How Brands Are Using “Play” to Stay in the Game

Childhood: those carefree days of rambunctious young life, where “playing” was a way of exploring; where we deconstructed and hacked our physical realities into our own creative imaginings; where we evolved by being flexible and tolerant of changing playing fields; where we engaged and played productively with one another, sharing a common vision and goal.

Our young lives fed on this cognitive stimulation. It drove us to experiment outside of any given boundaries and helped us creatively change the meaning of our everyday physical tools – all for the sake of enacting our game. After all, how else did the sofa cushions turn into makeshift castles during a game of dungeons and dragons?

As the age-old proverb goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In the same vein, literacy professor Dr. Karen E. Wohlwend asserted in her 2015 article, “Making, Remaking, and Reimagining the Everyday: Play, Creativity, and Popular Media,” that children use contexts – such as play scenarios – through relocation, where they “‘make do’… and reimagine together what seems possible as they come up with pretend alternatives and imagined worlds that better fit their purposes.”

Yet after childhood comes young adulthood, bringing with it academia – which places our pioneering, creative spirits into neat little boxes. Structure and a siloed mentality are the norm, while playing, with all its infinite wealth of possibilities, is regarded as a foolish pastime best left to our childhood years. It’s regarded as nothing more than a sign of immaturity in adulthood.

Here we now are, a group of adults standing at the intersection of cataclysmic societal changes brought on by advancements in digital technology – and all of us with closed-off mindsets. Instead of pivoting or looking for creative ways to problem-solve, we are scuttling like lumbering dinosaurs.

Is it any wonder then that our businesses and brands are failing? Failing to remain relevant. Failing to retain customer loyalty, and, most importantly, failing to think creatively. 
In today’s landscape, which tacitly requires us to be more playful, exploratory, engaging, and to constantly evolve, out-of-the-box solutions cannot support the reframing of business and brand models. Is this complex, technology-immersed landscape so otherworldly that we – the species who built the wheel, discovered fire, and created some of the most monumental inventions for survival – have lost our way?

Should we be alarmed, then, when the fashion industry – the very arbiter of creative innovation – fails to creatively connect with its consumers as it once did?


What if we viewed work and play as a single unit, rather 
than separate entities? What if we bootstrapped the psychology behind childhood play – where our focus is free to wander, and we can explore any idea without restrictions – and used this as a part of a creative business-mapping process? Could this free will help us rewire our mindset and master ambiguity in a complex landscape where reality is constantly being redefined?

In this scenario, managers, designers, and strategists would be equipped to playfully improvise with constantly-evolving digital trends and to seamlessly pivot with new technology inventions such as AI, 3D printing, nanotechnology, augmented reality (AR), VR, blockchain, radio-frequency identification (RFID), holograms, and more. These “super toys” would be morphed into powerful tools for product innovation, customer engagement, and brand retention.

In today’s digital society, most consumers have the attention span of a flickering light bulb. People want a product that is multi-functional, reasonably priced, and that has an authentic narrative. More importantly, they want a product to be personalized to their individual needs and they want to act as a partner – a player in a brand’s narrative – during their purchasing journey.

Very few old brand stalwarts have made that transition successfully, though there are some exceptions. Sephora, Hamleys, and Vans, for example, have created environments that are rich in new product experiences, product innovation, and personalized brand engagement for their customers – without impinging on any of their fundamental brand values.

Sephora, which is heavily reliant on brand licensing and partnerships, has cleverly navigated these murky waters by facing the challenging question of their platform’s relevance. They created an ecosystem of demand by building a powerful community and an emotional relationship with consumers with their “Teach, Inspire, and Play” (TIP) approach. The consumer is an integral player in their in-store beauty classes and how-to videos. Sephora connects the consumer with personalized product information both online and in-store, and they couple it with an engaging, exciting brand experience. The consumer is a co-creator in this open-ended, non-static environment; they are encouraged to interact with a powerful feedback loop. Their interactions co-exist seamlessly with those of their peers, all while remaining on the Sephora platform.

It’s a different landscape for toy companies today, however. In the past, these retail stores inspired natural enthusiasm and excitement from children with just the mere mention of their brand name. But today, these very proprietors of playful childhood dreams must compete against companies selling new super toys, such as VR and AR games, as well as with those providing 24-hour access to digital media. A few toy brands, however, have managed to stand their ground.

Much like Sephora, Hamleys have subtly rewired their brand relevance by designing a theme park-inspired retail layout. Each product they sell speaks to a recognizable childhood story and theme, with some themes including Enchanted Forest, Imagination, LEGO World, Magic Kingdom, Metropolis, Motor City, Park, Safari, and Space. This nontraditional, open-ended environment encourages customers of all ages to play, building a long-lasting personal and emotive connection with the consumer. It boosts the brand’s reputation and its product relevance while also allowing the consumer to be a player in their brand narrative by sharing their experiences via social media.

Footwear giant Vans is another exciting example of how evolving from traditional marketing strategies can result in commercial success. They took the very essence of their brand DNA and crafted it into an authentic, edgy brand experience with their in-store retail concept in the tunnels of Waterloo station. Coined the House of Vans, the store is not just a point of sale, but also a place for consumers to connect. Their indoor skate park, art galleries, and live music venue fuses into one seamless physical manifestation for Vans. The consumer’s purchasing journey is entirely personalized; in a similar fashion to how children imagine physical tools as various play items (think turning a wooden spoon into a sword), Vans has created a space where consumers can “morph” the tools of digital media and physical space, and in doing so elevate brand awareness and build brand loyalty.

These three examples clearly reflect how a company can better navigate change and grow their consumer base 
by exploring, evolving, and productively engaging with their audience using a shared vision and goal. Traditional business models, on the other hand, are task-oriented juggernauts – everything is linear, and everyone has a specific role. Simply put, these models fail to translate to today’s realities. In a world where a brand’s relevance is no longer a given based on maturity, performance, or the successful implementation of Kotler’s Five Ps of Marketing (product, price, promotion, place, and people), it’s apparent that another element needs to be added to the mix.


Brand marketing strategies today are less about communication and more about conversation – conversation between a brand and their consumers on a singular digital platform. Brands must interact with their consumers as peers and put personalization – the sixth P – at the intersection of their product, price, promotion, place, and people strategy. The psychology behind play could be the Holy Grail for achieving this interaction.

As the old adage goes, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” This statement may have been easily dismissed in another time, but today, it could be a brand’s saving grace for truly understanding their consumers.

A smart company would entrench value based on agility, openness, and a shared brand philosophy between their consumers, products, and brand. They would think in many different ways – big, small, and experientially. They would recognize that this new playing field means going back to the basics; that is, they would understand that failure will be a part of the picture as they explore new ideas and pursue innovation.

Operationally, they would form cross-disciplinary teams with marketers, designers, and strategists, who would be hybrids comfortable playing within ambiguous environments. And strategically, they would add personalization as a sixth element – the connecting point of their marketing strategy – and use the methodology of play to inspire and craft that great brand story.

In short, any brand willing to play today will still be in the game tomorrow, long after their peers have fallen out of the rankings.

the author

Marlene P. Naicker

Marlene is a freelance innovation consultant at CEA.Fashion.