Pondering the Nintendo Wii (part three)

Wii will not be defeated?

Over the last two days, I’ve looked at Nintendo’s strategy at the product level, trying to differentiate itself from its competition and find new markets. Today, I look at its 21st century marketing blitz that downplays traditional advertising…

The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PRLast year in my public relations program, I put together a presentation largely based on The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, a bookby Al and Laura Ries. In putting the presentation together, the supplemental research I found backed up their main thesis: that advertising is viewed by most audiences as unreliable, and it usually fails at launching brands in today’s day and age. Advertising does have its place – it works to reinforce existing brands – but public relations is a much more successful strategy for launching a brand because it relies on third-party validation (the media, in particular) and also genuine word-of-mouth.

Simply put: advertising lacks credibility, public relations cuts the crap.

Something tells me that someone at Nintendo has read the book as well. Instead of the usual blitz of artsy television commercials that usually forecast the arrival of any new videogame system, I hadn’t seen a single Wii commercial prior to this week and – while I haven’t read a gaming rag in a long time – I bet there isn’t an advertising blitz in magazines either.

See, the problem with advertising is that it plays to the converted. It’s fantastic for informing existing audiences about a new product, for building upon an established emotional connection to spread the word about the latest model or newest development. But unless that emotional connection between the brand and the customer is already established, advertising will be seen for what it truly is: selective, insubstantial and self-serving. For new brands, over-reliance on advertising is a one-way ticket to irrelevance.

But McNutt, you ask, isn’t Nintendo already an established brand? Yes, it is, and it’s one that has a lot of brand equity among a certain, influential portion of the videogame audience. But not only does Nintendo’s brand have its troubles within that audience (the “kiddie” image that I discussed on Wednesday), but Nintendo is trying to reach new audiences who would see Nintendo’s connection to the videogaming of old as a liability. So unlike past Nintendo systems – Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Nintendo Gamecube – the company is actually downplaying its own name, and often discuss the new system as just the “Wii.” They are attempting to launch Wii as its own brand.

That’s just one of the marketing challenges that Nintendo faces. Just as important is convincing potential customers that this new controller is more than just a cheap gimmick, and that it’s as easy to use as the company claims. This is perhaps the biggest hill that Nintendo has to climb: the public has been duped by too many technologies that exaggerate their capabilities. Nintendo can put out hundreds of commercials of actors playing the system but it’s not going to make people believe in the system’s potential.

Who do they believe? They believe the mainstream journalists in newspapers and business magazines. They believe the videogame writers from online magazines. And, most importantly, they believe it when they see it.

Nintendo recognizes this, and so the marketing strategy behind the Wii has been viral, giving respected journalists and writers access to the system at various points to report back on how it works, along with allowing regular people to try the system and spread the word. Here, from IGN, is a look at the philosophy behind marketing the Wii:

Rather than employing a conventional marketing strategy, Nintendo has opted for a more viral approach. Nintendo has been using positive word of mouth to inform people about the console, rather than paid television advertisements. A two-part episode of South Park centered on the Wii was the closest thing to a traditional television spot that Wii fans have seen. Apparently, Nintendo’s viral marketing campaign is paying off already. In the same week in early November, the Wii made front page headlines in the Wall Street Journal, made People magazine’s Style Watch gift guide issue, was featured in an NPR report about the hottest holiday gifts, was the centerpiece of a BusinessWeek article, and was seen in the Economist magazine. All of this buzz without a single television advertisement.

“Our plan to market Wii broadly with hands-on experiences continues to pay off,” says George Harrison, Nintendo of America’s senior vice president. “Wii introduces new ways to play to expand both the appeal of games and the audience of gamers, and our marketing campaign is central to that.”

Nintendo put into action several different programs aimed at initiating people in the ways of the Wii and generating positive word of mouth for the console. The Wii Ambassador Program identified people across America to act as hosts for exclusive Wii parties, and the Nintendo Fusion Tour mixed popular alternative music performances with hands-on play time with the console. Starting November 15, Nintendo will start featuring interactive Wii kiosks in 25 different Westfield Malls across North America in order to give people even more hands-on time with the console.

I’m not going to repost it in full, but if you want to look at Nintendo’s comprehensive marketing plans for the Wii, you can see it here at GoNintendo. The one thing that’s not mentioned there is the Wii website, which is mostly based around “Experience Videos,” showing ordinary people from around the globe trying out the system for the first time.

If you look at that list, you’ll note that more than half of the tactics are not advertising, but public relations. And thus far, it’s paid off: the coverage and buzz from media ranging from the most mainstream magazine to the most indie of videogame sites is overwhelmingly positive, with many agreeing that Nintendo might be poised for a big breakthough with the system. As for how the more grassroots efforts – the tours, the ambassadors – have paid off, that sort of attention is much more difficult for an outsider like me to measure, but it all goes into the same place: to the people lining up on Sunday to get their Wii.

This past Wednesday night – less than a week before the system hits the shelves on Sunday – finally, the very first Wii TV commercials debuted during Dancing with the Stars (notably, a show that plays more to Nintendo’s new audiences than traditional videogamers). Now that Nintendo has established word of mouth and genuine buzz about their product, they’re able to pull out the ads to let their new audiences know that the product they’ve been reading about, or hearing about from their friends, is almost here. Advertising is not ignored in the marketing mix; it’s just not the first pillar.

(Nintendo put the first commercial on YouTube shortly after it aired, where it was placed as the featured video on the site’s main page. It was the most watched video of that day and is in the top 5 for this week. All of this is good. Now the bad: for some stupid reason Nintendo won’t let people embed the video on their websites, so you’ll have to go watch it here. I recognize that Nintendo wants people to visit their YouTube site and go to the links and the banner ads, etc., but the whole point of YouTube is that it’s VIRAL. You need to allow people to see that video any way they can, be it here on my blog or otherwise. Sorry Nintendo, you screwed the pooch just a little bit on this one – you get a *B-* for effort.)

Nintendo is not going to have a problem selling out all of the systems it gets into stores by Christmas, nor is Sony or Microsoft. Winning the public relations battle at this point isn’t about selling more systems this quarter; it’s about establishing a narrative, a brand-image in the words of the media and the minds of the general public. Nintendo wants their system to be seen as accessible, affordable and innovative; their goal over the next 4-6 months is to have those messages repeated in as many newspapers, magazines and living rooms as possible.

But, like all public relations campaigns, Nintendo’s efforts are founded on one wonderfully simple premise: the product has to work. If all of those people caught up in the buzz over the Wii are disappointed by what they open on Sunday, then it doesn’t matter that the product was positioned with an aggressive differentiation strategy, nor does it matter that Nintendo’s viral PR tactics were forward-looking.

In the end, it comes down to product: does the Wii work? And as an ex-gamer caught up in the buzz, I just might have to find that out for myself.

Edit: Nintendo just added the full two-minute version of their advertising campaign to their YouTube profile. You can watch it here.

For comparison’s sake, go here to watch one of the PS3 ads. They’re pretty, but in my opinion are quite hideous from a marketing perspective – typical art-over-objective commercials that seem aimed more at advertising awards than actually trying to explain the product.


One response to “Pondering the Nintendo Wii (part three)

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