Can luxury brands crack WeChat mini games in 2021?


WeChat mini games are a fun way for luxury brands to engage with 500 million Chinese consumers. Could they offer even more?

When Burberry launched its TB Summer Monogram collection in July 2020, model Kendall Jenner wasn't the only campaign star. The brand also created a cute anthropomorphic character, dressed head to toe in TB Summer Monogram pieces, for its B Surf WeChat mini game.

WeChat mini games are low-skill, easy-to-play games played on phones, first introduced by WeChat in 2017 and now a massive hit in China. Burberry’s mini game, developed in-house, allowed customers to surf around a TB-shaped track and race friends on Burberry surfboards. In the first two weeks of launch, players could win a limited-edition Burberry monogrammed surfboard, Burberry-branded bucket hats, face filters and AR-themed characters.

In 2020, some 500 million monthly active users played WeChat mini games, or almost half of all of WeChat’s monthly active users. Owner Tencent, which already makes 33 per cent of revenue from online gaming, has big plans for the format. At the 2021 WeChat Open Class Pro conference the company said it wants to further integrate mini games with video streaming and PC in 2021, while further developing in-app purchasing and in-app advertising — opening up a new world of marketing opportunity for luxury brands.

The enforced social restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic have powered growth for the global games market, which reached $174.9 billion in 2020, with China contributing 25 per cent of spending. The pandemic also accelerated the link-up between fashion and gaming, with brands including Balenciaga, Valentino and Gucci experimenting with fashion shows as video games, releasing skins in the popular Nintendo game Animal Crossing and adding in-app games.

Mini games sit within the WeChat ecosystem, which enables users to shop, call taxis and sort tax refunds, among much else besides, without leaving WeChat. They function in that sense is just like branded mini programs, which have progressively been embraced by luxury brands, offering access to WeChat’s user base of more than one billion monthly active users. Transaction volume through WeChat mini programs for the apparel industry tripled in 2020 compared to 2019, according to data released at the 2021 WeChat Open Class Pro conference.

While hitting the right buttons in marketing terms, these gaming activations continue to elude monetisation. But that is not because players are unwilling to pay. According to Sensor Tower, users spent $36.6 billion on in-app purchases within games in the first half of 2020. “Chinese consumers have been open to monetisation from the very early stages in a way that Western social media consumers have not been,” says Adam Knight, co-founder of creative agency Tong, which has helped brands develop mini games.

Western luxury brands are certainly keen to explore the full potential of WeChat. “The fact that WeChat is currently more technically advanced than others means that we see greater possibilities and functions there,” says Dior. “The WeChat ecosystem also offers a broad number of opportunities, including subscription accounts, service accounts and in-feed WeChat Moment ads, to promote the mini game.” Games with a simple interaction level, such as the Memory Game and 8 Differences, both developed by Dior in 2020, were well received.

Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at video game market research agency Niko Partners, has noticed a shift from early in-app advertising games towards in-app purchasing games as limitations on mini game size are removed and as more developers explore the instant gaming space. “Full MMO (multiplayer online role-playing) and strategy games with in-app purchasing are starting to become popular,” he says. Further integration with PC and live streaming will also expand opportunities for both players and developers, with live streaming in particular offering an additional channel for marketing games.

Dior is certainly on the case. “From a digital point of view, we are always open to embracing the potential that new functions and products offer,” says Dior, noting that the brand has launched live streams on its WeChat mini program for fashion shows and virtual unveilings. “But the challenge lies in figuring out how to let users play the game and watch the live stream in a simultaneous and seamless manner. This is something we intend to explore further with the Tencent team.”

Learnings for brands from the innovative world of Chinese marketing have often proven useful to them on a global scale, as trends like live streaming and influencer marketing spill over to other markets. “In the last few years, China has led the way in almost every aspect when it comes to retail innovation, not just in terms of creating that innovation but also adopting it on a wide scale in a way where it is no longer just some quirk, but it’s the mainstream way of shopping,” says Knight.

Man-Chung Cheung, an analyst at eMarketer, says that WeChat mini games are full of promise for luxury brands. “If coupled with some proven marketing techniques such as launching limited-edition products, personalisation or in-store experiences, it could be a really big draw,” he says. Besides Burberry and Dior, Fendi and Max Mara have also tested the waters for mini games.

Challenges to adoption

Some degree of monetisation could be next. In-game luxury items have the potential to appeal to first-time buyers who can’t afford luxury brands in real life, says Darang Candra, director of Southeast Asia for Niko Partners. “It’s not difficult to imagine a world where in-app clothing and items will be monetised,” says Adam Knight. “It could be the kind of next affordable luxury, the equivalent of buying a Louis Vuitton belt or purse rather than a handbag.”

Luxury retailer Mytheresa launched a HTML5 mini game on WeChat for Chinese New Year 2021. ‘Mytheresa Style Flight’ allows players to select a travel destination between Paris, Rome, Zermatt and the Maldives and dress up their avatars accordingly. Users are awarded with a discount code which they can use to purchase their preferred outfit. All products featured in the game are directly linked to the Mytheresa website.

However, while more cost-effective and easier to develop than standalone app games, WeChat mini games require expertise that luxury brands traditionally do not possess in-house. Players also expect games to improve and be updated with new features over time, adding to costs. A good quality mini game can require investment of between $30,000 to $50,000 and require several months of work. That’s one reason many of the first generation of luxury brand mini games are at the basic end of the spectrum, typically HTML5 browser-based games.

Another problem is that mini games tend to have low retention rates, according to Todd Kuhns, AppInChina’s marketing manager. “WeChat mini games are more like a gateway for big gaming companies that can launch a smaller, stripped-down version of their game as a WeChat mini game to give them exposure,” he says.

Knight is sceptical that mini games represent a source of revenue for luxury brands. “It’s a fun thing to do, but it’s quite far down the list of priorities for a lot of brands,” he says. “I don’t see it as a source of revenue any time soon, unless a luxury brand wants to become a gaming company or launch a gaming wing.”

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