Marketers Pay Dearly to Back Nintendo's Championships

Adweek - Matthew Grimm

March 12, 1990

A few years ago Jay Coleman, the marketing-entertainment matchmaker who helped pair Pepsi and Michael Jackson, saw potential in a home video-game company called Nintendo of America. Despite an industry slump, the company's Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had penetrated 10% of U.S. homes. So Coleman, the president of E.M.C.I.–Rockbill, proposed a mall tour to promote NES gaming on a grass-roots level.

This spring Nintendo is finally going on tour, but the promotion and the company are much bigger than Coleman envisioned. One out of every four homes now has an NES. Nintendo, in fact, is so big that five major marketers have paid hefty fees to piggyback on its image all across the country.

The Nintendo World Championships (NWC) kicked off last week in Dallas, the first stop on a 30-plus-city tour and tournament. In four days about 30,000 locals attended a video-game festival in Fairpark Convention Center. Some 12,000 of them competed for a trip to Orlando, Florida, next fall for the finals.

With NWC, Nintendo has turned a product into an event—and one big enough to attract prime sponsorships. Five major brand marketers have paid entry to associate with another brand's success.

The Pepsi–Cola Co., Kraft General Foods' Jell-O frozen snack-pop brands, Nabisco Biscuit Co.'s Oreo and Chips Ahoy brands are supporting the tour with regional retail and packaging ties, as well as with exhibit booths. Thomas J. Lipton Co., which markets Nintendo Real Fruit Snacks, had a booth for attendees to make rock videos. Reebok International created a "Playground of the Future," where attendees could check out new shoe styles and play video games inside giant sneakers.

"This is an obvious way to appeal to kids in a futuristic, sort of high-tech way," says Mark Holtzman, Reebok's director of brand promotions, "to show them we're basically hip with what's happening in the 1990s. What better way to show that kind of hip image than through association with Nintendo?"

The 12-to-17-year-old market is indeed hard to reach, and few brands boast as strong an equity as Nintendo. At the same time, given that age group's brief attention span, Nintendo must take care to avoid burnout. With a nearly $3-billion brand, a massive licensing program and two TV shows based on its characters, the company is bordering on saturation. And the hype surrounding the tour could only add to the clutter.

Nintendo, however, sees the NWC tour as a way to keep its phenomenon going.

"We've been struggling with how to harness the competitive energy of the Nintendo player base," says William White, Nintendo's director of advertising. "The key is entertainment quality. We have to continue to excite the market, and NWC is a way to do that."

Nintendo believes it has become a permanent facet of American home entertainment, along with the TV and VCR. The company predicts 30% household penetration by year's end. And its growing adult market now accounts for nearly one-third of its total market. Not least of all, Nintendo's sponsorship partners expect continued relationships with the NWC tour as an annual event.