Where Xbox Lives

Some brands go after celebrity endorsements. But how many actually offer consumers the chance to use the product side by side with famous musicians, actors, and athletes? The unique online community formed by Xbox Live, in which gamers compete and chat via broadband, gave the folks at Microsoft the idea: What better way to get buzz going for the service, and for the Xbox in general, than to give players a chance to go up against members of their favorite bands or teams? Enter "Game With Fame."

"The idea for the program started about two years ago with 'Play the Band,'" says Dan Cawdry, Microsoft's Xbox Live product manager. "It was a way to enhance our programming for the Xbox Live service and bring the entire community together in one place."

"Play the Band" provided online gamers with the chance to square off in their favorite games against the likes of Ludacris, the rapper, and band members from Jimmy Eat World, Hoobastank, and Incubus. "Game With Fame" expands the concept to include Hollywood actors and sports celebs.

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Bret Werner at Alan Taylor Communications in New York, which has helped Microsoft promote and implement "Game With Fame," says the campaign has grown in popularity as celebrities and their agents have come to understand its benefits.

"They found the program is a natural marketing vehicle for celebrities," Werner says. "If I'm Ludacris, for example, what a great medium to promote a new album. These are gamers, and they can click and buy the album, download songs."

Although Microsoft has done some print, online, and TV advertising to promote "Game With Fame," Werner says most of the marketing has been via public relations and word of mouth. Between May and July of this year, publicity from "Game With Fame" generated more than 37 million impressions through pr.

"Rolling Stone, USA Weekend, ESPN News--we're hitting all genres of press," Werner says. "And more than 80 percent of those impressions communicated key program features of 'Game With Fame.'"

The crossover appeal of "Game With Fame" also means Xbox Live receives impressions in places it wouldn't typically appear--for example, if a rapper is participating and the game gets some mention on hiphop.com. Cawdry says Microsoft has also done some advertising at retail stores, where customers can come in to play "Game With Fame" and possibly make a purchase as well.

"We'll go in with introductions to the program about playing an Xbox celebrity on a certain day," Cawdry says, using the example of a musician who has a new album. "Then we help with the cross-promotion, so maybe it's a retail outlet like Best Buy, where they're also selling the CD. They pick up a copy of 'Madden' [the John Madden series of football software titles] after playing the game, and also a copy of the band's album."

Gunning for a Hit Xbox Live isn't the only card in Microsoft's gaming deck that's generating buzz. Before the launch of Xbox 360 last month, San Francisco-based AKQA launched a viral campaign to promote a new game, "Perfect Dark: Zero." In an example of software driving hardware sales, it's the sophisticated new titles that help keep the Xbox brand fresh, explains Rikki Khanna, account director at AKQA.

"It's a combination of building a brand and then proving why you want that brand," says Khanna, who says that "Perfect Dark: Zero" is just one of three new games that will roll out with the Xbox 360. The right kind of cross-platform marketing, says Khanna, can create "aspirational lust toward a brand, which needs to be reinforced with reasons why you believe in that brand. The games are a key component of that. To buy this game, you need to own that console," he adds.

To promote "Perfect Dark: Zero," a game about a sexy assassin named Joanna Dark, AKQA has created a Web site (www.perfectdarkzero.com) that invites visitors to put out a "hit" on a friend. After sending a sinister e-mail and/or cell phone message to the target, Joanna reports back to the sender of the friend's "demise." Both players are then duly directed back to the site, which offers previews of the game that are "Flash-heavy and content-light," Khanna says.

The trick in creating authentic viral buzz, Khanna explains, is providing an entertainment experience that consumers can enjoy on their own terms--enough to willingly join in spreading the word. "We need to think in terms of entertainment-based value exchanges," Khanna says, adding: "The cool factor needs to rub off on me."

Cool doesn't begin to describe last summer's watershed release of the game "Halo 2," which was specifically tailored to the Xbox Live. Sales of the game raked in $125 million on its first day in stores, more than any Hollywood blockbuster has ever made in a day. "That was a real wake-up call for the movie industry," Khanna says. The "Halo 2" launch was also a good model for viral marketing. "What we found with the campaign for 'Halo 2,' " Khanna says, "is that the biggest brand advocates were the ones who first discovered it online, and were willing to passionately go out and spread [the word]."

Of course, the Xbox has several built-in advantages, specifically when it comes to new media platforms. It is, after all, an interactive gaming product with a robust online capability, and it offers exciting and vivid imagery. The product is aimed at--or more accurately, sought by--a youth demographic that's increasingly comfortable with the wireless and online platforms used by marketers in viral campaigns. Still, whether enticing celebrities to play along with fans or dispatching cell phone assassins, Xbox's cross-media marketing initiative offers an instructive and enviable case study in multiplatform consumer engagement.

Additional reporting by Rob Kendt.

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