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Do you remember when Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) hit the market last March? The mass obsession that broke out over it can only be rivaled by that of COVID-19. Why the gruesome comparison? Well, the latter, along with its four horsemen of lockdown, anxiety, social distancing, and toilet paper wars, created the perfect conditions for the ultimate fantasy game to grab us by the hearts.
Let me just give you an idea of how much of a boom it was. As of April 2021, Nintendo Switch has sold nearly 80 million units worldwide. As for ACNH, it surpassed 31 million units sold at the end of December 2020. That’s less than 10 months after the game was released in March of the same year.
It’s not only that. Video-based social platforms have also benefited from Nintendo’s game. Did you know that on TikTok, #animalcrossing has 3.2 billion views and growing?
The developers built an idyllic world where the whole premise is going about your daily chores. As simple as that sounds, it reopened the gates to normality and allowed gamers to spend time outside, interact with friends without social distancing, and even travel with Dodo Airlines to discover new destinations. Doing simple things, like going to the gym, shopping, and dining out, was something we all missed the most. Animal Crossing lets us experience that, even though it was only through a six-inch screen.
Looking back, the timing of the release of the game to coincide with the first lockdowns seems almost too perfect. Coincidence? Yes, most definitely. Since we’re not inventing the hundredth conspiracy theory of 2020 here, let’s be serious and think about what made Animal Crossing the enormous success it is.
What brands can learn from Animal Crossing
Timing can be your best friend when it comes to launching a business, a brand, or a new product. Many businesses, like Nintendo, were “lucky” enough to benefit from people sitting at home during the tragic pandemic. However, this doesn’t mean you should await another society-crushing global event to launch something with a bang.
Animal Crossing’s entire roadmap for development and update cycle were based on holidays and seasonal events. While our usual calendar anchor points blended into the bleak monotony of 2020, ACNH kept delivering on Earth Day, wedding season, Easter, and much more.
The key here is not to simply acknowledge seasons and events but to understand their significance and relationship with your brand and the experience you’re offering. ACNH executed that flawlessly and, because of that, was able to build on the “luck” of a lockdown launch with a series of perfectly-timed and relevant pieces of content. These integrated seamlessly with the game mechanics and added to the experience.
Listen to your customers
As obvious as the above statement may seem, businesses and their products are not one-time things. They have their own life cycles, and you will always be somewhere on the spectrum between a “shiny new object” and a “fossil” that’s worth excavating. If it’s shiny enough, the former may easily cloud your judgement and prevent you from taking the necessary steps to keep it alive and well. Animal Crossing, once again, demonstrates how to do it right.
After the customers had played the game for a while, they started to want more. They looked at the beautiful blue ocean surrounding every island and said, “Hey! I want to go for a swim!” So what did Nintendo do? They put together another update, and it did more than just fulfill customers’ wants and needs. It also over delivered by implementing a range of activities, like snorkeling, diving, and synchronized swimming, along with new characters, items, and more.
[Announcement]— Isabelle (@animalcrossing) June 25, 2020
Cool off this summer by diving into the #AnimalCrossing: New Horizons free Summer Update – Wave 1, arriving 7/3! Put on your wet suit to dive & swim in the ocean, and even meet new characters! Stay tuned for info on Wave 2, planned for release in early August. pic.twitter.com/cYd86R7g6D
Listening to what your customers want is what allows a “shiny new object” to stay relevant. Giving them what they want is somehow expected, but delivering something beyond their expectations is how the life of a product may be prolonged almost indefinitely.
Designing for UX and consistency
It’s already a cliche to say “we don’t sell products, we sell experiences.” Yet, even though capitalism doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon, that doesn’t make it any less true. Certainly, games are the best examples of building user experience (UX) and interactivity. Once again, ACNH serves as an excellent example of how to do it right. If you know what your brand and products are about, the key is to be able to consistently deliver the message throughout the experience.
As soon as the customer starts playing the game, they’ll feel less stress simply due to the lighting and pleasant background music. They’ll notice how slow time moves. The game's mechanics will allow them to enter a state of absolute positivity with not a whiff of danger. Loans can be repaid whenever they want, there are no enemies, and even when an encounter with the horrifying tarantulas goes wrong, it will only make them fall for a second. Right away, they can get up and keep exploring. The dialogue is light and cheerful, offering positive reinforcement for nearly everything. Their character picks up a rock and their fellow islanders applaud. Friendships with the villagers are easy to achieve, and the villagers are always happy to hear from them and might even offer them a gift.
In ACNH, the experience design is based on zen. The game lets the customer, as a character, find their inner peace and allows their mind to doze off through the most basic chores. Excitement is defined by a new piece of furniture, a rare fish, or a butterfly. These items can be taken to the island museum. At the museum, they can spend hours just looking at the beautiful displays and even learn real-world facts at the same time.
Apart from the perfectly consistent tone, this type of UX design, and the emotional stability it brought, was exactly what people needed in a time of such uncertainty. ACNH’s UX design provided the ideal escape. It offered a representation of real life except all negativity and uncertainty were removed.
How Animal Crossing became a PG paradise for brands
With that same lighthearted tone, purchasing and customizing extravagant items in the game was just a matter of walking to the store. People were going all out with personalization and customization. Hundreds of thousands of custom designs could be found all around the web.
That is when big brands, like Gucci, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs and Valentino, to name just a few, entered the game with official merch. Their physical stores and runway shows might have closed down due to the pandemic. However, that didn’t mean they couldn’t show off their new collections in a more unique way than just on their website or social media. The game quickly became a platform for those companies to raise their brand awareness. Not only did customers get excited about the new items, but it was also an ideal way to increase brand engagement in a setting where distractions are extremely limited and attention spans “zen-ed” out.
Discover all the #AnimalCrossing #あつまれどうぶつの森 #どうぶつの森 Valentino looks created by photographer #KaraChung of #AnimalCrossingFashionArchive.— Valentino (@MaisonValentino) May 2, 2020
Below a look from the #ValentinoSpringSummer20 Men’s collection and the codes. pic.twitter.com/QwKzLyFqdm
When these brands entered the game, everything skyrocketed. The game became known to individuals who would never think of picking up a console but were interested in the brands themselves. As with everything else in the hyper-perfect world of ACNH, luxury brands made themselves available without the harsh reality of needing money. Those who normally wouldn’t be able to purchase luxury items in real life, suddenly had the possibility of owning a fully-stocked wardrobe of Gucci dresses.
Leisure brands, like Singapore’s Sentosa Island, also came into play quickly. They realized the opportunity that was available for tourism marketing in ACNH and created an exact clone of the resort. Since Singapore’s Sentosa Island is full of attractions and is known as one of the ultimate holiday destinations, they quickly saw the link between the virtual island and their own brand.
As live streaming of ACNH exploded, celebrities were showing off their islands, and big brands jump-started a continuous social media presence. Remember the 3.2 billion hashtag count I mentioned on TikTok?
Now, would Nintendo’s ACNH be as phenomenal as it was without their coincidental luck of a worldwide pandemic? Most likely, not as much. The lockdown, combined with the mechanics of the game, created the perfect environment for the game to boom and bloom. Fashion brands, beauty brands, leisure brands, and celebrities as personal brands most likely wouldn’t have collaborated with ACNH with such intensity if other forms of engaging marketing activities had been freely available.
There are certainly countless other reasons behind the game’s huge success. That being said, what really can’t be stressed enough is that Nintendo did a fantastic job of understanding the rapidly developing environment of their product. They reacted swiftly and in a way that kept surpassing expectations and constantly generated exponential value.
Without a shadow of a doubt, ACNH is an extreme example of everything ranging from design to brand consistency to UX design and marketing. Hopefully, observing this radical example full of various lessons will be only a precedent and an inspiration for many other brands’ successes.