Cranium builds success by letting all players shine

Game maker Cranium fortifies its fan base through creative yet subtle campaigns that spread the word that it's not whether you win or lose, but how well everyone plays the game.

Game maker Cranium fortifies its fan base through creative yet subtle campaigns that spread the word that it's not whether you win or lose, but how well everyone plays the game.

Do you know how to draw a blimp with your eyes closed? Or spell "subpoena" backward? Maybe you can hum "Like a Virgin." Or maybe you know how many days separate each new full moon from the following full moon.

Cranium is betting you can do at least one of those.

The 7-year-old Seattle-based game company has become a phenomenon in the toy and game industry, with its namesake game as the fastest-selling independent board game of all time, topping first year sales of Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit combined. The privately held company does not release sales figures, but it has been reported that Cranium sold 1 million copies of the game in 2001.

Not only has the company won the hearts and minds of a fickle game playing public, it is also the envy of the game industry, winning "Game of the Year" three consecutive years in a row from the Toy Industry Association.

And the company has found success because all of Cranium's games give everyone the chance to shine, a mantra that imbues everything from game design to PR.

"Most games are competitive, where there is always a winner or loser," says Heather Snavely, head of corporate communications, or better know by her Cranium title as head of the hive, which she says is appropriate because her job is to build buzz. "But with Cranium's games, everyone shines. There is always something for everyone. If you're not good at one thing, you'll be good at something else."

When asked what makes Cranium's games so appealing and fun, Adam Tratt, adult games and Canadian brand marketing director, adds that it's because the company creates games that bring everyone together.

"It's really the linchpin of our brand," says Tratt, whose Cranium title is Globey Wan.|

The two founders, Whit Alexander and Richard Tait, former Microsoft employees, told Inc. in 2002 that one of the most important lessons they took with them from Bill Gates "was the power of a mission clearly and consistently communicated." And that mission is making sure everyone excels, from employees to customers.

"The company has never gotten away from the fact that a game is most valuable when it's about the people playing it," says independent toy consultant Chris Byrne. "That is a good message they've delivered consistently."

PR's early, integral role

Snavely, who joined the company this year after working on the account for five years at Edelman, says that PR has always been at the heart of Cranium's marketing.

"We sold our first 1 million games on PR and word-of-mouth," says Snavely. "When Cranium first came out, the media were not used to covering games. So we had to find other ways to get people talking about the games."

The answer was right in front of founders Alexander and Tait, talking one day at a Starbucks about how they might sell the game. And they looked up from their coffee to see a caf? full of young professionals looking for the next hot thing.

Alexander and Tait struck a deal to initially sell the game exclusively at Starbucks. To generate that buzz, Starbucks employees and customers played the game in the store, and the experience sold itself.

"If you sample the game, you'll want to play it," explains Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of Toy Wishes. "There's been no heavy mass media blitz. It's all been grassroots marketing and getting in the face of the customer in unconventional ways."

Cranium has always sought to take its PR and grassroots marketing to where people lived and played, such as having radio DJs read Cranium questions on the air or putting sample cards in boxes of cereal.

"They've been very unique in the way they market their games," says Maria Weiskott, editor-in-chief of Playthings. "It's very subtle. Finding a Cranium card under a bag of those awful airline peanuts lets you try out the game. And that builds word-of-mouth. And that kind of viral marketing really does work."

Cranium recently switched agencies in the US from Edelman to Ketchum (Cranium still works with Edelman in Canada). One of the first things Ketchum did was team up with the marketing firm Girls Intelligence Agency (GIA) to promote Whoonu, a game where players ask questions to learn more about each other. The game ended up in packages sent to girls' slumber parties across the country set up by GIA. And that, says Snavely, is what makes Cranium's PR so CHIFF.

What's CHIFF? If "everyone shines" is the company's mantra, then CHIFF is its guiding light. CHIFF stands for "clever, high-quality, innovative, friendly, and fun," and drives everything from game design to PR.

"We've tried to take a unique and fun approach to PR," says Snavely. "We focus much more on lifestyle press. When we launched Zigity [a quick card game ideal for trips] last year, it came out in the summer, which is a slow time for games. We have never released a game in summer before. So we went to where our players are, and we talked to travel editors and travel publications. It was one of our most successful launches."

The most important thing PR can do is fan the enthusiasm of Cranium's customers, or Craniacs, says Tratt. It's the customers who amplify the excitement of playing one of the games, and that is what brings real credibility.

"You don't get that kind of credibility from the CEO on a soapbox," says Tratt.

Outreach to Craniacs is what led Cranium to develop cards that players can customize online. One player designed a word scramble card that, when the phrase was unscrambled, asked his girlfriend to marry him.

The company has a "Craniac Maniac," who maintains a database of die-hard fans, whom the company works with to get feedback and test out new products.

The company also strives to tailor its games to its audiences. So when Cranium launched, it made an English version, and not a French version, but a Quebecquoi version. And during the hockey strike, Cranium made game cards about hockey that players could find online for free.

The hockey cards are a perfect example of what makes Cranium's PR CHIFF, says Tratt. "It made the product relevant in the context of something that was irrelevant. We didn't slap it together. No one else had done something like this before. It was fun and friendly. Most topic-specific games are written for the wonk by the wonk. But even if you didn't know something about hockey, you can still play. There's a moment for everyone to shine."

Creating a family moment

Cranium always begins with trying to create a moment, and these days that moment is one of family interaction, says president Christina DeRosa, who recently joined the company from Mattel and has not picked her Cranium title yet. The company started out focusing on young professionals and has now shifted more toward families, particularly mom.

"When you start with what kind of moment you are trying to create and then work out from there, everything else falls into place," says DeRosa. "That is what PR talks about: that moment. Advertising reminds you of that moment, but PR is what drives you there in the first place."

At first the game was more of a cool fashion statement, particularly after Julia Roberts gushed about the game to Oprah Winfrey.

But now it's more about the soul of the product, says Tratt. And that soul, the shine moment, resonates with mothers much more than a video game would. It's about whether she wants her children twiddling their thumbs and staring at a television, or whether she wants to bring something home that draws the family together. That's a powerful message, he adds.

"In today's media landscape, there's so much noise, and people are really becoming savvy about interpreting what is schlock and what is authentic," says Tratt. "Something that has always worked is putting the customer in the center of everything. We give them a product they love and then give them the microphone to speak on your behalf."


PR contacts

Head of corporate communications
Heather Snavely

Adult games and Canadian brand marketing director
Adam Tratt

PR agencies
Ketchum (US), Edelman (Canada)

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