Discover more from Future Famous
Perhaps the best 'brand' launch of 2023
Important lessons from the video game industry, any brand can learn from.
I would like to give a special shoutout to Raquel Chicourel, one of the brilliant strategists in our network, who helped me to research and write this week’s piece.
If it’s ok i’d like to begin this week’s newsletter by asking for two small favours. First, I would love to get some feedback on this newsletter and ask you to spend a brief moment telling me what you like/don’t like in the comment sections below. I am always trying to improve the content and bring value to you the reader, so this would really help. Second, I ask you to bear with me on this week’s case study. Many of you will not be into video games. Some of you may even hate them. However let me assure you, that the story I am going to tell and the lessons we are going to learn are incredibly useful for any brand. So what we are going to cover this week? I am going to show you how Nintendo’s recent Zelda ‘Tears of The Kingdoms’ (TOTK) sell-out success,is in fact a marketing masterclass. Trust me, it’s a good one. Still reading? I appreciate it. Let’s get going.
#1 PLAY OVER PIXELS
Still think video games are very nerdy boys, playing alone in the bedroom? Think again. The global games industry is worth a whopping $321.1BN. In fact gaming today brings in more revenue than the music industry and film combined. Gaming is a commercial and cultural juggernaut. Don’t believe me? Go ask your kids how long they spent playing Roblox, Fortnite or Mario over the last week. However, whenever an industry enjoys huge success, and a lot of money can be made, the threat of stagnation looms. It’s the reason we see so many lacklustre Hollywood sequels and formulaic reality TV shows. And it is the unfortunate reason the gaming industry has pumped out so many subpar AAA games or endless average sequels, with too many focusing on high-end graphics over core the tenants of fun & gameplay. However, in a world of video game stagnation, Nintendo continues to cut through. Why? Because they always place play over performance.
FIGURE #1: GAMING IS A COMMERICAL & CULTURAL JUGGERNAUT
“What the heck has ‘play over pixels’ got to do with marketing Will?” I hear many of you think as you begin to move this week’s newsletter into your junk folder. Well, let me explain. Marketing as many of you know is so much more than ‘communications’. It covers the four Ps - Promotion, Price, Place and Product. And it is the last of these four, that is so important to understand when it comes to the genius of ‘Pixels over Play’. You see whilst Byron Sharp and others have argued that brands need to aim for distinctiveness, over differentiation, the same cannot be said for the products you build. Of course, many companies successfully build similar products and out-compete on price or promotion. However these companies never truly create what Peter Theil calls a ‘monopoly business’.
"Monopoly is the condition of every successful business. Monopoly businesses capture value by inventing an entirely new market and being the only one who can satisfy its customers. They are so good at what they do that no other firm can offer a close substitute." Peter Thiel, Zero To One
Now whilst Nintendo isn’t a monopoly business in its truest sense, as they haven’t invented an entirely new market, they have consistently created their own take on what video games can & should be. One that has proven to be increasingly ‘monopolistic’ over the years. Ever since they launched the original Gameboy Nintendo has subverted the industry’s obsession with high performance, building fairly low-powered hardware and instead prioritising the importance of gameplay. And when it comes to gameplay they have constantly pushed the boundaries forward, creating new genres and mechanics time and time again. In the early 1980s when everyone was creating Space Invader clones, they created the groundbreaking Super Mario Bros & the original Legend of Zelda. In the 2000s when everyone was trying to win over ‘hardcore’ gamers with high-fidelity graphics, Nintendo got your grandma playing with super accessible Nintendo Wii. And in the 2010s-2020s Nintendo ripped up the rule book again creating the world’s first truly hybrid console that let anyone play at home or on the go, the Nintendo Switch.
FIGURE #2: THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAS SUBVERTED THE CATEGORY BY PRIORITISING GAMEPLAY
When it comes to focusing on gameplay, the newly launched Zelda TOTK is arguably one of the best examples of this approach. They could have taken the tried & tested approach of other game publishers and developed a lazy sequel. Instead, they ripped up the rule book again and introduced mind-bending brilliant new play mechanics…but I’ll delve into that, in more detail, in part four.
So what can brands learn here? Well no matter the stage of business you are in, always strive to create a product that is truly differentiating. Or at least find a way to reimagine the way the industry does things. This will not only increase your chances of survival but it makes it infinitely easier to build an effective brand around it. Over the last 15+ years I have been lucky to work with a wide variety of companies, some with a radically different product & others with something far more generic. When working with the former I found it infinitely easier to build a more effective brand as it’s easier to unlock a unique truth about the company, which is one of the fundamental building blocks of any great brand.
#2 SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT
I’ll keep this second point short, as many of you will have heard me highlight it before. However, as it is important to brand building and Zelda does it well, let’s cover it quickly. The most effective brands are consistent yet flexible. They have consistent brand assets (ie name, colours & characters) but they flex their approach over time, changing as consumer desires do. As Byron Sharp states…
"While brands must strive for consistency in their messaging and positioning, they also need to embrace flexibility in adapting to the evolving needs and preferences of their target audience. The key lies in striking a delicate balance between a recognizable, cohesive brand identity and the ability to adapt and stay relevant in a dynamic marketplace." - Byron Sharp
Nintendo, and in particular the Zelda franchises, offers a masterclass in this principle. Over forty years they have established consistent characters (Zelda, Link) colours (Greens) & musical scores. Yet at the same time, they have flexed the story & gameplay in almost every new release. The original Zelda had a fairly open world, allowing you to explore at will. The sequel was a more linear side-scrolling adventure. The third game introduced the idea of two worlds. In the 1990s Orcania of Time took the franchise into 3D, establishing many of the staples that other open-world games still use today. And most recently Zelda TOTK introduced new gameplay mechanics, including the ability to ‘fuse’ and build any object imaginable in the game.
FIGURE #3: THE ZELDA BRAND IS A MASTERCLASS IN BEING CONSISTENT & FLEXIBLE
Even if you're not building video games, there is an important lesson to remember here. Always begin by establishing a powerful brand strategy that leads to powerful brand assets (name, logo, colours). Once you have this in place begin to flex, iterate and improve in line with consumer demand over time.
#3 THE ‘SUPREME’ OF SOFTWARE
In my previous article ‘Learn how a factory worker built a billion dollar brand’ I delved into the power of scarcity & hype, for brands. Whilst I’ll briefly recap it here I highly recommend reading the full piece to get a more detailed breakdown. However in short, in a world where people can buy almost anything/anytime/anywhere scarcity has never been more powerful. And one of the best ways to amplify the effects of scarcity? Hype. And when it comes to scarcity and hype, Zelda TOTK offers us a masterclass.
FIGURE #4: ZELDA TOTK HAS MASTERED THE ART OF SCARCITY & HYPE
Tears Of The Kingdom became widely available to anyone with a Switch on Friday 12th May 2023. Yet despite it being a mass-market product, Nintendo has proven to be a master of scarcity, over the last six years prior to its launch. When they first announced the game back in 2017 they revealed nothing more than a logo and the fact that it was ‘coming soon’. Over the following years, in Nintendo's classic secretive style, they drip-fed only the scarcest of details about the game. And this scarcity of information sent gaming influencers into a frenzy of speculation. I am not exaggerating when I say some gaming influencers, have been creating ‘TOTK theory’ videos hours in length and racking up millions of views.
FIGURE #5: ZELTIK RECEIVED OVER A MILLION ORGANIC VIEWS FOR SOME OF HIS TOTK SPECULATION VIDEOS
Scarcity of information is only one-half of their formula, however. If scarcity is the flame, hype is the fuel that ignites it. Closer to launch they handpicked a handful of creators, from different regions, to be the first to try the game and capture footage of their playthrough experience. All of this was done fairly under the radar and so when the content eventually dropped the gaming community was whipped into a frenzy of excitement. Beyond this, there were also a number of tactics the brand employed to fuel hype further. They timed the release of the game only a month after the release of the Mario movie, playing trailers for Zelda TOTK at almost every showing. They also held a number of ‘midnight launch’ events which saw many die-hard fans queue around the corner, to get their hands on the game as soon as possible. This created scenes more akin to a Supreme store sneaker drop than a video game event. It also ensured the press would more likely cover the event too.
FIGURE #6: TOTK LAUNCH EVENTS WERE MORE LIKE A SUPREME STORE SNEAKER DROP
What can brands learn from this? Well whether you are selling snacks or software the power of scarcity & hype can be profound. Think about how you can drip-feed information and use hype to send your fanbase into a frenzy. As I wrote about in ‘Community building is a con’ attitudinal loyal fans, that are part of your brand community, can be an incredibly powerful force. If you leverage scarcity & hype with them correctly you can maximize reach, fame and anticipation for your brand launch.
#4 PLAY FOR FAME
Zelda TOTK introduced a new game mechanic which is not only fun but has the potential to sustain long-term brand fame, for years to come. In short, you can pretty much custom-build any object or weapon in the game. Want to make a car out of some trees? You can. Want to make an aeroplane out of some planks of wood and fans? No problem. Want to make a sword with a banana on the end? Sure thing. The genius of this mechanic is that it basically gives the game almost infinite replayability and invites creators to show off their creative side. Let me break down why this is important in more detail below.
FIGURE #7: TOTK NEW CREATIVE MECHACNS ARE A STROKE OF MARKETING GENIUS
Whether you are a gamer or not many of you will probably be aware of how important streaming is, to the gaming community. Fans will literally spend hours watching their favourite creators playing games. Many will often donate $100s of dollars to their favourite creator too. And so central is streaming & playthroughs to the community, that it can basically ‘make or break’ the success of any given game. One of the main reasons Fortnite, Minecraft & Roblox continue to sell so well today is that they became incredibly popular with creators on streaming platforms such as Twitch. And the reason they became so popular? They all unlock players’ creativity. They all allow the complete customisation of characters and empower you to build almost anything. The player really is only limited by their own imagination. In many respects, they are Lego for the digital generation. And what do these mechanics remind you of? The exact ones I just mentioned in TOTK. This is a genius marketing move by Nintendo. By empowering creators (and players) to build and create what they want, they are almost guaranteeing their chances of winning on platforms like Twitch. They are increasing their chances that creators will continue to play for years to come, push out an endless stream of content and in turn help to maintain brand fame for a far longer time.
Even if you aren’t in the games business, there is a really important lesson here for how to build brands in the modern age. In an era where internet culture prevails. An era where anything can be shared or ‘memed’ online, you should aim to build content that taps into this. When it comes to the communications you create around the brand or even the products you build, try to bake in ways that encourage consumers to actively share content around it. Of course, there is a broad spectrum of ways to do this. On the hand, you could create an advert that is very ‘memeable’ and shareable like the recent ‘Shereddies for everything campaign’. On the other hand, you could create a product that allows customers to customise and share their creations, like Crocs.
I briefly want to finish on one final point. If there has been one criticism against Nintendo, in the past, is that they have been a bit stuck in their ways. That they have been unwilling to embrace change or adapt to the times. More recently I think this criticism holds less weight as Nintendo begins to experiment with new approaches and more fully embraces a ‘Flywheel’ approach to business.
FIGURE #8: DISNEY ARE MASTERS OF THE FLYWHEEL WHERE ASPECT OF THE BRAND COMPLEMENTS AND BOOSTS EACH OTHER
Much like Disney, Nintendo is now building a Flywheel model for its IP. One where each element of their brand complements, builds and boosts the others. Let’s illustrate this point with Zelda TOTK. First, they spent years hyping the game and eventually launched it only a mere month after the box office success of the Super Mario Movie. This ensured the game launched to incredible amounts of hype & fanfare. Second, the game’s creative elements will ensure that creators will continue to play and make content around the game, for years to come. Third, the success of the game will help to drive people to the new Nintendo World theme park where the company plans to open a new Zelda-themed area. This will not only deepen fans’ engagement with Zelda but introduce them to Nintendo’s other IPs. Fourth, Nintendo has set up its own movie production company and plans to launch more films across other IPs such as Zelda. All the hype and sales around TOTK will help to drive viewing for this. And in turn, when the film itself releases, it will circle back and grow more sales for TOTK.
FIGURE #9: NINTENDO IS BUILDING AN HIGHLY EFFECTIVE FLYWHEEL
Whether you are a media brand or not, there is huge merit in learning from flywheel models. Think about how you can stretch your successful brands/IP into other products, services or media. And also think about different brands in your portfolio can complement and benefit each other.
To those who are non gamers thanks for sticking with us this week. I hope you found the case study useful and consider the five key learnings of product differentiation, consistent yet flexible, hype & scarcity, memeability and flywheels in our next activity. Finally, as mentioned at the top of this week’s newsletter I would love some quick feedback about the newsletter so we can continue to improve and make it better.
Please excuse the typ0s i’m proudly dyslexic