Storytelling Builds Emotional Connections to Brands

Storytelling Builds Emotional Connections to Brands

EA’s Andrea Hopelain (’10) believes insight drives innovation
Andrea Hopelain (’10), Vice President of Global Brand Management, Electronic Arts and MEMES Executive Director Jay Tucker

Andrea Hopelain (’10), Electronic Arts’ vice president of global brand management, compared entertainment career notes with fellow alumnus Jay Tucker (’09), executive director of UCLA Anderson’s Center for MEMES

  • Andrea Hopelain’s work focuses on storytelling that brings out players’ passions
  • She told Center for MEMES exectutive director Jay Tucker, “I’ve always been rooted in the idea that insight drives innovation”
  • Her UCLA Anderson experience brought her together with leaders she might not have met otherwise

Andrea Hopelain (’10) does not play favorites.

Ironically, Hopelain, Electronic Arts’ vice president of global brand management and marketing, was not a gamer prior to joining EA. But she is now. “My responsibility is quite broad at EA, and so I play everything from deep RPGs to light simulation, racing, sports games ... So, it’s hard for me to say I have a favorite, because I don’t go as deep into everything as I might like.”

“I play everything on casual, easy mode, just for the record.”

But there is nothing casual or easy about Hopelain’s responsibilities at EA, where she and her team handle the gaming giants’ brand and marketing efforts. The work requires an understanding of the company’s ubiquitous and popular games, but also an equally intimate understanding of those who love to play. All in an industry where the game creators are artists and the best players are now, for all intents and purposes, professionals on par with NBA basketball players or NFL football players.

Hopelain discussed her work and career path with Jay Tucker (’09), executive director of UCLA Anderson’s Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment & Sports.

Q: You’re responsible for multiple brands, and you lead a team. What do you know about consumers that matters, and how do you achieve success?

What’s always been so exciting about the things that I’ve done in my career, is that each of them encompasses things that people are passionate about, brands that make really deep emotional connections through stories, through characters, through worlds, through environments, through drama, through all sorts of emotional moments.

Every brand that I’ve ever had the pleasure and privilege of working for has been tied into some form of storytelling between humans that brings out emotions, emotions that trigger a passion and a connection point for an individual. Understanding the root and the center of that passion is the fundamental and underlying motivation of what makes me tick, as well as what makes my teams tick. What enables us to do our best work is understanding those passion points.

Q: We’re in an environment now where a lot is known about consumers and what drives their passion. How do you balance different ways of understanding consumer trends, interests and passions, and then how do you use this information?

I’ve always been rooted in the idea that insight drives innovation. Having a deep understanding of the world around you, of your consumer, of their world around them is the most important grounding for how you build and develop any business or brand.

I spend a significant amount of time at the earliest phases of any project centering myself and understanding the insights that come from qualitative as well as quantitative research. But insights also come from micro- and macro-trends in the marketplace. They come from regional information and understanding different parts of the world. They come from culture, from what’s happening in the art world, what’s happening with the environment. Piecing together a diverse subset of insights that surround a consumer has really been the spark for me in identifying what it is that they may need or that they may like.

Q: Specific to gaming, thanks to crossovers with popular culture, e-sports and multiplayer gaming, there are more lines of business than ever before. How does that change the way you see your portfolio of brands? How does that change the way you see the business?

What’s wonderful about the expansion of gaming into broader horizons is that we’ve gone from being products to brands, and from brands to franchises. The beautiful thing about a franchise, or even a strong brand that’s more than a product, is that you’re no longer reliant on the product to bring someone into the experience.

When you’re able to surround a consumer with lots of different entry points — whether that’s through a T-shirt that someone’s wearing, music, YouTube narrative storylines or streaming content on Netflix — at the end of the day all of those touch points are what I like to think of as the fingers pointing at the moon. Our products really are 100-, 200-, 300-hour experiences with our brand; but each of those touch points becomes the fingers that point you back to the moon, which is where you’ll have the most robust experience with our brand.

Q: It’s interesting that you brought this kind of gamer culture back to some of our more traditional experiences. Are there any eccentricities of gamer culture, where gamers are unique in the way they either see the world or how they behave?

One of the things that is tough in the gaming industry is that our players are spending so many hundreds of hours inside of our games, inside of our worlds, and inside of the communities we build, and their expectations are really, really high. Their fandom, at times, can mask itself in sort of deep toxicity, where they get quite angry at us for mistakes or for the experience that isn’t perfect for them.

What’s sometimes forgotten is that games are a form of art. Our company is Electronic Arts, we’re a team of electronic artists that are building, and creating experiences, and you’re never going to satisfy every individual. But there is a sense that we are there just to serve the individual sometimes. The artistic choices we’ve made may not align with what the players are looking for, and sometimes that is harmful. That’s one of the hardest things about what we do every day. We put years and our passion into these incredible artistic experiences, and sometimes games fall down, sometimes there are technical challenges, sometimes what we’ve built for one community of people doesn’t quite satisfy everyone, and there’s no way to win in experiences like that.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about how your experiences at UCLA Anderson helped prepare you for the role you're in?

Yeah, absolutely. I was a little bit of a fish out of water coming into Anderson. I had spent a lot of time in a consumer-facing marketing role, as part of a service organization. I was a spender of money and I didn’t necessarily have a lot of experience with PnLs and operations. So, Anderson was a little bit of an eye opener to me regarding the variety of different facets that it takes to run a company, and to be a GM.

Anderson brought me together with a group of leaders that I would have never crossed paths with otherwise, from the grocery industry, from cement, from consulting, that really helped me to see a variety of different types of business.

I think the greatest strength that I developed coming out of Anderson was the ability to read a PnL and understand all of the inputs that came in and out of that. I think that the financial courses, as well as the operations courses, which really created an understanding of operational efficiency, those helped me realize there’s a whole other world out there that I need to think about. It was a perfect foundational setting as I continued to grow my career.

Q: Last question: Can you talk a little bit about one of the bigger challenges that you’ve faced in your career?

LThere have been many.

Probably the largest was simply allowing myself to be vulnerable as I opened new doors and walked into new roles where I didn’t really know how to do the job that I was about to start.

Hasbro was a great example of that. I went from more of a consumer-facing marketing leader to a brand leader. I’d never developed a product in my life. I didn’t know anything about manufacturing, about retail selling and sell-through. All I knew was the foundational education I had from my Anderson experience, or what I had heard along the way, but I had never done it.

The challenge in that is, you walk into a new job as an executive leader, and you’ve got people underneath you that are looking for you to guide them. The biggest challenge in my career was figuring out how to empower them, and how to coach them without knowing exactly how to do that role that they were doing. It shook me a little bit, it sort of questions your confidence. You ask yourself, “Am I really the right person, why did they pick me?”

It inspired me to create a mantra for myself that I use quite often, my three Cs: confidence, curiosity, and candor. The confidence to know that your experiences to date — that brought you to that moment — have a lot of merit. The curiosity to ask many questions, even the sort of dumb ones, and to make yourself vulnerable in those situations; and then the candor to point out the things that might seem obvious to others, or that are not obvious to others. It’s the candor to question what is with what could be.