Don’t hate the player — hate the game. How some Vice industries have worked their way back into public favour

Originally written for Marketing Week

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” Aldous Huxley

As I sit with my daughter at 5am on a morose Covid Monday, time moves ever so slowly.

Switch to the start of the working day. A short commute up the stairs, second coffee in hand and open the calendar. Suddenly it’s half one, time to cobble together a toastie before BOOM! Six PM. There’s simply no consistency, measure nor reason. Time is slipping by like an eel in a lubricant factory.

Lockdown in midwinter is a cruel mistress. It plays with your ability to track time. It meddles with your mood and it fiddles with your perception. Maybe this is why so many people are eschewing rational thought and backing loony conspiracy theories around Covid vaccinations, the environment and American politics.

Take Trump voters as a case in point — nearly 50% of the American (active) voting public. These aren’t imbeciles, in the medieval sense. They’re bright enough to accrue the Dollars required to fly to MAGA rallies, coordinate a tactical barnstorm of the Capitol, purchase extravagant weaponry, drive gas guzzling monster trucks and pay for weddings to their cousins. For some, their beliefs are true whilst for everyone else, they project some of the most absurd lunacies of the modern age. It all relates to individual perception.

It was on a walk last weekend that I came to think about perception, specifically the broader negative sentiments about Vice industries — a hedonistic void I’ve worked in, on and off, for over twenty years (the last 16 of which have been in online gambling). It’s hard to defend gambling as a holistic business. By definition, it involves significant risk and there are certain cohorts of bettors who are at risk of developing problem gambling tendencies. It’s a vice industry with an image problem, and despite significant efforts to clean up its act, gambling is considered by its detractors as akin to Kim Jong-Un trying to sneak covertly into Nun’s tea party.

That said, regulated gaming operators aren’t exclusively run by evil plutocrats. Most care about their customers and are wholeheartedly behind the majority of pragmatic initiatives that protect players who may be susceptible to gambling addiction. So why is the industry so universally vilified?

To answer that, I looked back to my early career. I spent my formative agency years working for British American Tobacco, Allied Domecq and Budweiser.

Booze and Fags.

Tier 1 Vice industries. The Pros.

Add to these Fast Food, Pharmaceutical Drugs & Petro-Chemicals and you’ve got the full house of ‘naughty’ businesses, perceived as the antithesis of contemporary, holistic commercial behaviours.

However over the last thirty years, the Vice group split. One direction became two. Booze, Drugs and Fast Food peeled away and somehow shed their cloaks of negative perception, leaving the indefensible Big Tobacco, apathetic Petrochemical and perennially slow-to-react gambling industries languishing in the sewers to profit, pollute and wager at leisure.

The Booze industry (led by brand builder in chief Diageo) took control of its own destiny by forming The Portman Group — a voluntary body designed to self-regulate the marketing of Big Alcohol. By taking the reigns and neutering government regulators, the industry and associated brands were able to recapture their destiny and today, despite the obvious dangers associated with drinking, they can advertise to adults at will (with health warnings), sponsor sports and cherish a glowing reputation as marketers extraordinaire.

Look at Brewdog. They built a Billion Dollar business by not giving a shit about what anyone thinks of them.

Fast Food took a different path, one driven by product, PR and lobbying as much as brand marketing. Salads joined the menus, dietary information received prominent (although not too prominent) placement on burger wrappers and category leaders McDonalds and Burger King joined sugar chiefs Coca Cola and PepsiCo in aggressive lobbying, both in the USA and Europe.

One such pan-sector effort came in 2004 following the release of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ‘Super Size Me’. A harrowing and amusing film in equal measure, Spurlock spent a month eating nothing but extra-large McDonald’s meals breakfast, lunch and dinner. The burger chain had to respond with a PR charm offensive that eventuated in ‘healthier’ items being given more prominence on the menu whilst its rivals hid behind the counter to avoid the storm of negative perception. BK went on a mission to reduce the volume of salt in its meals and KFC did eventually introduce its chicken salad. The chicken floggers have since sat on the subs bench for many of the more newsworthy debates around fast food and childhood obesity, but that’s not to say they don’t have a bucket of ethical batter to dispose of, not least around littering (as I’ve frequently witnessed first hand).

Cleaning up their act is something McDonald’s have taken beyond the perceptive (lobbying, PR) and product (lower salt content, salads, fruit with kid’s meals) and into their customer experience strategy. Famously, one of their key product differentiators in the US was to have bogs cleaned thoroughly and religiously every hour. Older patrons, being in need of a tinkle more frequently than younger, nugget munching customers, would see their pristine khazis on an emergency stop off on road trips, buy some food by means of a ‘thank you’ and remember both experiences fondly — stopping for repeated visits in the future.

The McDonald’s philosophy is proudly displayed on their website:-

“Ray Kroc wanted to build a restaurant system that would be famous for providing food of consistently high quality and uniform methods of preparation. He wanted to serve burgers, fries and beverages that tasted just the same in Alaska as they did in Alabama”.

To that, they might well have added “consistently pristine shitters” if the juxtaposition of turds and burgers didn’t put their gross sales at risk. (It does remain, subtly, in their mantra ‘QSCV’ — Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value.

So time is legitimately great healers, but on its own, it’s not powerful enough to create the seismic shifts in public perception required to turn a vice business into a fluffy, acceptable, kiddie friendly brand. In order to achieve Whopper-levels of paradigm shift, you have to change on an atomic level. Product focus, customer centricity and high spending on a relentless public perception mission appear to be the required ammunition. Turn the negatives into positives, grimy products into clean ones, make bad opinions good.

Sure, there are plenty of brands out there faking it with great fiscal success but many of those that are making the most significant strides are also leading their sectors in ethical standards, at least according to ‘The World’s Most Ethical Companies 2020 report, which put a five year value premium of 13.5% on honourees. Despite horrific exceptions such as BooHoo (flagged by Senor Ritson in this very publication), most modern brands derive significant brownie points from a strong ethical and environmental stance.

The online gambling industry is either going to be sunk beneath a raft of well intentioned (but sometimes misguided) regulation — or it needs to act as one and follow the lead of fast food and big alcohol by bettering itself through improved marketing, customer education/ protection, enhanced product, tactical lobbying and public perception — and fast.

Behaving well, marketing ethically, protecting customers, doing some good — brand purpose with a commercial engine under the hood. It might sounds like some fluffy self-help bullshit, but things have changed. People have changed. Imagine if all of us marketing ‘vice’ businesses started our strategies with a mantra to ‘make things better’. And as a result, public perception would inevitably change for the better.

Then you’d realise that this would almost certainly improve your brand (or your client’s brand) performance?

For once, you wouldn’t feel sordid about your contribution. You’d feel proud.

Harry Lang is Marketing Director of Buzz Bingo, the UK’s biggest bingo operator. You can find him on Linked In or read his previous Marketing Week articles here.

I'm a UK based Marketing Director specialising in brand, customer acquisition, PR and copy. I write regular features for Marketing Week and Campaign.

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