Ah, the end of another year. It’s the perfect time to take stock and reflect on your business—what’s worked, what hasn’t and what’s next. But this isn’t just the end of a regular year for the gaming industry. It feels like we’re on the precipice of a new era, and that the past two and half years were spent furiously priming an enormous pump. Packing gunpowder into a large cannon. Loading the wagon. Pick your something’s-building-up metaphor.
As reported by every financial news outlet, this magazine and the American Gaming Association, the casino business has rebounded and roared back from the closures of the 2020 pandemic. As of August, the industry has seen 18 consecutive months of year-over-year commercial gaming growth. The numbers are handily outpacing pre-pandemic figures, so the math isn’t fudged.
This turn of events is simultaneously wonderful and worrisome. No doubt, it’s great news that properties large and small, commercial and tribal, are growing across the United States. It’s great news that sports betting is coming into its own. It’s great news that we’ve seen a shift towards more positive social attitudes regarding the industry and that we’re seeing an influx of a younger demographic.
The follow-on questions, of course, are: How long can this last? Trees don’t grow to the sky, do they? The trend is your friend until the end when it bends, right?
And that’s the worry part of the equation.
This article is not another year-end recap, nor is it a list of advertising trends to watch in 2023. And it’s most definitely not an offering of marketing New Year’s resolutions.
I’d rather present a simple mantra as we all press towards continuing growth, as we should, amid a precariously uncertain macroeconomic backdrop:
From our vantage point, just about every operator has ambitious immediate growth plans. Property expansions, new markets, a pipeline of acquisition targets and other competitive conquests. Decidedly bullish moves across the board, and we share this positive outlook.
Don’t get me wrong. “Think small” is not an expression of trepidation or hesitation. There’s nothing worse than playing scared. This mantra isn’t at all about that.
“Think small” is about positioning your brand to navigate whatever it is that comes next.* It’s about retaining the edge and scrappiness of an upstart. It’s about avoiding the lumbering bureaucracy that emerges as any business grows. It’s about keeping an underdog mentality. It’s about simplicity and clarity of purpose.
(*Hint: no one knows.)
The biggest, strongest brands in the world built their businesses by thinking small. Here are some of their secrets that you can put into practice with your own brand:
Strategy first. Get back to basics here. What are you trying to achieve, and how are you trying to achieve it? What are the core value drivers you need to focus on? As a small operation or startup, these are typically singular and simple. But as you grow, there’s a natural tendency towards complexity and compounding initiatives, stakeholders and interests. The best brands step back and ask themselves, “What’s the one thing we want the world to know about us?” Then they make sure that everything ladders back to that single-minded strategic thought.
Keep plans in perspective. President Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The mere act of gathering a team to discuss objectives and key results is often more important than any actual plan itself. I’ll wager that the landscape will continue to shift in ways we cannot imagine—so keep your eyes on the longer term and don’t pledge allegiance to any plan but to continual planning instead. Make sure your marketing team subscribes to the long-term brand strategy but understands that tactics are iterative.
Agility and tactical optimization. Advertising is an investment, with a return. Nevertheless, in contracting economic cycles, budgets get squeezed. And advertising is always an early sacrifice. The best brands think small by optimizing budgets rather than slashing them. Lean into experimentation, test new things, double down on what’s working and abandon quickly what’s not. When everyone else is slashing, you’ve got to take advantage. Think small and be scrappy about how you compete for share of voice.
Focus on your brand. Casinos are promotional animals, and there’s a reason for that—it works well. But excessive promotion, or getting into a “gasoline war” type competitive promotional trap in your market, can erode profits fast. Strong brands have several competitive advantages, particularly in difficult markets (like the inflationary cycle we’re in now). You’ll have better pricing power, better margins and more loyal players. Think of promotional mix and cadence as a dial that can be adjusted, but your brand messaging needs repeated reinforcement.
Creativity is your secret weapon. Constraint is the mother of creativity, and creativity makes $1 work like $10. Great brands think small by manufacturing constraint. You don’t need a huge media buy to make an impact. Are there newer, cheaper mediums to exploit? What about your player touchpoints? Every small interaction is an opportunity to make an impact. You can be as off-the-wall as you’d like (in most cases, creativity takes some guts); just make sure it’s on strategy.
The next year promises to be full of challenges and opportunities. As the gaming industry prepares to build on record numbers, the casinos that adopt a think small mindset will be the ones that continue to adapt and grow. Let’s go to work!