrase ‘access over ownership’. What this refers to is a shift in buyer and consumer trends from people paying for ownership, to people paying for access. Classic examples include Netflix and Spotify. 15 years ago if you wanted to listen to music then you had to own the discs! I know, crazy right? Now, instead of cluttering your house up with bits of plastic that will outlive the planet, you pay Spotify your £7.99, and they provide you with access to their library. 

Unsplash: Marcus Spiske

Playstation embraced access over ownership models by allowing players to download games online from the Playstation store instead of going out to buy the disc. Although Playstation customers no longer had to own a disc, they still had to buy the game outright to have the access on their playstation (the average game goes for £40-£80). So less like Spotify, and more like pre-Apple-Music iTunes, where you bought the song then added it to your digital library to which you have unlimited access. 

Image via Playstation with thanks

What Epic Games did with Fortnite that was so clever, is they went full Spotify. They created a game with a ‘Freemium model’. A freemium model is what companies like Spotify and Soundcloud use, where you create different tiers of your service including a free version with limited features, and then paid versions with added features. It is also a business model commonly found in the mobile gaming industry. By creating the free version, you allow new customers to try your product with low commitment or risk on their part, which encourages them to pay for the extra’s, or upgrade to the paid version. 

Fortnite is available to download for free. Players are then encouraged to buy the quarterly “battle pass” for around £8 which allows you to unlock extras like costumes for your character. The costumes can also be purchased individually, and you have the option to pay to unlock different modes in the game. Fortnite also makes money from brand collaborations and sponsorship deals.

Branding is a huge subject with plenty of different elements. I could have spent this time talking about Fortnite’s logo, their name, their values, or any of the number of things that make up their brand identity. So why have I spent it talking about business models? Well frankly there’s nothing particularly special about any of Fortnite’s brand elements on an individual level. What make’s Fortnite’s brand so special is that it was shaped by its business model, and is only so great because the two are a perfect fit. To understand why the two work so well together, you must first understand how Fortnite’s business model influenced their target audience. 

Fortnite for all

Before Fortnite, Epic Games had form for creating (incredibly popular) super-violent, hyper-realistic, first person shooters. The type of games that leave you feeling like you need a shower afterwards. But there was very good reason for this; these are the types of games had always been popular with hardcore gamers. You see, if you are charging £80 for your game, then you need to market that game to people who take their gaming seriously enough to spend the £80. And what do serious gamers love? Hyper-realistic graphics, high gore content, complex and difficult games that can have you spend the best part of a month getting past the first challenge. So these are the games developers built, because the success or failure of a game was determined by the ability to reach this small group of core consumers. 

Unsplash: Sean Do

Creating a game with a freemium model presented Epic Games with a new challenge. Now reaching that core group was no longer important, and Epic only had one objective. That was to reach as many players as possible. And to do this, they needed a brand that was fun for everyone, not just violence obsessed teenage boys. Dr Mike Capps who was the president of Epic Games when Fortnite was created has been quoted as saying that they wanted to create a game they could play with their daughters. Fortnite is that game. It is one of the only video games with  equal gender split among players, and is played by old and young alike.

Fortnite Summer Block Party

Image vide Epic Games with thanks

Its all pun and games 

One of the reasons I think so highly of Fortnite is that their brand runs through everything they do. Epic Games had one objective: gain as many downloads as possible. To do this the game had to be accessible to a wider audience, and that’s what the brand is, accessibible.

If you were to ask the average player to describe Fortnite in one word I would bet most people would respond with “fun”. That’s it. Just fun. Not sexy. Not cool. Not mind-blowing, or challenging. Just… fun. That’s all it has to be because everyone likes fun, and Fortnite is for everyone. To include any other ingredients in the brand is to run the risk in making it ‘not someone’s cup of tea’.

“I thought all video games were supposed to be fun?” I hear from the Boomer in the back. Correct! But not all games are accessible fun. Cast your mind back to the violence-obsessed teenage boys sitting in their mum’s basement playing an incredibly difficult and complex game  involving killing gruesome monsters with firearms so realistic they should come with a license. To that teenage boy, that is a fun game. But how accessible is it? Does someone picking up a playstation controller for the first time really want to start here?

Image sourced via Amazon with thanks 

This is a weapon from ‘Gears of War’, another game made by Epic Games. There’s something about an automatic weapon with a blood dripping chainsaw mounted on the front that just screams ‘fun’.

In contrast, Fortnite has cartoonish graphics and a host of colourful characters that make the game feel more approachable.Their idea of fun is things like searching sparkly treasure chests and Llama pinatas for weapons. Fortnite’s fun is being able to do the latest dance routine with friends after a win, or being able to go round shooting other players whilst dressed like a giant hotdog. 

What can your business learn from Fortnite?

  • Your brand is your product – The Fortnite brand is its game. The cartoonish graphics, dance routines, and colorful costumes are all game features, but are also the elements that make up the brand. Within the game you are completely immersed in the brand through everything you do. You would be extremely hard pushed to find any aspect of the game that is untouched by its brand identity.
  • Align your brand with growth strategy – Again, what makes the brand special is that it is completely aligned with Epic Game’s marketing objectives. The game had to be fun, accessible and share-worthy to succeed with a freemium business model, and the Fortnite brand is all of these things.  
  • Be brave on common ground – This is something Fortnite have done really well. Often when brands try to appeal to everybody they end up being conservative and quite boring as being bold risks alienating certain segments. Fortnite have found a way to be bold with their brand whilst maintaining mass appeal by doubling down on the one thing their audience all enjoy, fun. 

Want to make sure your brand is aligned to your growth strategy?

Get in touch! There’s only one thing I enjoy more than playing computer games designed for someone much younger than myself, and that’s working with the team in our strategy workshops. Whether you’re creating a new brand or changing an old one, our strategy workshops can provide you with a roadmap for your goals.