Sulake's online world Habbo recently partnered with American Idol, and at the Gamasutra-attended Engage! Expo in New York City, brand manager David Luner of Fremantle Media said it's a great fit. Next, Sulake EVP of marketing and business development Teemu Huuhtanen presented the developer point of view.
American Idol is the #1 ranked TV show in the U.S. while Habbo is the largest virtual world for teens. With overlapping demographics, Luner said of the combination: "It’s a great formula for success." American Idol has had successful co-branding partnerships in the past with Disney, Barbie, McDonalds, Dreyers, iTunes, and Konami, makers of Karaoke Revolution
However, Luner warned: "There’s a myth out there that two successful brands automatically equals runaway success." There are a number of companies and people involved, from on-air and off-air sponsors, licensing agents and managers to other divisions of FremantleMedia that need to be coordinated in order to work with the American Idol brand.
In addition, because other people own the rights, a developer wouldn’t be able to use animations of judges, current and past contestants or use show and theme music without further wrangling.
"We did honestly put this on the table from the get-go so you can know the landmines and work around them," said Luner.
"The process of getting the deal done definitely was not easy," Huuhtanen agreed. "We spent about 8 or 9 months trying to figure it out but it was time well spent because both parties understood what each party wanted from each other."
For Huuhtanen, the benefits are in increased awareness and traffic. Habbo sells exclusive American Idol virtual goods, which contributes a large portion to Habbo’s virtual goods sales, and contestants booted off the show make PR pit stops in the Habbo world.
Habbo has built up campaigns for avatars to look for talent, build recording studios, write gossip columns, and ultimately audition through song and dance for Habbo judges. One of FremantleMedia’s important points is that brand partners should not replicate the TV show, and Huuhtanen feels that Habbo brings more of the "behind the scenes" action and role-play to the experience.
Lanner agreed, "In Habbo, it’s a completely new way to interact in a public forum. This is much larger social network, which means there’s a much bigger payoff for the user."
While the exclusive deal is more expensive, Huuhtanen explained: "Old-fashioned deals whereby brand owners license their IPs to multiple virtual worlds most likely will not be successful. When you’re a brand holder, it’s much better to find a good match first and then figure out how the business works."
Rather than build its own virtual world for American Idol, FremantleMedia decided to partner with Habbo.
There’s a tremendous learning curve, and there’s a lot of high-profile failures," said Luner. "We want to avoid at any cost-negative tags on the brand. We didn’t want to take the risk, so we'd rather partner with someone who is already best in the class."
For both Luner and Huuhtanen, the partnership between American Idol and Habbo has been beneficial. The audience for American Idol wants more contact with contestants and in Habbo, anyone can interact with these celebrities and submit questions. "The demographic has been clamoring for this," said Luner.
Since the current campaign is ongoing, Huuhtanen would only tease what was in store. "The really good stuff is coming up," he said. "We didn’t want to blow this up the first week. You have to have your own users accept that American Idol is coming, and get them excited about it. During the coming weeks, we’re focused on getting new users, hardcore Idol fans, to sign up for Habbo."
While the response to the new offerings has been great, both Luner and Huuhtanen are looking to improve the experience in upcoming campaigns.
"Success begets success and just opening that door is going to make it go wider and get people engaged," said Luner.