Feature

Animal Crossing is emerging as a media channel for brands in lockdown

Like Houseparty, Zoom and Instagramming sourdough, Nintendo’s video game Animal Crossing has become a digital icon of the coronavirus era. But as millions of players continue to descend on the fantasy platform, brands have started to find a way in too. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Just three days after its debut, Animal Crossing: New Horizons catapulted past titles such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Fifa 20 to claim the top spot on the official UK games chart. The sequel to Wild World, City Folk and New Leaf, New Horizons sold more physical copies in its first week than the launch sales of all its sister titles combined, becoming the biggest single game launch on Nintendo Switch ever.

On its home turf of Japan, meanwhile, Nintendo sold 1.88m copies of New Horizons in three days.

So why the rush to play? The answer is a fortuitous collision of a game that is relaxing, rewarding and satisfyingly slow with a new worldwide population that is stressed, bored and idle.

“The game honestly couldn’t have come out at a better time for Nintendo,” says James Whatley, strategy partner at Digitas UK. “It’s the most horrendous way to frame it, but it’s true."

The aim of New Horizons is to turn a barren desert island into a colorful paradise through buying and trading objects and anthropomorphic animals. The objective is open-ended, and time moves at a real-life speed. Crucially, if a player connects the Switch game to the internet, they can visit their IRL friends and chat to them in the cartoon island setting. Gamers’ avatars can be personalized with differing skin tones, hairstyles and clothing.

It is the latter that’s providing a gateway for brands to enter the Animal Crossing world.

Veteran Animal Crossing players have been using the in-game pixel art design tool to create their own virtual clothes for years. Some, such as Nook Street Market and Animal Crossing Fashion Archive, have invented what can only be described as a pixelated knockoff market, reproducing real pieces from the likes of Chanel, Gucci and Supreme, and sharing them with the Islander community via online codes.

But since the popularity of New Horizons catapulted Animal Crossing into the zeitgeist, a number of companies have produced their own ’official’ lines of clothing. These include Highsnobiety, which has recreated three of its collections in Nintendo form, and lifestyle brand 100 Thieves, which has brought its entire apparel line to the game.

“We have a lot of staff who play Animal Crossing and some had recreated 100 Thieves apparel by themselves,” explains the brand’s senior marketing manager, Julia Wu. “That’s where the idea originated from. It was the prime opportunity to bridge gaming, fashion and lifestyle, and we wanted to share the experience with everyone. We’ve even thought about re-creating a pop-up experience in-game.

Wu says 100 Thieves’ designers did “a phenomenal job”, especially on the pieces that needed to be tailored to accommodate what was possible in-game. “Immediately after release we saw a lot of fans across all platforms share screenshots of their characters in-game, saying that they loved the designs."

The relative ease with which users can design clothes in-game means it’s not only fashion brands that can use clothes as a way in which to organically join the Animal Crossing community. Twitter, for instance, is hawking an endearingly basic line of graphic T-shirts while Nintendo’s friendly rival Xbox has released a branded shirt and hoodie.

Getty has gone one step further and developed an Animal Crossing Art Generator for Islanders. Users can pick an artwork from Getty Museum’s open-access collection, download it via a QR code and mount it on the walls of their island dwelling for an added dash of highbrow decor.

“Animal Crossing is a great place for brands to be because it’s where people are finding the time to escape reality during these tough times,” says Moshe Isaacian, a social strategist at Laundry Service. “It’s a space where people are trying to live out their ideal lives and create a space that’s just their own. If a brand can organically contribute to people’s peaceful simulations, whether that’s with clothes or doing something silly on their own, then they have the most to gain.”

Set in a clean, friendly and irrefutably PG island archipelago, Animal Crossing is also as close to an 100% brand safe environment as advertisers can get. Not even swearing is allowed. It is, according to R/GA New York head of strategy Rachel Mercer, “a very wholesome corner of the internet” where the only real risk to brands is accidentally messing up and being trolled by the gaming community.

“For years and years gamers have been told that they’re just nerdy kids who are weird for sitting in the same room all day, so they’re always going to be cynical when a brand tries to insert themselves,” warns Adam Libonatti-Roche, the senior social media strategist at Progress Wrestling who previously worked in social for UK video game retailer Game. “If you’re trying too hard, then it looks obvious.”

Matt Michaluk of design consultancy Fitch warns against brands exploiting gamers in a time of "untold financial pressure" by charging for outfits codes, for instance. “Right now, brands have an important role in supporting culture and communities, and their generosity will be rewarded post-pandemic when players are more able to spend," adds the creative director.

Animal Crossing is currently free for brands to join in, which is in contrast to other connected games. Epic’s Fortnite, for example, has actively pursued advertisers for in-game special events, while Electronic Arts’ The Sims inked a groundbreaking deal with Moschino in 2019.

It is unclear why brands’ scramble to get involved in Animal Crossing hasn’t been monetized in a similar way (Nintendo declined to comment on this story), but a number of commenters note that such a commercial strategy would be antithetical to the way the Japanese company works.

"It has a history with what we call first party exclusives,” explains Whatley "Games will never appear on anything other than a Nintendo machine. And as all its effort goes into making these games, it wants to make them as pure and as wholesome as possible. So it’s very, very rare to have any kind of brand partnership turn up within them.”

This could change. Mercer notes the gaming company could be opening up, pointing to its recent announcement of Super Nintendo World theme park in Japan and a partnership with the not-for-profit Digital Schoolhouse. In the meantime, however, she sees plenty of other organic opportunities for brands outside of designing clothes.

“You tend to see people turning their island into a resource for others. So, if I’m a bank, could I just concentrate on mining bells [the game’s currency] and inviting others to pick them up? Or if I’m a wedding brand, could I create the ultimate wedding destination by terraforming my island into a romantic beach?”

Laundry Service’s Isaacian imagines quick service restaurants – or “anyone with a mascot” – creating characters that could appear in the game, as well as opportunities for brands in the perishable goods world (vegetables play a big part of Animal Crossing islander life). Meanwhile, Michaluk sees an open goal for the travel industry.

“We are all restricted from physically traveling, so players are fulfilling their unmet needs through Animal Crossing,” he explains. “You can buy ’Nook Miles’ to visit islands where tourism and hospitality play a big part in the game experience: I would encourage any brand within the travel industry to have fun and explore what their role could be there.”

Further in the future, in a time when real-life socializing begins again and video gaming revert to a treat rather than a distraction, brands will likely drop out of the Animal Crossing arena. Traditional marketing will once again become more appealing as consumers’ eyeballs disperse, while new games will appear as shinier objects to play with.

But some marketers are confident that the hype of Animal Crossing will at least be received as something of a lesson for advertisers, teaching them it is possible to deeply engage with a wide and passionate audience – all for the price of a console and a game.

“Right now, brands are doing this for awareness,” says Libonatti-Roche. “But there is great potential afterwards to grow in an area that they would not have had a chance to if coronavirus lockdown hadn’t occurred. They’ll figure out that they have an audience here, and that they can establish their brand in the streaming and video games sector with their own unique style.

"And at the same time, the videogames industry can show it is more than just those nerdy kids who sit in the same room all day.”

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