Digital easter eggs: The brand marketing tactic you need to know
Harry Styles knows how to get people talking.
The multi-hyphenate artist is a near-constant trending topic on social. Whether he’s making music, promoting a movie or launching a new merchandise venture, people can’t help but discuss what he’s up to.
Sure, a swift rise to stardom as a member of a beloved boy band doesn’t hurt his cultural relevance. However, that’s not all there is to it. When you peek behind the curtain of the Harry Styles media machine, there are a ton of marketing maneuvers at play. Specifically, easter egg marketing.
If that phrase conjured images of pastels and bunny rabbits, keep reading. Let’s take a look at how this video game staple became a marketing mainstay.
What is a digital easter egg?
A digital easter egg is a hidden message or feature found in digital works, like a video game, website or movie trailer.
The first digital easter egg was placed in the Atari video game, Adventure, by a programmer looking to give himself some much-deserved credit for his work on the project.
The addition was too costly to remove and there was no business reason to do it. The secret message influenced more people to play the game so they could find it for themselves.
What makes easter egg marketing so effective?
Sometimes, it’s the little things that mean the most. Digital easter eggs are usually in the small details but they make a major impact on social. Here’s why:
They raise brand awareness
The Marvel Cinematic Universe uses easter eggs to create connections between their many stories. The 2021 release of the miniseries “WandaVision” took this practice to new heights.
WandaVision premiered on Friday nights throughout its run on Disney Plus, followed shortly by a weekly social media frenzy. Fans took to Twitter, TikTok and Instagram to discuss the many easter eggs hidden throughout the show, increasing the show’s popularity.
If you wanted to know what people were talking about, you had to watch the show.
From I Love Lucy to the House of M, here's every Easter Egg and TV reference in Marvel's #WandaVision, so far. https://t.co/seg8MkNRYC pic.twitter.com/D5x4w6stQY
— IGN (@IGN) January 15, 2021
That’s the whole point of easter egg marketing. It creates a spark of curiosity in new audiences, encouraging them to hunt for the easter eggs themselves.
They create a reward
Digital easter eggs are named after their traditional counterpart—the ones with the pastels and bunnies—for a reason. They’re rewarding.
Think of easter egg marketing as a surprise and delight opportunity for your loyal followers. They’re the ones that will spend time searching for your secret message. Make it worth their while and you’ll create even deeper connections with your biggest fans.
They generate engagement
The fun isn’t over once your evangelists spot the easter egg. That’s actually where the fun begins.
Here comes a new Easter egg in @googlechrome for 10th birthday of Google's browser: a birthday cake & party hat in 404 page-not-found error message dinosaur game. On display in Chrome in September. Try it out by switching off your network and trying to load a site. pic.twitter.com/fgTgshVspd
— Stephen Shankland (@stshank) September 4, 2018
Take this Tweet from CNET writer Steven Shankland, for example. A simple post about a celebratory easter egg game from Google earned him over 800 Retweets and 2,500 likes.
This proves that you don’t need to be the one who spotted the easter egg to feel rewarded. Surfacing the hidden message to one’s own personal network is a reward in itself. That’s what makes easter egg marketing evergreen drivers of social media engagement.
4 Easter egg marketing examples you can learn from
Now that you know some digital easter egg basics, let’s look at how companies use them to drive engagement on social.
1. Harry Styles’s album release
Time to bring it back to Mr. Styles. As you may know, Harry Styles released his third studio album, Harry’s House, in May 2022.
The marketing campaign leading up to this release was chock full of easter eggs. From a mysterious website to cryptic Twitter and Instagram accounts, fans received a week’s worth of puzzles to solve.
in this world, it’s just us, you know it’s not the same as it was
— You Are Home (@youarehome) March 21, 2022
The messages were clues hinting at the themes and song titles found in Harry’s House. For example, the lyrics in the Tweet above were shared ten days before the first single “As It Was” dropped on April 1st.
I THINK WE GOT IT #youarehome pic.twitter.com/x8MAhi4PLn
— may²⁸ (@stylinarts) March 22, 2022
At the end of the day, the hype-building tactics worked. Just two hours after it became available to stream, Harry’s House earned the most first-day streams for a pop album released in 2022.
Marketing takeaway: Digital easter eggs are powerful excitement generators. Use them to tease long-awaited product or feature launches.
2. BMW’s Zeus movie
For all intents and purposes, this looks like a regular movie poster.
Coming February 2022. pic.twitter.com/ey0w4HZXnb
— Arnold (@Schwarzenegger) January 27, 2022
When actor Arnold Schwarzenegger shared the photo on January 27, 2022, fans assumed he was promoting his latest project. In a way, it was true. The project just wasn’t a movie.
The poster was actually an easter egg for a commercial promoting BMW’s new line of electric cars. The “trailer” premiered on football’s biggest night, pulling a successful bait and switch on those who were keeping an eye out for an actual preview.
Overall, people were impressed with the clever ties between the poster and the commercial itself. It was enough to even bolster consumer social sentiment around electric cars.
Marketing takeaway: The message in an easter egg doesn’t have to be direct. Adding an additional layer of mystery creates a challenging puzzle for your audience. The greater the effort, the sweeter the reward.
3. Thursday’s hidden logo
In 2021, the UK-based dating app Thursday doubled their app’s weekly downloads. All it took was some cardboard, a marker and a few team members willing to participate in an attention-grabbing stunt.
👀-catching street marketing/internet bait from dating app ‘Thursday’ – outside three London train stations today. pic.twitter.com/24wbujWXhe
— James Herring (@itsjamesherring) October 13, 2021
This is just one example of several homemade signs created to build intrigue around the app and its purpose. Commuters familiar with Thursday quickly noticed the stylized “Y” in the signs matched the company logo. Those who weren’t had to do some social media digging to get in on the joke.
Marketing takeaway: Easter eggs aren’t strictly for digital media. Including them in IRL marketing activations can generate conversations both online and off.
4. Google search easter eggs
Google developers have hidden time-sensitive and evergreen easter eggs all over the search engine. For example:
- When you search for the term “askew”, the results are shown at a slight tilt.
- Searching for “solitaire” unlocks a Google mini-game
- Searching for “Loch Ness” on Google Maps turns the pegman button into a tiny monster.
These gags may seem silly but they’ve earned Google a group of devoted fans who are constantly searching for new hidden gems. When they find them, those fans take brand awareness work into their own hands.
Marketing takeaway: Making easter eggs a consistent part of your marketing strategy can build stronger brand connections. Those in the know will go out of their way to spot them, uncovering something new for more casual fans along the way.
Host your own egg hunt
When a company creates a digital easter egg, they show fans that they’re willing to go the extra mile to surprise and delight. As they say, it’s the little things that can mean the most.
For more tips on creating meaningful connections with your target audience, check out our favorite brand marketing examples from the past five years. These companies will give you the inspiration needed to get more creative with your brand image.
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