Gaming in travel marketing: How Play NZ cut through in lockdown

Tapping into the gaming industry has paid off for Tourism New Zealand. After 18 months in the making, the Play NZ campaign from TBWA Sydney came about at a time when interest in gaming was at its peak. Here, Tourism New Zealand's Andrew Waddel and TBWA's Katrina Alvarez-Jarratt discuss with Zoe Wilkinson how they managed to cut through and keep travel top of mind.

It was almost serendipitous that Tourism New Zealand’s video game-like marketing push came at a time when Australians were holed up inside their homes and gaming was on the rise. Play NZ, the tour of the nation’s greatest cultural hotspots and natural wonders which looked so convincingly like a video game, was 18 months in the making with TBWA Sydney, but the need to play in lockdown as an outlet for stress and fear pushed the campaign into a new realm.

Tourism New Zealand’s general manager of Australia, Andrew Waddel, says it was important to tap into the notion of play in a “more positive positioning in the sense of entertainment and engagement” and draw the campaign away from the negative shadow cast by lockdown. As the campaign’s launch drew closer, it was an opportunity for Tourism NZ to enter a timely conversation.

“We’re adjusting our timing to be hyper-relevant,” Waddel says. “The other challenge for us was how do you talk about a country when you can’t travel? And, what if that travel border changes during that time?”

“We required agility not just to be hyper-relevant in the point in time… so we understood and respect the consumer in context, but also it was flexible enough to change from Play NZ when you can’t travel, or Play NZ virtually, and then we’re able to transition to Play NZ IRL, or in real life [if borders reopened].”

Play NZ launched with Australian gaming influencer Loserfruit, aka Kathleen Belsten, hosting a live walkthrough of a new ‘game’ on Twitch for fans and gaming journalists to watch. The stream saw Loserfruit pretending to play the game as an intrepid traveller exploring New Zealand, only for the reveal to drop at the end it was a marketing initiative from the tourism body.

A nine-minute version of the walkthrough was then published on YouTube and an interactive hub went live, which invited curious travellers to explore the regions of New Zealand featured in the ‘game’ online with more than 18 180 degree digital tours. Surrounding the campaign was a flurry of earned media, latching onto the use of a gaming walkthrough as a storytelling device.

Despite Australians being the primary target, the campaign reached over 100 million people, achieved an average dwell time of nine minutes on the Play NZ site, resulted in a 387% increase in intent amongst Australians to visit the country after lockdown, and maintained New Zealand’s position as the number one preferred destination for Australian travellers.

The challenge now is to keep up that momentum while the trans-Tasman tourism bubble still remains a question mark.

“It’s an extremely challenging time for travel and tourism operators globally, and it’s been devastating for all operators across New Zealand and Australia,” Waddel says.

“From our perspective it’s really been important to ensure that we continue to invest into brand and keep the brand healthy and supported and top of mind for future travel. So it’s been very important to do that while the borders are closed. We are on the edge and will continue to prime our audience for future travel.”

Aiding in Play NZ’s ability to cut through was its appeal to the gaming community, one that seems to be continually overlooked by brands in Australia. The level of detail in the storytelling of the New Zealand culture is described by TBWA Sydney creative director, Katrina Alvarez-Jarratt, as ‘layers’ wrapped around the ‘nucleus’ of the original campaign idea.

“When you see some of those characters and they’re earning points [kaha – energy, aroha – interactions and respect, and wairua – experiences and growth], those points are very specific to New Zealand cultural ideas and philosophy and there’s interwoven, within that, really deep New Zealand stories,” Alvarez-Jarratt gives as an example.

Further, the characters in the game are named after regions of New Zealand, Māori concepts, and characters from classic local TV shows. Tane ‘The Kaitiaki’ references the Māori concept of Katiaki which means ‘the guardian’ (in this case, of the forest) and links to Tourism New Zealand’s Tiaki Promise: a commitment from travellers to care about the natural environment.

The dedication to the appearance of a game came down to the shooting of the film, carefully choreographed and using body cams and rigs to make the viewer’s point of view move with the character’s actions to mimic the style of first person, over-the-shoulder video games.

“The authenticity of it was really important to us, so making sure that we almost had to permission to be there,” Alvarez-Jarratt says of leveraging the gaming community.

“So using someone like Loserfruit, essentially as a brand and we partnered with her in a really authentic way, so that means that people really responded to us in the way that we were kind of playing in their space and we went to where they were.”

Waddel adds: “I think our approach of it was being aware that we used gaming as a way to tell our story and really wanted to make sure that we were adding value to that community. I think largely one of the reasons it’s potentially untapped is you don’t know what you don’t know, so there can be a sense of apprehension about getting involved in something that you’re not sure, a) how to engage and b) what the results would be.”

Australia’s border has been open to New Zealanders for the better part of the last five months, but the flow of tourists the other way is still limited. Domestic travel and tourism from Australians represents about 70% of the travel and tourism industry in New Zealand, and Australians count for $3 billion in revenue; just under a quarter of the country’s total tourism revenue from international visitors.

Waddel is expecting competition from Australia’s national and state tourism bodies when the bubble opens up, crediting Tourism Australia’s ‘Holiday Here This Year’ as one of the great pieces of tourism marketing to arise over the past year.

“We have a saying that is ‘he waka eke noa’, which is ‘we’re all in this together’ and waka being a vessel we all travel in together, and it’s important for the tourism industry to encourage and support travel again and get people travelling and enjoying those experiences,” Waddel says.

“It will be extremely competitive, we believe there’s enough to go around in the sense of growth and opportunity for New Zealand and Australia to work long-term to attract long haul visitors in the future is going to be critical.”

In terms of a follow up to Play NZ, Waddel says, the team is “looking at the way we want to continue in the sense from a storytelling perspective”.


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