Four years ago, former CEO of Nintendo and gaming icon Satoru Iwata passed away.
He left behind a storied legacy, from helping to bring gaming to the mainstream through the huge success of the Wii, to supporting the creation of legendary franchises like Super Smash Bros., Kirby, and Pokemon.
What is often glossed over, however, is one of Iwata’s more under-the-radar projects. This project only saw limited success during Iwata’s lifetime, although it could be argued that the ideas behind it were central to his philosophy while he ran Nintendo.
Iwata wanted to make Nintendo into a lifestyle brand. And although he didn’t live long enough to see it, he ultimately succeeded.
Creating something that helped
Even if you’re not familiar with the phrase “lifestyle brand,” you’re likely familiar with the concept. Though the definition can be a little bit fuzzy today, lifestyle brands have existed for hundreds of years, ever since Thomas James Barratt, the “Father of Modern Advertising”, pioneered the idea in campaigns for Pears’ Soap.
The general idea is that a lifestyle brand should somehow feel human, as if it has values and goals of its own, beyond just advertising and selling its own products. This is why Red Bull sponsors so many soccer, racing, and extreme sports teams, and why beer brands sponsor so many concerts; they want you to associate their products and the brand itself with those positive, real-world experiences.
The key here is that those experiences don’t necessarily have anything to do with the stuff the company sells. In this way, a brand can integrate itself into your daily life even when you’re not actively consuming its products. At the same time, the brand builds an identity that is attractive to a market they’re targeting, be it sports fans, gamers, musicians, or even jaded former tumblr-users. The brands want to be your friend, and they want you to know that the kind of life you want to lead is the kind of life they can provide, even if the product is something as simple as a drink or, maybe, a video game.
And Nintendo executives had built the beginnings of a lifestyle brand even before Satoru Iwata took his place at the head of the company in 2002. It was, after all, the House That Mario Built, the company that saved gaming after the video games crash of 1983. People knew Nintendo well after the launch of the original NES, and associated it with the growing trend of gaming culture. There were years when the brand name was synonymous with gaming as a whole; everyone “played Nintendo.” And they were certainly “playing with power.” The media ran stories about how even finding a system to buy could be a challenge.
When Iwata took over, however, he launched a “blue ocean” initiative that allowed Nintendo to take the next step. The strategy was meant to “create a market where there initially was none” by reaching out to new audiences that hadn’t been interested in gaming in the past. Why fight with Nintendo’s competitors over the players everyone knew were buying games, when Nintendo could try to sell a video game console to literally everyone, no matter their age or gender? Nintendo has spent years trying to move to where the fight isn’t in order to find a greater version of sales success.
Who gets to be a gamer? Everyone
Through focusing on accessibility and non-traditional control methods with the wildly successful Nintendo DS and Wii consoles, Iwata was able to introduce the Nintendo family of products to markets that weren’t traditionally associated with gaming. The Wii was another console that kept selling out as soon as stores were supplied, and families that opened one up on Christmas were surprised to find that everyone wanted to a turn.
Wii Sports was a gigantic hit with senior citizens, and non-traditional games like Brain Age and Nintendogs helped make the Nintendo DS the second-best selling video game console of all time. At the time it gave Nintendo the stereotype of making ‘kiddie games,’ but Iwata’s blue ocean strategy was incredibly successful in reaching out to markets that no other gaming company seemed to care about, while simultaneously giving Nintendo a more friendly, joyful identity. It wasn’t about trying to appeal to one new group, it was about trying to appeal to everyone.
Fast forward from the Wii’s incredible success to 2014. The Wii U was a flop, and shareholders were demanding a plan for the future from Iwata. Now that Nintendo had a more established brand identity and market reach, it was Iwata’s job to keep Nintendo from regressing back to the days of selling games to a niche audience. Having gone mainstream, the challenge was now to find a way to stay there.
In a 2014 shareholders meeting, Iwata announced a new initiative for Nintendo, a nebulous “quality of life” project that was meant to extend Nintendo’s reach into the daily lives of its customers. This was something that didn’t seem possible by focusing just on games. Iwata had a plan, so let’s quote him at length:
What Nintendo will try to achieve in the next 10 years is a platform business that improves people’s [quality of life] in enjoyable ways. ... While we will continue to devote our energy to dedicated video game platforms, what I see as our first step into a new business area in our endeavor to improve QOL is the theme of “health.” Of course, defining a new entertainment business that seeks to improve QOL creates various possibilities for the future such as “learning” and “lifestyle,” but it is our intention to take “health” as our first step.
The project was poised to build on the massive success of the Wii Fit franchise (Nintendo had sold 43.8 million copies worldwide across Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus), and begin in earnest with Wii Fit U’s launch. Iwata also alluded to peripheral technology in his speech, causing speculation over whether or not Nintendo was attempting to create biometric and health-tracking peripherals in the vein of the Wii U Fit Meter, or the now-shelved Wii Vitality Sensor.
Iwata specifically noted that his “belief that the raison d’etre of entertainment is to put smiles on people’s faces around the world through products and services” was a driving force behind this project. He literally wanted Nintendo to be a company that made people happier and healthier as it sold them games, hardware, and peripherals.
In July 2016, almost exactly one year after Iwata’s death, the Pokemon Company launched Pokemon GO, a game Iwata discussed with Tsunekazu Ishihara, the president of the Pokemon Company, during the last few months of Iwata’s life. The launch of Pokemon GO was part of Nintendo’s renewed commitment to becoming a lifestyle brand that wasn’t always focused on its own hardware, while creeping into the daily lives of fans who may not consider themselves traditional gamers. If you had your phone on you and had someplace to go, you could be playing. Which meant many fans could be playing nearly all the time.
In particular, Pokemon GO was a gigantic hit with senior citizens, just like Wii Sports was. There are plenty of stories of the intergenerational appeal of Pokemon GO, and there have been studies that prove its real, positive effects on the health of seniors who play the game.
More recently, the Pokemon Company announced Pokemon Sleep this past May, a health app designed to gamify getting a good night’s sleep with the help of, you guessed it, a sleep-tracking peripheral.
Iwanta wanted the Nintendo brand to be ubiquitous in daily life, even outside of the gaming sphere. “Yet again, it is our intention to go into a new blue ocean.” Iwata said in the 2014 briefing. It’s a strategy that is still paying off for Nintendo.
It seems clear that Iwata always wanted Nintendo to be the first video games company to truly become a lifestyle brand, a brand that was about reaching people where they were, not trying to get people to come to Nintendo. And he would likely have been delighted by what’s going on right now.
The Nintendo Switch allows players to play video games seamlessly both outside in the fresh air, as well as indoors. It’s not a coincidence that all the commercials showed attractive twenty-somethings playing games at trendy rooftop parties. Nintendo became the company that is always ready for a quick game whenever you’re with friends, and the ads sold an image of young, carefree folks having a good time together.
Pokemon GO gets people out of the house, making friends and exploring their towns in ways they haven’t before. Pokemon Sleep looks poised to become a legit self-care app. There is a movie on the way, as well as theme parks.
Nintendo, as a company, always seems to be aware of the power of fun, and Iwata showed just how profitable that approach could be.
In this way, Iwata’s legacy at Nintendo runs deeper than game development and general corporate philosophy. His optimism, his love for games, and above all, his core conviction that Nintendo should be a force for good in the world — while still bringing in strong profits — is central to everything Nintendo is doing now to establish itself as a part of its customers’ day-to-day activities.
Nintendo wants to be a company that helps make people happy from the moment they wake up in the morning, to when they get dressed in Nintendo-branded clothing, to when they walk to work, to their post-work movie, to their short pre-bedtime gaming session which can now either happen in bed or in the living room, to the moment they fall asleep. And maybe it can help make sure that sleep is productive, too.
What might have seemed dystopian from another company seems benevolent coming from Nintendo. That’s the power of associating your brand with emotions and real-world actions as much as specific products, and it’s something that Iwata understood clearly. If you try to bring pleasure and improvement to a customer’s life, and it makes them feel better, they’ll be loyal to your brand for much longer than someone who just enjoys playing video games.
Iwata, unfortunately, never lived to see the massive success of the Nintendo Switch. He isn’t here to see the way folks bring the system wherever they go, playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe against others on the subway and bringing a spark of joy to an otherwise mundane commute. He wasn’t here to see the release of Pokemon GO, where millions upon millions of people worldwide, across backgrounds and generations, rushed out of their homes into the hot July air to hunt for Pokemon.
But he was here for the Wii. He was here for the Wii Balance Board and Wii Fit. He was here for the Nintendo DS and its offbeat series of Personal Trainer games that ranged in topics from cooking to math. Iwata laid the foundation that allowed Nintendo to extend past gaming and merchandise, and become, in earnest, a central part of people’s daily lives.
In this way, Iwata has kept his promise from 2014. Though he’s not around to see it, his dream to transform Nintendo from a company that makes games into one that intertwines with its customers’ daily lives, making them happier, and, hopefully, healthier, has finally come true.