How did Microsoft pull it off? They were a boring, monolithic software company helmed by Bill Gates, the world's biggest geek. They made Windows. They made spreadsheet software and word processing programs.
They were a boring part of our lives we were forced to accept as a boring part of our technological infrastructure, only a few pixels away from concrete or plumbing. Then, of all things, Microsoft turned its hat backwards and tried to sit at the cool table. They released the Xbox.
And they lost $US 4 billion.
But all was not a wash. While some would say Xbox (original) lost money, others realised that Microsoft really just invested the funds. And from this investment, they'd gained a non-Winblows identity in the marketplace, along with a powerful icon that was nearly as synonymous to the Xbox console as Mario was to Nintendo or Sonic to Sega: Master Chief.
Fast forward to 2007. The Xbox 360 is beating the golden boy PlayStation 3. And Halo 3 is the top selling game—on any platform—all year in the US.
So how did Microsoft, after failure on original Xbox, take Halo 3 and their Xbox 360 to levels beyond any game launch before it? We talked to Microsoft's hired hands, the Xbox marketing gurus at global marketing firm Wunderman to explain how it happened. Chris Loll with the firm's UK branch did his best to politely answer our questions without upsetting Microsoft or getting fired. We hope.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
So let's backtrack to somewhere around November 2006. Wunderman is deep in the throws of planning, preparing to start a nine month increasingly muscled onslaught on the gaming populace before Halo 3's September 25th, 2007 release date.
Do you remember the ads? They included Halo 3 wallpapers, mobile websites, sweepstakes, scavenger hunts, countdown clocks, and specialised RSS feeds. And this stuff occurred before Game Fuel was a twinkle in fanboy eyes.
This first phase of Halo 3 marketing was for the hardcore fans, the people who had been "anticipating Halo 3 since they finished Halo 2," Loll explains. What Wunderman attempted was to bridge this playtime gap between sequels, feeding fans as much content as they could through a smaller scale viral approach. And during this phase, Wunderman worked closely with Bungie to make sure that they had the right media assets to offer fans.
"All of these things were part of a plan to make sure that we were giving the customer what they were looking for without actually giving them the game experience," explains Loll.
Then came the second (and final) stage of advertising. For this, we jump ahead to early September 2007, just a few weeks before launch.
"Halo 3 was about finish the fight. So for a lot of people, if they hadn't started the fight, that might not have resonated as much."
And it was this group—one that didn't necessarily know the fight even existed—that Wunderman needed to excite if Halo 3 were to become "an entertainment phenomenon," as it was so often described to me. So Wunderman leveraged strategic partners, companies that could team with Microsoft and share the Halo branding for mutual benefit.
"I think that it is subtle, we're not trying to tell the history of the conversation on the back of a Burger King cup, but we are trying to generate that level of awareness and build a curiosity of this phenomenon that is happening around them..."
This was the mass-market strategy that we've all seen and often joked about, formerly reserved for the likes of the film industry. It included television ads, Burger King containers, NASCAR sponsorship and even a custom line of Mt. Dew.
So I had to ask, how did Mt. Dew Game Fuel come about? It was pretty simple, really. Wunderman and Microsoft pitched Pepsi (the soft drink company is already friends with Wunderman). Pepsi pitched them Game Fuel. And the rest was history. But didn't anyone else want in on the Halo fun?
"There were some [products]that will obviously go unmentioned but were not the right fit and wouldn't have been right for our target."
We can only imagine Master Chief on a carton of Tampax. And then we wonder what the hardcore fans would think of such a thing.
"With the core audience, a lot of the marketing blitz...wasn't targeted at those guys. It makes them feel more part of the broader community, but it was really focused on a much larger audience that hasn't been engaged to the level that they have since the original."
Because these two audiences have different understandings of Halo 3 and the Xbox 360 brands, Wunderman must also present that Halo/Xbox relationship differently.
"We're looking to align the appropriate balance of Xbox and Halo based upon who we're actually talking to...It was definitely a strategic consideration as we were developing all of the marketing materials for the Halo 3 campaign - as sort of the balance and the weighting of the brand's imagery and the connection between the Halo 3 identity, Master Chief and the Xbox brand," Loll explains.
"For people who are less familiar with the Halo brand, the Xbox brand may in turn be a more important part of that communication...for someone who has been immersed...making the association between the two is less relevant because they've grown up with it or sort of evolved with it."
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
So where does Microsoft and its marketing team go from here? We ask Loll, sure there's Halo Wars coming out, but with no Halo 4 on the horizon, what's the next strategy?
And there's silence. "Hmmm," Loll eventually responds.
"When a franchise like Halo 3 doesn't have a clear visual for the next 'Halo 4 edition'...we're looking to see how we can make sure they're getting the most out of Halo 3...there's a lot of facets to the game that makes almost never ending for the different customers."
Or so they hope.
"So obviously Halo Wars is an important part of the broader franchise and we'll start spending more time to thinking about the right connection and the way that they do work together, but at this point I don't think I've got that silver bullet answer for you."