Everything seems to go wrong when you’re going through a rough patch. Sony learned this lesson in the hardest way possible with the launch of the PlayStation 3. “The next-generation doesn’t start until we say so,” former PlayStation president Kaz Hirai declared. But the promise of great things wasn’t enough to make up for the system’s belated arrival. And despite attempts to recreate the magic of David Lynch’s baffling ‘The Third Place’ marketing campaign, the unsightly montage of a tearful baby didn’t exactly help the over engineered console’s teething troubles.
There have been decent PlayStation commercials over the past seven or so years, of course, but none of them have had a particularly big impact on the brand’s success. Kevin Butler was nothing short of a phenomenon in key gaming circles at his peak, but it always felt like he was preaching to the converted rather than bringing in new consumers. Taking shots at Microsoft’s motion solution and talking trash with company president Jack Tretton were all highlights in the character’s short reign, but how many consoles did the spots actually sell? We’ll probably never know, but the platform holder’s decision to scrap (and later sue) its manufactured mascot suggests that they weren’t having a particularly big impact at all.
A similar criticism can be pointed at ‘Michael’, the daring short that aimed to unite some of gaming’s greatest mascots in one well produced short. It was, in many ways, a masterpiece, prompting 11 million views on YouTube and drawing attention back to the PlayStation brand. But despite being a celebration of traditional gaming at a time when the competition was obsessed with casual games and applications, it failed to promote the platform outside of hardcore circles. After all, watching Uncharted’s loveable protagonist Nathan Drake chatting up Final Fantasy XIII’s Lightning is only exciting if you’re familiar with the characters. And at that point, it’s safe to assume that you already own a console.
We’ll probably never see a commercial in that mould again. Sony announced last night that it had ditched its marketing partner of eight years, Deutsch, and recruited the services of BBH New York. The firm already has a laundry list of high-profile clients to its name, including Google Chrome and Axe body spray. Meanwhile, its creative director John Patroulis is no stranger to the video game industry having already worked with Microsoft on Halo 3’s popular ‘Believe’ campaign. That bodes well for the platform holder moving forward.
It’s going to be interesting to see which direction the manufacturer adopts. We can’t help but feel that the days of ‘Double Life’ are long gone, and that the company will need to be more upfront about its next system when it eventually arrives. Of course, whichever direction it takes, it’s pointless creating a great advertisement if the visibility is low, which is perhaps an area that has frustrated fans of PlayStation more than the commercials themselves.
But that raises an interesting question in itself: is every game deserving of a wide-reaching television campaign? And if not, should the title even exist in the first place? There’s been concern this week that Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time has been sent out to die against a heavily promoted Dead Space 3, and it’s hard to disagree – but the platform holder has to place its bets carefully. God of War: Ascension, due out in less than four weeks, just received a Super Bowl advertisement – albeit limited to the online stream – which should have increased awareness of the title significantly. Should its place have been taken by Sanzaru Games’ platformer? Absolutely not.
That’s not a slight against the stealthy sequel at all, but some games simply demand more marketing spend than others. God of War: Ascension is a system seller; it’s the latest entry in a series that has sold 21 million copies over the past eight years. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time – no matter how fun – simply can’t compete with that, and was always destined to be a niche game. Fans need to deal with that fact.
The reality is that there’s only so much marketing spend available in a year, and the more releases there are, the more that budget gets stretched. The good news is that Sony is particularly good at online promotion, which often gets ignored when pundits criticise the company’s advertising spend. The PlayStation Blog alone is a stroke of marketing genius, informing consumers directly about the latest products, and offering a direct line of communication between developers and fans. It may only target a limited subset of the market, but that’s exactly where games like Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time are able to thrive.
And let’s not pretend that the audience is small. At the time of writing the official North American PlayStation Twitter account – which is fed by posts from the PlayStation Blog – has 1,574,814 followers. That’s excluding international territories. Compare that to both Xbox and Nintendo’s comparative accounts – which have 828,118 followers and 338,595 followers respectively – and there’s no argument over which brand is ruling the online stakes. Facebook paints a similar picture, with the official PlayStation page boasting 29.5 million ‘likes’ compared to Xbox’s 20.4 million and Nintendo’s 2 million.
And that proves that there are positives to take from Sony’s perceived promotional predicament. If the platform holder can complement its dedicated online presence with a more attractive and visible mainstream campaign, then it’s easy to see how current concerns about its marketing clout could be reversed. The issue is down to new recruit BBH New York to solve – let’s keep our fingers crossed that they are up to the task.
What do you think are the problems with PlayStation’s current marketing strategy? How do you think it could improve its promotional tactics? What type of commercials would you like to see accompany the launch of the PS4? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.