CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Nintendo concentrates efforts on the game, not the name

In an industry known for high-profile, in-your-face antics, Nintendo prefers to stay comparatively quiet, opting to emphasize its engrossing products rather than the brand identity.

In an industry known for high-profile, in-your-face antics, Nintendo prefers to stay comparatively quiet, opting to emphasize its engrossing products rather than the brand identity.

The video-game industry is cutthroat, with a trio of top players fighting to establish their gaming platforms as the must-have for serious fans. Microsoft has the Xbox, Sony has the PlayStation2, and Nintendo offers up the GameCube and the handheld Game Boy Advance. Each relies heavily on PR to woo both the young media who cover the industry, and the legion of fans who impatiently await the latest technological trends and hot new games. The stakes are high. According to a recent report by market researcher DFC Intelligence, sales of video games are expected to grow by 40% between 2001 and 2006, and more than 60 million game consoles will be in American households by then. That translates to $6.35 billion in video and computer game sales last year alone, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association. Nintendo prides itself on giving gamers some of the most complex and best-selling equipment on the market - and making sure consumers know about it. But when it comes to handling those all-important communications, the company has a counter-intuitive philosophy: keep it low-key. Nintendo's streamlined PR department relies on only a handful of in-house staff and a lot of outside help to keep this video-game giant on track with the media and consumers. "We have the best team in the world," says VP of marketing and corporate affairs Perrin Kaplan. "But we're structured in a very simple fashion - very flat, organizationally. Decisions get made on the fly. We're like a fast speedboat. We're not like a huge tanker." While Nintendo's in-house PR team is small, most of its members have been with the company for years, and often take on a range of responsibilities. "Everybody here is for the most part interchangeable," explains Perrin. "People do have specific areas they work on, but they can shift for things like product launches." Perrin says the experience level of her team saves her from having to "worry about crossing the t's and dotting the i's," but she does admit that sometimes the department seems too qualified. "At some point you get a little top heavy, but everyone is so viable because they know the company so well," she explains. When it comes to larger public relations projects, Perrin says Nintendo is "very vendor dependent as a company," and often looks to outside firms. "We lean on our agencies heavily," she says. "We can't afford to spend time on things that aren't integral to the business." Understanding the corporate culture Golin/Harris International has been Nintendo's main firm for more than 10 years. The Los Angeles office of Golin handles the account, and the agency has more than 20 full-time staffers tending to Nintendo's needs. Kaplan says one of the reasons the Golin partnership has been so successful is that the agency understands Nintendo's corporate culture. Part of that personality is a commitment to creating fresh campaigns that reach both influential media and consumers in fun ways. Because the video-game industry is so competitive and the journalists are often young, Nintendo has to be both creative and hip to capture their attention. For the recent launch of the Game Boy Advance, Golin helped Nintendo arrange a press junket to Japan, with the goals of quashing a perception among hard-core gamers that handheld systems lack the quality of their stationary counterparts, and emphasizing the product's portability, giving consumers the freedom to play on the go. Golin also wanted to create an "organic" experience, where the media could use the product firsthand outside of a traditional setting, explains Golin SVP Tina Vennegaard. The result was a trip to the Akihabari technology district in Tokyo, where the journalists got to play video games as they took in the sights. "It helped us take our relationship with the teen press to a new level," says Vennegaard of the trip. "Those guys are being hit up by everyone. This was a different way of building a strong relationship with them." Small stunts, big ideas While the overall campaign for the launch of the Game Boy Advance netted the company more than 295 million media impressions, the company understands that even smaller PR ploys can bring in attention if they're done well. For example, Nintendo recently created the world's largest bowl of spaghetti to help launch a new game, Mario Sunshine. Filled with 1.5 tons of spaghetti, the 10-foot-diameter bowl hit during the slow news season in August, and drew significant media interest. "We have come out with some of the wackiest ideas that consumers loved and the media loved," says Perrin of such events. But the high-profile stunts are saved for selling merchandise - the company itself likes to keep a lower profile. "We tend to try to focus specifically on our products themselves, and a little less on ourselves corporately. I'd say that our corporate parent is more quiet than loud. We just don't want the consumer to lose sight of what we're offering them," says Kaplan. Along with consumer PR, Nintendo puts a lot of effort into keeping employees up to date. Last year, Perrin's team helped build an "extremely active" company intranet that "covers everything from industry news to the cafeteria menu," she says. Currently, 93% of employees log on to hear about company happenings. Nintendo is also very aware that its employees make up one of its best PR resources, so it stages events to make sure staffers get the chance to use new games and equipment. "We try to do a lot of internal events where we bring the products to the employees. It gives them a chance to really get into what we sell," explains Perrin. Not all of Nintendo's PR activity is so light-hearted, however. The company is also very active on legislative issues such as video-game violence and anti-piracy measures. "Our biggest competitor in this world is counterfeit goods, so that's something we spend a lot of time on with Congress," says Kaplan. Nintendo also lobbies on peripheral issues that are integral to the company's work, such as shipping. With the recent interest in national security, and added scrutiny of packages and containers entering the country, Nintendo has been focusing more attention on making sure its international supply lines are not slowed down. "We can't afford to have any stalls in product movement," says Kaplan. "If the ports here just shut down, we'd be toast." Although Nintendo is not a publicly traded company in the US, Kaplan also spends some of her time on investor relations. But unlike the many IR pros struggling through the slump, Kaplan has had little bad news for investors. The company's revenue rose to $4.1 billion for the year ending in March, on last year's $3.6 billion, and gross profit rose to $1.6 billion from last year's $1.4 billion, as operating margins improved from 18.3% to 21.5%. "We just finished one of our most profitable years yet," says Kaplan. "But we do not take for granted how lucky we are." -------- Nintendo VP, marketing and communications Perrin Kaplan Director, PR Beth Llewelyn Manager, PR Anka Dolecki Manager, PR Tom Harlin Manager, internal communications Casey Pelkey External agency Golin/Harris PR budget undisclosed

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