How Animal Crossing became a PG paradise for brands

Brands that normally wouldn’t touch video game activations are finding a virtual home.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

What do the NFL’s Detroit Lions, fashion house Valentino and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have in common? They’ve all created content for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the wildly popular video game in which users assume a cute animal avatar and set up home on a tropical island.

Here’s a primer: The avatars partake in activities like fishing and planting fruit trees. The bounty from such pursuits can then be used to purchase customizable furniture, clothing and even art. Avatars can also meet together via the game’s online connection. It was even the venue for a couple to have their wedding with friends and friendly -- in avatar form, of course -- that had been canceled because of social distancing regulations.  

Here’s a fact you might not know about the social simulation game that’s all the buzz: it’s not new. 

Nintendo launched Animal Crossing in 2001, but its latest upgrade for the Nintendo Switch has been selling like hotcakes. In the first 11 days after its release on March 20, it shipped almost 12 million units and finished March as the top-selling game in the U.S, according to NPD Group. 

It also has emerged a pop culture phenomenon during the pandemic. Actor Elijah Wood and restaurateur Guy Fieri created their own islands, while political phenom Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) interacted with her social media followers by making “house calls” to their islands. Prolific screenwriter Gary Whitta even created a late-night talk show on Animal Crossing. 

So why is an almost-20-year-old game franchise having a moment?

For one, the timing. The pool of potential users has ballooned because of home quarantining. Second, Animal Crossing is wholesome, escapist entertainment without winners and losers and no “end game” – hardly the high-stress stakes of real life right now.

“The game is like an idealized version of life,” says Cary Kwok, EVP of brand communications at Rogers & Cowan/PMK, who has worked on marketing campaigns for several major video game brands. “There is no stress or conflict, and political points of view aren’t expressed. It’s also a game like Candy Crush that appeals to the general public, and you don’t need gaming skills to enjoy.” 

As Blaze PR president Matt Kovacs puts it, “For lack of a better word, the game is nice.” 

“It takes people back to a simpler time,” he says, noting that millennials in particular like the life-like game play. “It gives them hope in the American dream, that if you put in the work and time, you can build yourself up, like you do in the game.”

A PG paradise for brands

Nintendo, which via PR firm Golin declined to comment for this article, doesn’t sell ads or product placement on Animal Crossing. However, brands can tap into it organically using QR codes and partnerships with content creators.

Luxury apparel companies are among those finding the highly aesthetic game a fashionable place to be during lockdown. Marc Jacobs announced on social media it had created six designs that can be downloaded via a QR code to dress characters in. 

Valentino commissioned visual artist Kara Chung, one of the game’s growing influencers on Instagram (@animalcrossingfashionarchive), on the creation of 20 virtual looks from its men’s and women’s collections. 

“At a time when many storefronts are closed and runway shows are getting canceled, brands are looking for ways to show new collections in a more unique way than just an Instagram post,” says Rachel Oliva-Valdes, account executive and social media specialist at consumer lifestyle PR firm AMP3 PR. “Creating capsule collections in Animal Crossing, while seemingly unorthodox, is a fun way to get potential and existing customers excited about new items while increasing brand engagement and affinity.” 

She explains that it can also help brands create a pipeline of social media content, “from reposting designs for visibility, streaming a virtual Animal Crossing runway show or promoting special in-game events.” A brand could also share user-generated designs and run polls on what to design next, notes Oliva-Valdes. 

There is a big catch: “there is no real way to monetize designs in-game,” she says. However, Olivia-Valdes says “a successful collection in the game could potentially lead to a real-life collaboration with Nintendo.”  

Non-apparel brands are also finding their way into this virtual paradise, and it isn’t just with in-game content that is sharable through codes. 

The Detroit Lions partnered with Animal Crossing to announce their 2020 schedule on Twitter with the help of daily announcer Tom Nook, the racoon character who operates the village store in the game. The NFL team posted an almost-seven-minute video featuring Tom and game actions that humorously indicated the team the Lions will play on each week, like a bear buried into a hole to signal their season opener against the Chicago Bears. 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, meanwhile, has hosted livestreams on Twitch providing information about the fossils, fauna, insects and fish found in the game’s island habitats. 

Animal Crossing is certainly on the radar of PR agencies. MSL is approaching activation ideas for the game with clients, including for brands that have typically veered away from video games. 

Cadence Ely-Mooney, account supervisor for digital at MSL, says it attracts “a completely different demographic than most video games,” including women and older generations. 

“It’s reaching past Gen Z and millennials and is converting people who have never played video games into gamers,” she says. 

And thanks to frequent updates, Animal Crossing is keeping converts coming back, as evidenced by its enduring popularity, meaning brands could use it as a vehicle for long-term engagement with consumers. 

A feature that drops presents from the sky, says Ely-Mooney, could be used by CPG brands to share products in animated form. Or a home-improvement retailer could offer in-game purchases of custom-designed tiles and wallpaper to help users create their dream homes. 

Users can create their own coffee bars. A real-life eatery “could create a virtual café where users could experience the brand in a whole new way,” she says. 

“We could even see brands getting to a point where they create their own islands that embody their brand personas and provide codes for other users to visit and create a virtual experience for consumers that brings their brand to life in a new way,” Ely-Mooney adds. 

With wide appeal and low cost to entry, a risk for brands is if Animal Crossing becomes saturated with too many brand tie-ins. Right now, users opt-in to the in-game brand interaction by using codes. 

But if brand activations do compromise the authenticity of the game, it could “drive people away,” Ely-Mooney says. 

“This game is designed to be an escape, and if it loses that feel it could cause people to lose interest,” she says. 

Blaze PR is considering Animal Crossing for its clients in food and beverage, which have been working hard to keep shelves stocked amid increased demand during the crisis and donating to frontline workers. 

“[Any play] would have to connect back to the real world and feel relevant and authentic,” Kovacs says. “Otherwise, it can come off like a boomer trying to do a TikTok video –  it just makes you want to cringe.” 

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