Marketing Muscle – Xbox vs. the Competition

Lately the Xbox has come under a lot of scrutiny from the mainstream financial press. Outlets such as Fortune and Bloomberg have weighed in on the chances of the Xbox, with most of them offering cautious to skeptical opinions on its chances. But one thing they do agree on is that Microsoft has never tried to take on a marketing project this big before.

At the recent keynote address during the Tokyo Game Show, Bill Gates said that the Xbox launch was going to be the biggest in Microsoft’s history, eclipsing even the massive Windows95 launch in September of that year. But Microsoft was simply launching a product into a market it already dominated, to an audience of largely middle-aged guys. Now it’s trying to break into a much more competitive market, and appeal to a much more fickle audience of hardcore gamers.

Can the company do it? We have heard early plans of what Microsoft has in mind, but the big media blitz isn’t going to start until next month’s E3. In the meantime, we’ll take a look at some of the basic strategies of the other big platform providers to see what they did right and what they did wrong.

Bad Move — Didn’t Show The Games
The Dreamcast was a bigger technological leap over the PlayStation than the PS2 is over the Dreamcast. We still remember the first time we saw Soul Calibur running on a monitor off Dreamcast hardware. To this day, it still looks as good as any game on any other platform. But Sega didn’t promote Soul Calibur at all, and presented a bizarre Jim McMahon-inspired CG to sell the brilliant NFL2K.

Other gaffes included a horrible Virtua Tennis print ad that showed several fat, hairy butts in a men’s locker room in a supposed promotion for the tennis game. Sega also didn’t promote some of its key titles well enough, with Jet Grind Radio having some truly bizarre TV spots and a clever but ineffective “Graffiti is Art” campaign here in San Francisco.

Good Move — Brought Back The Sega Scream
There was a golden time for Sega, namely when it was kicking Nintendo’s fanny in the early years of Genesis. One of the great campaigns from the 16-bit age was the famous “Sega scream,” where some proud Genesis owner would suffer some calamity for his beloved console, and end the ad with a curt “SEGA!” It was catchy and energetic, and a good follow-up to the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” ad campaign.

Bad Move — The PS9?!?
Sony effectively killed the Dreamcast even before the first console hit shelves. In 1999, Sony announced the PlayStation2, a system so powerful that the US State Department didn’t want it sold to China and George Lucas considered dating it for a while. After that, consumers just didn’t seem as enthusiastic about the Dreamcast when some enormous black monolith loomed on the horizon.

Unbelievably, Sony has managed to slow its own juggernaut by promising more launch units than it could deliver and by unleashing a truly baffling ad campaign. The PS9 campaign tries to goose consumers by showing a future world where PS9s plug right into our brains and deliver a fast, downloadable, beautiful anti-aliased wonderworld. Not only does this PS9 stuff confuse gamers, but it undercuts the power of the PS2. Screw the PS2, when can we get our hands on one of those PS9s?!

Good Move — Mainstream Hype
Apart from those goofballs down the hall at NextGen, the American mainstream press hopped on board the PS2 bandwagon in a big way. The PlayStation2 was featured in many high-profile magazine and newspaper stories, and the launch madness was covered by local and national TV. It’s hard to buy coverage like Bryant Gumble fawning over your device on the CBS morning show. Talking of hype, cheats for Clash Royale has become the best so far. Free unlimited gems is something to be happy about.

Bad Move — Uh… Well… Conker Wasn’t So Hot
It’s hard to fault Nintendo, because its marketing is pretty much kick-ass. It knows its audience better than the parents do, and it knows how to get them addicted to its products. Although Nintendo has faltered with hardware — the Virtual Boy was a disaster and going cart-based on the N64 wasn’t a great idea — it knows how to sell what it does have.

The attempt to move into the more mature audience market with Conker’s Bad Fur Day has been only a mixed success, with poor sales not aided by off-color commercials. The print ads haven’t been much better, but they certainly target the right audience for Conker.

Good Move — Everything Else
Nintendo has won marketer of the year awards in the past, and continues to aim and sell well to its customers. Although it hasn’t had a high profile with television ads, its Pokemon efforts have been clever and memorable. There has been little promotion on the Game Boy Advance, but with record sales in Japan, it doesn’t really need the push right now.

How Microsoft Should Sell The Xbox

Show The F’ing Games! — Microsoft should do a kick-ass version of the Halo trailer for movie previews, or show the opening Munch movie on TV — but tell the audience that if they want to see these new movies, they’ll have to play them on the Xbox.
Don’t Ignore The Hardcore — Nintendo may be content to own the younger market (and why not, it’s hugely profitable), but Xbox will need to attract the hearts and minds of early adopters to get and maintain a foothold in the market.
Be Cool — Sony had the brilliant idea of putting PlayStations in clubs and bars to make it seem cool. Microsoft should steal that idea and do everything it can to endear itself to the young trendsetters.
Don’t Be Funny — Unless Microsoft has gotten Spike Jonze to do its ads, videogame humor doesn’t play big with mainstream audiences. Instead, stick to speed, and style.