How Nintendo became ‘the Disney of gaming’ through ruthless consistency of brand

Lessons in marketing from Nintendo

As part of The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, Marketing Secrets of Fast-Growth Brands, we look at how Nintendo has been setting the bar for gaming marketing.

Nintendo enjoyed immense growth early in the pandemic, with stay-at-home orders and some headstrong marketing boosting demand for its Nintendo Switch products in particular and propelling it to number 70 on Interbrand’s list of the Top 20 Fastest Growing companies.

Setting the bar for gaming marketing, it has cemented its position as the most distinctive, recognizable global gaming brand with a formula that is direct and simple – family-friendly experiences with memorable characters and games that stay true to its core values, and that loyal fans and newcomers alike savor.

Not only does it produce games such as Mario and Animal Crossing, it creates long standing franchises that adults remember playing as children and want to share with their own kids. As Ben Bilboul, the chief executive officer of Karmarama and managing director of Accenture Interactive, explains, its approach to marketing “has that Disney factor“.

“Nintendo, for me, is the Disney of gaming. It has created this world that is hugely attractive to people of all ages, and particularly families.

“It has a heritage and nostalgia akin to Disney, but also the feeling of nutritional entertainment in that you’re not engaged in a bloodbath every time you pull out the console.”

According to Suzy Barnes, the chief executive officer of gaming agency Diva, there’s a simple formula at play – one that it’s “not shy to use it time and again“. “This ruthless consistency to its brand – to building distinctive assets and characters that are intertwined with the idea of Nintendo – is one of the main reasons it continues to build brand equity and commercial impact.

“But this doesn’t stop with its identity, products, or game characters. Nintendo has one of the most recognizable sonic brands – the coin block ‘ping‘, the Mario theme music, Mario and Luigi’s annoyingly squeaky voices, Yoshi’s half-pony half-hoover snort. They all contribute to building a sense of distinctiveness around the Nintendo brand, which in turn keeps the brand front of mind when it comes to point of purchase.”

Brand explosion

Following on from the financial disappointment of the Wii U, Nintendo regained its confidence with the Switch. Since its introduction in 2017, there have been over 100m of the handheld devices sold, making it one of the best-selling consoles of all time.

The pandemic really gave Nintendo a chance to shine and the arrival of Animal Crossing: New Horizons during the first global lockdown came at the perfect time, resulting in its most profitable year to date.

However, warns Bilboul, it shouldn’t get cocky about its successes. “Gaming is not exactly new news, but the pandemic really accelerated it as a massive commercial opportunity. And although Nintendo has a unique positioning and a great heritage, the competition is going to carry on getting bigger and better funded.”

The pandemic showed how well Nintendo could grasp opportunities in the digital landscape, but its planned launch of its long-awaited theme park, Super Nintendo World, experienced several delays due to Covid-19. A soft opening at Universal Studios Japan finally took place on March 18, 2021, while much of the country was still in lockdown.

This physical experience was not just a milestone for Nintendo but for gaming itself, with the world’s first theme park based on a video game. Barnes says: “Nintendo’s brand extension into theme parks – plus some less memorable forays into movies – are further examples of an innovative, playful culture that explores new ideas and channels to reach and connect with audiences.

“The fact that some of these experiments are more successful than others simply provides further evidence that Nintendo is not willing to follow a predictable path. However, when it comes to its distinctive brand assets, Nintendo’s ruthless consistency is something any student of marketing should take some time to learn more about.”

Over at Mindshare UK, chief executive officer Jem Lloyd-Williams says that Nintendo’s recent achievements hail from being very much marketing focused, rather than advertising led. “What’s interesting is how it has diversified as a brand, how it has added really big touch points to its physical presence.

“It has theme parks and the like, but it has also ridden the wave in terms of people’s enforced isolation. It quickly developed new ways for people to access its products, games and services, which also helped the spread of it by building on shareability with some of its new games.

“That, to me, just feels like really smart marketing, which has resulted in such an explosion in people’s understanding of it as a brand and their consumption of it as a set of products.”

Direct success

Another element of Nintendo’s brand growth comes from its move into the mobile gaming space. It hasn’t made much in terms of financial success, but it’s the opportunity for brand awareness that really help boost its portfolio, from the Pokémon Go phenomenon of summer 2016 to Mario Kart Tour reaching 200m downloads, followed by Super Mario Run hitting over 300m+.

David Williams, creative director of the gaming agency, Maverick Media believes that mobile gaming is only going to continue to grow, and does not require brand loyalty or a commitment to a particular console. “It’s a threat but also an opportunity for growth,” he says.

“Nintendo has already made moves into the mobile space and can continue to expand with the licensing of its strong IP, which in time could generate even more for it than selling hardware.

“Nintendo has a wealth of exclusive IP to play with that still endures and its commitment to innovation in gaming will always set it apart. Pushing those messages in its marketing, coupled with the ongoing communications on platforms like Nintendo Direct, will serve it well.”

Like many gaming companies, Nintendo loves to keep secrets and excite its fan base when it has those all enticing announcements to make. Which is why Nintendo Direct has been one of its more successful brand extensions.

A series of shows and presentations, Direct is a regular update on company’s upcoming content and franchises. Williams says these regular announcements are an opportunity for Nintendo to engage more frequently as a brand with its audience and be more reactive to what resonates.

“It also spreads the focus into exciting quarterly updates rather than fighting for airtime at big yearly events like E3,” he says. “It was a shrewd move and one that was ahead of the game. The cancellation of many live events during the pandemic has seen this online town hall style of announcements frequently imitated.”

Barnes also says Nintendo Direct cannot be overlooked and that it’s the opportunity to speak direct to consumers about its new games. “Many publishers have adopted this approach,” she explains “and we have to wonder what will happen when the conference scene starts to come back online.”

Beyond Direct, Barnes says the Nintendo Switch itself is a powerful marketing tool. The home screen has a shop window built in and, she says, that is one of its most valuable players when it comes to marketing.

“Of course, Nintendo has a multichannel approach with everything, from TV to re-targeted social and everything in between, but the Switch really ensures that all consumers are serviced, no matter where they are in the funnel.

“New Pokémon game coming out? Let’s get a limited edition Switch out to support it. New Animal Crossing DLC? Let’s do it again.”

Onwards and upwards

Nintendo games are perceived as high quality. It doesn’t release games – unlike some other gaming companies – until they are sure they will live up to the hype, and this has fundamentally built brand trust with consumers.

Founder and director at Yrs Truly MJ Widomska says the key is to not break this trust. “As long as Nintendo can meet the high expectations for its first-party games and its hardware, it will be able to get away with doing its marketing differently and launching games without the sizable marketing budgets its competitors usually work with.”

Another avenue for it to continue to grow will be dipping into the metaverse. Lloyd-Williams says that in developing its presence there and beginning to enable users on its consoles and online services, it will break down the walls between how people access them.

“That enables shareability with the family-friendly community that comes with playing those games. The winners and losers in the metaverse space will be the ones that make the experience of the brand, the platform or the game as lifelike as possible.

“The idea of being able to transfer yourself or what you have done in one game to another game – the brands that begin to do that more meaningfully for people in the metaverse will be the ones that become winners.”

As long as Nintendo continues down a similar route to Disney in how it updates its franchises and continues to appeal to new audiences, Bilboul is certain there is still a lot of life in it yet. Accenture worked with Nintendo on the Wii and, he explains, a lot of what has really driven Nintendo’s success in the last 15 years was it showing that gaming didn’t have to be a solitary pursuit.

“It has been quite a closed platform, traditionally, and now it is opening up its platform a bit. Look at Animal Crossing and when various brands and groups got involved. The Biden and Harris Island used that platform to reach out to younger audiences during the presidential campaign, which keeps it culturally relevant.

“That’s the path that Nintendo is starting to take. It’s interesting that it is starting to welcome new franchises on to its platform, like Fortnite. Similar in respect to Disney buying Marvel while staying true to its core values, which is first and foremost as a family entertainment brand – that’s a strong, unique positioning for it.”

Nintendo is a success story that marketers should keep close eye on. It is fully aware of how it is building its brand to drive growth in market, while instilling its core values without diminishing consistency and creativity.

Concluding, Widomska stresses that Nintendo has always forged its own path. “Thanks to its incredible consistency and refusal to follow industry micro-trends, it now has the luxury of being able to do its marketing in a way that wouldn’t necessarily work for other gaming companies. It’s not something many other studios could pull off.”

For more Marketing Secrets of Fast-Growth Brands, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive.