Gamified brand and retail experiences … from Alibaba’s black cats and red envelopes to Nike Fuel, Headspace Streaks and Duolingo Games

January 21, 2020

For the last few years I have watched the growth of Alibaba’s 11:11 (aka Singles Day) Shopping Festival in awe … the numbers of participants, and their spending, are just staggering.

Last year, $30 billion (213 billion Yuan) sales in 24 hours, rising to $38.3 billion (268 billion Yuan) when all transactions were completed … that’s a 26% increase on last year … and 10 times more than the entire USA retail spend on Black Friday, traditionally America’s biggest shopping day.

However this is no usual online shopping program. It’s more like a 24 hour online entertainment event too, with many celebrity appearances, music and dance, and much more too.

Most significantly it’s the gamified user experience that struck me.

Think of most online sales – on Amazon to Zalando – and it essentially a mark-down fest of 20% 30% 40% discounting. Same instore. It’s all price driven.

At Alibaba you play games to win prizes, or in most cases, to unlock the discounts. You play games – in particular searching for black cats and red envelopes, both lucky in Chinese culture, and in them are various levels of discount.

It also helps that most people access the shopping through social platforms, like WeChat, which means that the gamification spreads rapidly between friends, or indeed the games and discounts can be played and shared together.

Not surprisingly, there is a simply psychology at play – if you win a discount, rather than just being offered a multitude of discounts  – you are more likely to use it. The conversion rate is far greater (Alibaba doesn’t release these stats, but says so).

Gamified experiences

Gamification has more generally become a hugely effective way to engage consumers in all kinds of interactions, from retail to sports, entertainment and education.

As any parent will tell you, turning an activity into a game is a great way to get them to participate in important tasks. Eating food, tidying up, doing homework. Adding a reward makes the game even more effective.

Gamification is now found wherever someone needs to be motivated to perform an action, not least by brand marketers, and in particular those targeting younger generations with mobile-centric experiences.

According to Forbes, 80% of smartphone users play mobile games on their device, and nearly 50% play games every day. Additionally, mobile game apps are used equally by both men and women. While more teens play mobile games than adults, 62% of adults do use these apps.

Today, many of the game mechanics used to engage mobile gamers, such as badges and rewards are now finding their way into non-gaming activities such as education, fitness, banking, and more. Here are seven examples of good gamification marketing programs, and what made them work.

The most common game mechanics are:

  • achievements (experience points, levels, bonuses)
  • exercises (challenges, discoveries)
  • community (leaderboards, collaboration)
  • result (experience bars, continuous feedback)
  • time (countdown, speed)
  • luck (lottery, random outcomes)

Here are some great examples

Nike Fuel

Nike’s Fuelband was an early fitness tracker, launched about 8 years ago, creating a currency of fitness, “fuel”, which was earned through workouts, and could be shared as achievements, and spent in many ways, including at its online stores.

The fuel concept extended into events, such as parkour racing, gym classes, and home workouts. Sharing your progress bar creates a community around the brand, with users integrating the app into their everyday lives.

While the Fuel Band device was superseded by a new generation of smart watches, most significantly the Apple Watch, the fuel concept was a great early example of gamification.

Starbucks Rewards

Coffee shop loyalty programs are not new, but Starbucks took the concept further with their Starbucks Rewards app to become one of the most successful rewards programs ever. The program works on a completion system, where customers earn points towards bigger and bigger prizes whenever they make purchases.

Starbucks attributed most of its 2019 revenue growth of $2.65 billion to the scheme. In 2 years membership has grown more than 25%, loyal customers use Starbucks’ membership program (16 million members) for about 40% of sales at the company’s US stores.  Revenue rose 4.6% to $6.31 billion during the quarter from the previous year. It has also been key in shifting consumers to the online app for purchasing and payment, reducing queue times.


The learning app has changed the way people approach learning a new language for an all-in approach at making learning a language fun. Duolingo realised that learning a whole new language can be a challenging task, so they associated language classes with game-like tasks to help users truly retain information.

Gamifying the entire learning experience with points, badges, learning streaks, social functions, rewards and more, helps build momentum and motivation for users in their studies.



Headspace’s meditation app has become widely successful in a frantic, uncertain, anxious world. Access, usage, and tracking your regularity of use are all gamified, for example using the concept of streaks.

Headspace’s app is careful to tap into the areas of meaning, accomplishment, empowerment, social influence, ownership, avoidance, unpredictability and scarcity.

M&M’s Eye-Spy Pretzel

Users are tasked with finding a pretzel hidden within an image full of M&M’s. This straightforward puzzle brought in 25,000 new likes for the company on Facebook and around 6,000 shares.

Such simple “advergames” can be used to increase brand exposure, brand engagement time, or even the frequency of interactions with a brand.



One of my favourites is Pinduoduo, which combines many of the different ideas we have seen on sites from Alibaba to Groupon, Spotify to Uber.  You can read my full case study here.

Pinduoduo is now China’s second largest shopping platform and the world’s fastest growing tech company. It provides buyers with value-for-money merchandise and a fun and interactive shopping experience. The Pinduoduo mobile platform offers a comprehensive selection of attractively priced merchandise, featuring a dynamic social shopping experience that leverages social networks effectively.

More gamified life and work

The applications are everywhere – from encouraging certain types of social behaviours to better working habits. One extreme example is China’s Social Credits model, by which citizens receive points based on good bahaviour, and lose them for less good actions.

Points levels enable citizens to access superior experiences, such as to send their children to better schools, to access better jobs in companies, to receive preferential loan rates from banks, or to go on foreign travel.

Some examples of where gamification is being used at work for business improvement or environmental change:

  • At Google, engineers have been able to spend an in-house currency called ‘Goobles’ on server time — often a scarce resource at Google.
  • SAP created a game to encourage workers to carpool in order to reduce the company’s carbon footprint.
  • DirecTV introduced a gamification portal to encourage knowledge sharing through “lunch and learn” presentations.
  • Foldit engages users in a collective for querying and analysing data to solve scientific problems
  • DevHub  applied gamification techniques by giving rewards to participants who completed certain tasks on the site. They increased user engagement by 70%
  • Deloitte training programs using Gamification took 50% less time to complete and kept more students involved than ever before (source: Huffington Post)
  • Marketo layered Badgeville games on their community and achieved 67% more engagement, 51% more active members and 10% more engagements per member
  • Recycle Bank and Opowerl increased recycling by 20% and reduced carbon emissions
  • Engine Yard increased the response rate for its customer service representatives by 40% after posting response-time leaders for employees to see (source: Society for Human Resource Management)
  • JOIZ, a Swiss television network, increased sharing by 100% and social referral traffic by 54% with social infrastructure and gamification technology (source: Gigya)
  • Spotify and Living Social replaced annual reviews with a mobile, gamified solution. Over 90% of employees participated voluntarily (source: Huffington Post)
  • Halton Borough Council has introduced RFID tags on bins to provide accurate tracking of the recycling efforts of each household. Points are awarded based on the weight of recycled products. The points can be redeemed at local businesses for goods and services.

More from the blog