How Clear Marketing Helped the Nintendo Switch Avoid a Game Over

Nintendo: As far as industry-defining brands go, they’ve easily earned their place among instantly recognizable names like Kleenex and Xerox. The company, founded in 1889 as a playing card manufacturer, has delivered some of the most iconic gaming franchises of all time. Even with its undeniable successes, such as the GameBoy and Wii, Nintendo hasn’t escaped without a fair share of failures that have provided a few important lessons in branding and marketing.

Nintendo Mario

As it stands today, Nintendo is attempting to re-stack its deck after the Wii U (its latest console) was widely regarded as a commercial flop. What can the brand do to come back in a big way? Well, like any business worth its salt–with clear, effective marketing for its upcoming video game console, the Nintendo Switch.

Let’s briefly trace Nintendo’s rise and fall, which led the prestigious company to employ a key marketing tactic from which any brand can benefit.

Picking Up Coins

If you remember, the Nintendo Wii was an utter phenomenon when it was released back in 2006. Featuring innovative-yet-simple motion controls and a slew of family-friendly games (who doesn’t love bowling in Wii Sports?), the Wii quickly rose to become the third-highest-sold console in the history of home consoles.

Nintendo Wii

Years later, Nintendo hit the drawing boards again and what emerged was a console that, though competent, was a financial disappointment for Nintendo. That console was the Wii U, and if we take a good look at its middling branding, the issues become obvious.

A Branding Blue Shell

As of late last year, the Wii U has shipped less than 14 million units. To contrast, the original Wii shipped 101.63 million by the end of its lifecycle. How did this system go from frontrunner to last place in just one console cycle? Well, it has a lot to do with the system’s introduction.

Looking at the Wii U objectively, it was a marked improvement in nearly every way from the original Wii. 1080p HD resolution, added horsepower for graphical output and a few other nerdy tidbits that you probably don’t care about. However, it failed to do one thing: succinctly explain its key benefits to the general public.

Though the most hardcore of gaming enthusiasts soon drilled down and “got” what the Wii U was all about, those parents, kids and virtual bowling meemaws that the original Wii attracted were left scratching their heads and muttering a collective, “Huh?”

The story of the Wii U became a muddled mess, which was partially responsible for bungling its chance to catch lightning in the bottle for a second time. Even the name, Wii U, makes it sound more like an extension to the Wii than a wholly new console. Yikes.

Extra Life

As the Wii U continued to limp through its lifecycle with weak console sales numbers, rumors began to circulate that Nintendo was developing something truly unique for its next generation of console–something that would bridge the gap between home console gaming and handheld gaming.

In October of 2016, the Nintendo Switch was announced and promised to do just that.

By sharing the singular message that this console is not only an at-home system, but a portable handheld device a la the Nintendo 3DS (or GameBoy of past), it conveys one point well as opposed to multiple points poorly.

Storytelling and messaging are hugely important for shaping the first impressions of a product and as methods of crafting the public perception for an overall brand. As our very own founder, Matt Certo, recently asserted in Formulaic, “…in order to connect, build goodwill, and foster memorability, (brands) should figure out what (their stories) are and tell them.” The Wii U’s storytelling was unfocused at best, showing the device as a karaoke machine, Amazon Prime streaming device, party game console and more–and that’s on top of trying to explain the system’s new quirks and functionality. Instead of wowing us with the console’s versatility, we were left with more questions than answers–a marketing mortal sin.

To contrast, the Nintendo Switch’s initial storytelling sets the scene with simplicity. It is positioned as a home console that you can take with you to the airport, dog park, basketball court (OK, that one’s a little dumb), or super-trendy rooftop party with all of your super-trendy friends. This focus is much more effective than attempting to throw everything and the kitchen sink into one message, as its predecessor did.

To put it simply, good product (and brand) storytelling requires pointed focus and adherence to a main idea at all times. In TV and film, it is a common practice to examine each line of a script’s dialogue to determine if it directly moves the plot forward; if not, it is deleted. The same should go for your brand’s marketing strategy. If your messaging gets bogged down in superfluous ideas and information outside of the scope of your current campaign, put it aside for next time and focus on the challenge and solution at hand.

In Focus

There’s more to the Wii U’s commercial failure than poor storytelling, of course. Besides the marketing, the fact that the Wii U was a continuation of the Wii brand did the console no favors. This, combined with other limitations left the console stranded with neither the families who were attracted to the simplicity of the Wii nor the hardcore gamers looking for the strongest graphical powerhouse on the market. Essentially, the Wii U lost its audience before it even came out. Much like losing the forest for the trees in storytelling, successful marketing in any industry is only possible if one truly understands its audience. Without this understanding, even the most clever of messages will essentially be delivered to an auditorium of empty seats.

Fortunately, the Nintendo Switch has (at least so far) seemed to learn from its marketing and communication mistakes, and enjoyed some well-earned enthusiasm that was never there for the Wii U.


It’s far too early to tell if the Nintendo Switch will be a success, but its first ad shows major promise for the nearly 130-year-old company. The console hits shelves on Friday, so we’ll soon see if it lands with a splash or more collective indifference. All signs point to the former, however.

Even if you’re not head of marketing for a video game behemoth, clarity is key for any company’s advertising strategy. Whether crafting an email newsletter or strategizing for a new social media campaign, ensure that your messaging is both clearly defined and executed without straying too far from the point. As they say in journalism school, never bury the lead.

And remember, it’s all fun and games until unfocused marketing causes your company to face a “game over” screen.