In this episode of Mobile Growth & Pancakes, Esther Shatz is joined by Andrej Kugonic, Marketing/Growth Lead at Nordeus. Andrej talks about what it takes to succeed with brand marketing in mobile gaming and how to maintain mobile growth over the long term.
Check out all the other episodes of Mobile Growth & Pancakes here.
00:49 – Introduction to Andrej and Nordeus
02:24 – Differences between traditional marketing and marketing for a mobile game
05:26 – How marketing for Top Eleven began and then evolved under Andrej
08:28 – Andrej’s tips on how to use brand marketing metrics to justify marketing efforts and costs for mobile games
14:52 – Implementing a competitive brand strategy
16:03 – How close does the brand marketing team have to be with the performance marketing team?
19:51 – Lessons learned from Nordeus’ TV campaigns
27:21 – Is offline brand marketing only for sports mobile games?
30:27 – How to sustain growth in Mobile Gaming over 10 years?
33:59 – Quickfire round
You can listen to the full episode here:
Learn the growth strategies used by top mobile brands
“We do have campaigns and we can quantify [the results]…but even that is not what can justify the costs, you still need to believe in the brand building because it is something that can give you big value after 3, 5, or even 10 years”Andrej Kugonic
- Andrej has worked in Marketing for almost 10 years and in mobile gaming for 5 years. He previously worked in traditional B2C marketing at McDonald’s. Nordeus’s flagship mobile game Top Eleven Football Manager, is a Leader in the Football Management category.
- Andrej believes that his agency experience in data-driven performance marketing and brand building helped him transition to mobile game marketing, which is heavily data-driven.
- When Andrej joined Nordeus, they already had a strong brand with Jose Mourinho as their brand ambassador.
- According to Andrej, brand building for mobile games is a long-term effort and the conviction for it must come from the top to help sustain the long-term costs involved.
- Creating a competitive brand strategy and tactics involves careful analysis of your brand and your competitors’ over several years.
- Andrej shares his thoughts and tactics for user acquisition and brand building. One of the key tactics discussed in the podcast is pairing TV campaigns with real-life events. He also shares his thoughts on how these efforts were affected and managed by Nordeus during the pandemic period.
- Keeping the product fresh provides strong fuel for brand marketing and user acquisition campaigns. Andrej talks about how Top Eleven is innovating its product going into its second decade.
- Andrej recommends beginners in mobile growth to follow strong trends. His favourite mobile growth resource is speaking with experts in groups and conferences. He would love to take his ex-colleague from Nordeus out for lunch in San Francisco. He loves protein pancakes.
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Esther: Welcome to Mobile Growth & Pancakes. I’m joined today by Andrej Kugonic from Nordeus Games. Andrej, you want to introduce yourself and Nordeus a little bit?
Andrej: Yes, definitely. Thanks, Esther. My name is, as you said, Andrej Kugonic. I’ve worked in marketing for around 10 years, specifically in mobile gaming for more than five years. Previously, I was working on some traditional brands, like McDonald’s, Visa, [unintelligible 00:01:04] more in a media buying and planning agency. Here, I was leading a user acquisition team first, doing performance marketing, and then transferred to the leading call marketing team, together with all the brand activities and everything else.
Yes, that’s in short, regarding me and regarding Nordeus for people who don’t know it. We are a developer of Top Eleven- Be a Football Manager. That’s our flagship game, which is on the market, very similarly to how much experience I have in marketing, and that’s around 10 years. For a full decade, which is not that usual in the very young mobile gaming industry, and still being a leader in a football management category on mobile, and heavily focusing on further growing and maintaining that game, plus adding to the portfolio other successful games in the football area.
We are based in Belgrade, Serbia, of many different nationalities. I think, more than 20 of us here, so that’s a great opportunity, also, for me to meet all those people in my hometown. That’s in short.
Esther: Awesome. I have to ask, before we start diving into mobile-specific, you went from marketing McDonald’s, maybe one of the most old school marketing worlds, to going into a mobile game, and also somewhat a traditional mobile game. It’s not a match three, it’s not a battle royale. What were some of the biggest differences going from one world of marketing into the other?
Andrej: That’s actually a great question. Obviously, at the end of the day, marketing is marketing, but there is a huge difference in how you approach marketing for McDonald’s and for mobile games, specifically Top Eleven. I would say that what gave me an advantage in adapting is that in the last two or three years in the agency, I was focusing mostly on digital marketing, which was growing at that time, and more specifically on the analytics part, then, yes, data driven approach to all of that. Then you can call it even performance marketing, which was still very young in Serbia.
That gave me an advantage to more easily adapt to Top Eleven, which is obviously, as a whole mobile gaming industry, very data-driven in terms of marketing, but also gave me an opportunity to have this other side of the story. This is brand building and how traditional big brands actually develop those brands. I had the opportunity to learn that before Nordeus, and use it when I joined.
It was a learning curve, definitely, but a very interesting one. That’s in short. Then I would say that there are very interesting trends visible there. When I joined from agency, where McDonald’s was working mostly with traditional media, and very little with digital media, it was quite the opposite on Top Eleven. More specifically on mobile gaming, it was almost all on digital media and performance marketing, and user acquisition.
Now, we see the trends are shifting, that those traditional brands are using more and more digital media and performance approaches in how they deal with marketing, while digital brands and mobile games tend to go more and more to some traditional media, like TV, radio, even, and out-of-home. Yes, it’s very interesting to follow all of that.
Esther: Almost in a way, you maybe came in with a little bit of advantage, because brand marketing is something that isn’t so natural to the world of mobile. I think you’re right, we’re seeing it much, much more today than we saw it a few years ago. I’ll use that to transition straight into Top Eleven, I think. For a long time, maybe the whole time that you’ve been working with Top Eleven, you’ve focused on both of these sides. You never fully let brand building go. Can you talk me through how you began, what started back in 2000, whatever it was?
Andrej: Yes, definitely. The good side of that was that I must say that, even before I joined Nordeus, Nordeus and Top Eleven was one of the pioneers in that area, in mobile gaming. That is a game which is on the market. It will soon be my 11th birthday, actually, in two months. For example, I can just give few examples that even before I joined, Top Eleven took José Mourinho as a brand ambassador back in, I think, seven or eight years ago, which I think was one of the great steps in that moment because when you look at the store at that time, there was very little number of games who had such a big celebrity, which completely connects to the brand, great.
José Mourinho is a most known Football Manager. Then Top Eleven saw it. Really made the brand stand out on the app store, on Google Play Store. Then all the activations done with him on a yearly basis for something that didn’t have as a goal, user acquisition or performance marketing, short-term goals, it was more for building a brand. Yes, in 5 to 10 years standing out, competitors cannot get that easily close to you. New competitors will show up.
I might say that, yes, it already started in Nordeus. When I joined, I was mostly focusing on user acquisition, as I said at the beginning, but you always had the product marketing team, which was taking care of all of our partners, with [unintelligible 00:07:34] clubs, brand ambassadors, doing brand activations. I just see those two things as very complimentary. If you have a good brand band in your hands, user acquisition is much easier. While when you have a great user acquisition team and a strong growth, you will have more budgets to invest in the brand.
Yes, it both spills over, and it was always like that. Throughout the years, I tried, also, obviously, to use some of my learnings, which I have from working on brands like Visa and McDonald’s, and do something similar on Top Eleven in the last few years. It was definitely a nice background to have in a company and on a game like Top Eleven.
Esther: I think one of the challenges when it comes to games and being able to invest in brand marketing is, there is a comfort that the industry’s become accustomed to have immediate results. You’re able to set a KPI, see if your campaign is hitting that KPI, and then decide how you want to go from there. I think for gaming, specifically, because there’s such a short funnel, and there’s this instantaneous, “You need to get that person now.” Companies are very afraid, a lot of the time, to invest in the kind of brand effort that–
You mentioned it’s a long-term investment. You don’t see that immediate turnaround. As a game developer, and as somebody who is focused on the performance and the actual ROI, how are you able to prioritize and justify brand efforts without those hard numbers right behind them?
Andrej: Wow. Another great question, I must say, and not an easy answer. Basically, as you said, I must double down on that. Standard user acquisition, performance marketing is very easy, in a way, because you can justify it very easily in short-term metrics, but also with predictions and the tools, I guess, all good user acquisition teams here. It’s very easily representable to top management, while brand building is something that is not.
Definitely, we have some measurement for that because some of the things regarding the brand building can be measured. Can we usually have either ad hoc or quarterly analysis of brand metrics we want to impact, in countries we want to impact them because all the mobile games are basically global games so you need to usually focus on specific markets with brand building and the user acquisition, usually go worldwide.
Then we usually have these brands of service. In those, we see before the campaign and after some big brand campaign, did we manage to impact those metrics? Obviously, that’s what ROI is in that sense, but we do have goals and we can quantify, which is important. Did we do good? Did we not do good? What are the learnings? Even that is not what can justify the cost.
You still need to believe in brand building because that’s something which gives you a big value after 3, 5, even 10 years. If you don’t believe in that in all areas of the company, it will be very hard to justify this long-term effect you will get at the end of the journey.
Esther: It’s a really good point. First of all, I’d love to answer my next question. You can start thinking about it already if you can share some of the metrics that you guys use to compare. I think you still need that. It’s like you said, that belief, it’s not just, you’re never going to see that tangible or rarely you’re going to see the tangible impact of the brand in such a way that you’ll always be able to justify it right away on the numbers. You need to have some level of, we’re investing in a brand and that’s if we have a game that we expect to have a real life cycle and not a short, more hyper casual style, you have to accept that.
Let’s go back now to the metrics that you use to measure brand.
Andrej: Sure. It varies as I said, it depends. Do we want to enter some, let’s call it a new market, which we didn’t penetrate so much even in these 10 years, which definitely can’t happen. Then we see in which part of the funnel there is a need to impact. For example, it can happen in these new markets that brand awareness just is not high enough.
We just want to make that higher, and that’s usually an easier job because you just need to make a nice campaign, which will have a high reach and to make some impact for people. I remember our brand when they see user acquisition ads, for example, in one month. The tougher job I would say is I can call it the brand favorability. If you want, they know your brand and Top Eleven as a brand is pretty well known in, especially European markets and some others where we are present for years.
Then we want to be when somebody takes them into consideration, the first choice in their mind, comparing to our competitors and to improve that part of the funnel. That’s a tougher job, but we then usually think about, do we want to differentiate comparing to those competitors and have one of the many brand metrics which we can impact much higher than them where they are weak, or we actually want to take the bet on the metrics that they are high and to get on those high levels or even higher? That’s usually a decision we need to make.
The impact on brand metrics is not that if you are going to talk about numbers is not something that grows very quickly. Usually those goals are 10% relative increase 15%, 20%. It can hardly happen that you have a much, much higher increase in a short period because as I said, that’s like a marathon basically. You need to do it for years in a good way and to nurture the brand. There are a lot of traditional brands with great examples like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Apple basically being their brand solely are maintaining the top positions.
Esther: I think that’s, first of all, I think it’s interesting. You touched on these two methodologies you have with competitors, which is, do you go for where you’re strong and their weak and really emphasize that versus do you go after where they’re strong and enhance yourself that way? What’s the difference in how you actively enact that strategy? What’s an example of when you would decide to go, let’s say after something that they’re doing really well in?
Andrej: Usually, all the decisions around a brand are more of a longer-term strategy. It’s not like we are deciding each quarter. We usually approach that with first the proper research done. Like all the things we can gather around our brand and around competitors’ brands, who look at the year to three years in advance and see what are the possible opportunities where we can do this. Basically, in those strategy meetings, we decide which strategic approach to take. Then, regarding the tactics, we dive deeper, on a quarterly level or on a yearly level, but this is usually this industry’s decision, which is made over a longer period of time.
Esther: How do you see when we look at these two efforts of a brand in the USA, so we’re basically saying you have to make sure you have performance. You have to make sure you have a brand. How do they work together? Is it the same team? Do you share KPIs? Are you completely separate and just benefiting off each other’s work?
Andrej: Basically, they definitely need to work together, but the connection is not that tight. It’s not that they need to work on an everyday level. We have a, for example, other user acquisition team, which consists of user acquisition managers, responsible for media buying, analysis, and everything else. We have a creative team, which makes all the ads, which we know is tons of ads you need to have today to make user acquisition work on a sustainable level.
Then we have a product marketing team which is basically people who are responsible for the brand itself. Why is it important that they work together is because we also think about when making the UA ads that we don’t go beyond the brand boundaries. We have some limits. Obviously, user acquisition ads, as itself, their performance sets. They will be more performance and not on that level of quality like when we make some brand activations and videos.
They need to be in some boundaries and we can definitely see in the industry, this is not happening consistently, even with some big companies. This is something we really want to nurture. Then there are some small tweaks also to try to show a brand in the UA ad, as much as we can. We share awareness, also through ads because outside of a high number of illustrations, we get through to UA, we can also have tens of millions and billions of impressions.
Then on the other side, as I said, the product marketing team is definitely the one which is taking care of the partnerships of the brand ambassadors, brand activations, big bits in the year. This year, this will definitely be the summer of football. They definitely work together, but not as the same team on an everyday level.
Esther: I think you have a really important point there. We see it actually even unintentionally, which is that performance ads have a branding effect. They are speaking towards your brand. We see it sometimes when you reduce spend, for example, on a specific campaign, suddenly you notice that the search volume for your brand, the number of people who are searching for the brand name goes down alongside your spends.
There’s a branding effect for sure. If you’re ignoring the brand side and only focusing on the performance, it goes back to that short-term, you’re getting maybe the right CPI for a little bit of time, but what are you doing long-term, and how has that impacting long term?
Andrej: Yes. Maybe one interesting example is these TV campaigns we had recently. This connected these themes very much because TV is a medium, and channels can have a very strong effect in registration uplifts, but also in brand building. It’s completely different how you approach that channel, compared to Facebook, Google, or whatever video network, you do user acquisition usually. This was actually a channel where everybody in marketing needed to work very tightly together so we squeezed the best out of it in terms of results.
Esther: I’d love to drill into this TV campaign a bit further because we talked about it before the call, so many games don’t see the results that they’d want to see from TV. How do you guys approach a TV campaign in a way that you see as profitable?
Andrej: TV, if you look, I think that the most important thing is how you actually at the beginning approach TV. I think that for a really low number of games, a small percentage of games, it can work as a user acquisition channel. If companies are looking at this just from a performance side and checking how many registrations it brought, and then what’s the lifetime value of those registrations and counting, again, ROI only on that side, which is completely user acquisition approach, I think it will not work for many companies. That’s one thing.
If you take a look the other way, and that’s to bring actual registration, that should be one of the main goals, but also, that those TV ads are made in a different way compared to standard performance by user-acquisition ads on digital. Then you can definitely build in those specific markets where you run TV campaigns, a long-lasting brand effect, much better than you do with the user acquisition channels.
If you combine those two teams who are working on user acquisition and brand and set goals in both areas and make something which can work in both ways, I think that the end value can be justified. If you look at it only in one of those two areas, it will not work. This is definitely, I think the approach which can bring value and especially if you tie it up with some bigger campaigns, so it doesn’t have to be an ongoing channel like [unintelligible 00:21:57], I don’t know, Facebook or like any other. This can be used in specific moments of the year, where you have some big releases in the game, or you have some big external events, which basically connect to your brand, great.
For example, for football games, that’s a Euro Cup, World Cup, or anything like it. Then you can have the value one outside of it. Definitely, you must approach making these TV ads much differently than you do on digital, how you make them for Facebook or YouTube or whatever.
Esther: I think it’s a really good point that if you’re relying on TV as its own channel in and of itself, you’re not probably not going to see the results that you want to see. How do you use UA to enhance that effect? How does that, maybe you could give us an example of when you ran TV, what was the next step for UA, how did it compliment that effort?
Andrej: There is definitely one effect which always happens is when you run TV in some country, you in 90 plus percent of cases see a positive impact on digital metrics. On click-through rates and conversion rates, because you basically share awareness on TV as a channel, and then when people see it on digital channels, they are easier to convert or to click on your ad. This is, let’s call it the side effect, which is always good to see. I think it happens, it’s especially visible on, for example, Google search ads or on Apple search ads because you drive the net.
On the other side, you can go a step ahead, let’s say it like that, and you can try if you especially have some big placements that you know that you’re going to be in some really like time slot on TV, which is very, very visible and has a high reach, you can make some stronger user acquisition push around that period. Like a half hour before, half-hour, especially after. These are some small, let’s say practice which you can use, which can definitely bring a better effect, but I would say like that the one which always happens is these first, which I mentioned that you basically see these multichannel spillover once you launch TV as still, I think the biggest, the channel and mass media channel out there is.
Esther: I think one of the things that you mentioned as well as an app like Top Eleven because it connects to something real-world, it’s not just happening within the world of the game. You’re connecting to actual, I say soccer because I’m American, but actual football soccer world. How do you look at events like that, offline events? I’m especially thinking about this year with COVID, when suddenly games didn’t occur as usual, and then they start resuming after a period of time, is that something that you’re taking– How do you create a strategy around that? How do you function when you’re not in control of all of the events that impact your game?
Andrej: Basically, COVID is a really big topic and it made us, for one side, a big mess last year, because we obviously had a lot of plans for the summer. The Euro Cup was planned. They already have that in progress and a lot of other things which we needed to basically cancel. On the other hand, probably everybody in mobile gaming knows, it actually did good on a business side, because people stayed at home, lots of entertainment was closed and are still like cinema and other stuff. Basically, mobile gaming grew. People started playing more, spending more.
Basically, for user acquisition, it was definitely a good period, but for us, for any branding activation, it was a really challenging period because a lot of external expense were postponed or completely canceled. What we were discussing a lot is actually, trying to replace somehow or another, especially social media channels this football gap, because we had a few months without football and Top Eleven is one of the biggest football brands, like there is and we tried with our big social media.
I know we have 14 million followers on Facebook to try to give them something football-related when there is no football in the world which they can fill the gap, at least a little. That’s kind of the thing we try to do in this period with the football gap.
Now there is football, but there are no fans, so still, not ideal. Now it’s, let’s say easier because football is again in our lives and I hope it will be also during the summer with the Euro Cup and CONCACAF and other big football tournaments.
Esther: Do you think that all games and all genres can benefit from brand marketing or is there a set of kind of, let’s put hyper-casual aside for a second and let’s look at games maybe that don’t have this off-world presence, that don’t necessarily have a natural fit for. It’s funny because I don’t watch soccer and I’m not going to pretend to, but even I know that Top Eleven is a big app that connects with soccer because you see it everywhere. The logos are on jerseys when players are playing. Do you think that there’s a set of criteria that a game should meet in order to consider this kind of brand marketing? Do you think there’s a way for any developer to capitalize on it?
Andrej: That’s a great question. I didn’t think that much about it. For Top Eleven, this was definitely, as you said, a big opportunity because you can just connect. We sponsored jerseys, as you said, for Stoke when they were in the Premier League. We have José Mourinho, we had a Euro Cup campaign with [unintelligible 00:28:31] Scolari, so we can easily connect to external events, which is always great.
There are also many great examples in the industry which did it properly and not only increased the performance of their user acquisition campaigns or whatsoever, but they, I think benefited a lot when they were sold from the value of their brand. I think especially games in a category, which relates more to younger audiences, especially to kids are a huge opportunity to do a great branding because then you can make movies, sell merchandise for those kids there. I am also having a daughter and she watches some cartoons or games. I need to buy a toy which she has, either Dora or Frozen character or whatever.
I think definitely there are games that have a higher opportunity in that area and games which have a lower opportunity, but I think that every game or every brand can develop it. There is opportunity for everybody. For some, it is just bigger and maybe even easier. For some, it’s tougher, and it may be not that high a value as for some, but for every game, especially the successful game which has a great user-acquisition growth curve and in terms of revenue, part of the budget can be devoted in efforts to that and it will definitely bring value.
Esther: I guess there’s the example of, the first one that comes to mind is Angry Birds, which was able to create the offline brand and the movies and everything after the game picked up and after it. It’s a good point. One more question from me before we start the quick-fire round is just in terms of Top Eleven is about to celebrate its 11-year anniversary.
In a world like mobile gaming where the funnel is sometimes incredibly quick, the competition is through the roof, the market is so saturated, the idea of continuing growth after 10 years of growth plans is a whole topic in and of itself that I’m sure many, many people would be interested in. From your perspective, especially looking at this combination of the brand work that you’ve built until now and the UA that you’re doing, how do you keep it fresh? How do you keep growth as something that continues?
Andrej: Good question. This is definitely and I didn’t mention this so far, which is an extremely important connection and that’s the product itself and people working on the product and marketing because, at the end of the day, without the great stuff done on the product itself, it’s impossible to keep anything fresh from a marketing side.
I think looking at Top Eleven in the last few years, what we’ve done in the game is really, I’m here for five years, but it’s really a lot and I think users loved it. We had the friendly championships, we had these special sponsors with some specific challenges. We are constantly working on live events to keep it fresh, to keep it live, and trying to connect with real-life football. Also, all of those events, putting real clubs so you can play against real clubs and connected to this big, we had two years ago, world cup also, division in Top Eleven.
I think that’s really important. Then marketing can take all of that and build upon, with some great campaigns, with some brand activations, with obviously a lot of work done on user acquisition, creating this, refreshing them, and seeing people in a different way. It’s basically like you need the specialty, as you said in the industry which is like, I would say having so many great games and competition is so high.
Not just in terms of how many games there are, but how much money they have to invest. [chuckles] You really need to be top of the game all the time, from the product side and then from the marketing side. Basically, you need to nail both of them to actually then celebrate your 11th birthday in a healthy environment and then potentially plant it or whatever later on. That’s it.
The brand itself, which we are speaking about, is developed from the game itself through marketing them. You really need to do a good job on all fronts, and it’s not easy. It’s a lot of effort and a lot of good decisions you need to make to do that.
Esther: Agreed. Product first and then everything else follows. I think a lot of companies sometimes, especially when you have a huge budget to throw around, you can do that amazing, powerful launch, and you can shoot to the top of the charts, but to be able to stay there requires more, you can’t rely on marketing to do all that for you.
Esther: All right. You are ready for our quick-fire, fast questions. Here we go.
Andrej: Yes, let’s go.
Esther: First of all, if you could give just one tip to somebody who’s looking to break into mobile growth marketing, what would it be?
Andrej: The tip, one tip only. Well, follow the trends. Very, very dynamic industry. Very quickly to change. If you spot some trend early on, you are in a big advantage.
Esther: Your favorite mobile growth resource?
Andrej: Favorite mobile growth resource. Let’s say, well, I don’t have one answer here. There are so many where I try to gather the knowledge, but the most I get from a network itself, from people. That’s my biggest resource. Speaking with people and experts in different groups or hopefully soon enough, at conferences. [chuckles]
Esther: Which brings me to my next question, which is hopefully we’re going back to maybe seeing people soon. We both live in countries where vaccination is actually happening and all. When you get to go back out in the real world, who is the person in the industry that you’d most want to take out for lunch and why?
Andrej: That’s a big question. That’s a really big question.
Andrej: Let’s see. There is a lot because I didn’t see anybody for more than a year. There is so much but if I were to name one person that can travel to the USA and then go to San Francisco with our friend, former colleague from Nordeus, [unintelligible 00:35:59] for lunch. That would be awesome. Especially in San Francisco, I must mention, not here.
Esther: I guess lunch happens there.
Andrej: I want to travel, that’s it.
Esther: [laughs] You can do in-flight lunch. Most important question. What is your favorite type of pancake?
Andrej: This is an easy one. My favorite type of pancake is protein pancakes.
Esther: Nice, very healthy.
Andrej: I am making them often.
Esther: Amazing. Andrej, where can people find you if they want to learn more, hear more about what you’re doing?
Andrej: Well, in person, I’m here in Serbia, Belgrade, or hopefully soon enough for some conferences. Other than that, I think LinkedIn is the best place to connect on a professional level. There are a lot of Slack societies and everything, but LinkedIn is something where we can always speak and I’m very open to connecting and networking and discussing some topics with people from the industry.
Esther: Amazing. Thank you so much for joining us today and for all the insights and excitement to celebrate the 11th birthday for Top Eleven from afar.
Andrej: Thanks, Esther. We are all so excited. Let’s keep it going.