What Marketers Can Learn From Animal Crossing
There’s a reason why the game has attracted the likes of KFC, The Getty, and even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Brands leveraged the massive success of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons to conduct their own marketing campaigns through the platform. But the question remains: Who exactly is the Animal Crossing audience? What do they care about, and where are they headed next?
This past May, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered her first virtual commencement speech to a student graduating from Tulane University. She donned some of her own campaign merch, stood at the podium, and congratulated the graduate on getting his master’s in epidemiology.
This wasn’t the first virtual commencement speech to be delivered during the era of quarantine, but it certainly stood out. Why? The whole affair was conducted in the hit Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Released in the early days of shelter-in-place orders, the game has become a phenomenon thanks to its meditative gameplay, which encourages players to design and maintain personal islands while participating in leisurely activities — from fishing to building furniture to spending time at the local museum — according to their own whims.
The commencement speech was part of a string of visits Ocasio-Cortez made to in-game islands belonging to her fans. On May 7, in a tweet that reached over 80,000 likes, she announced her intent to open her DMs and solicit island codes from the public. After asking her followers for pointers on basic Animal Crossing etiquette, Ocasio-Cortez made her first visit to a supporter’s island.
“It was so sweet. [The] island belonged to a family of three,” she tweeted. “We exchanged fruit, took pictures, and I signed a bulletin note using my touch screen.” In lieu of going from door to door with campaign materials in hand, Ocasio-Cortez turned Animal Crossing into an effective means of making genuine, personal connections with her supporters while also creating viral PR moments.
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the only one to identify potential in the platform. Over the past few months, the game has hosted a handful of successful campaigns and events from a wide range of non-endemic brands, from the NFL to Sunkist to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
So why Animal Crossing? For starters, there’s no question the game supports an enormous audience. Within just six weeks of the game’s release in late March, Nintendo had sold upwards of 13.4 million copies worldwide, while sales of Nintendo Switch units this past March more than doubled the amount sold in March of 2019.
The game’s release was a global phenomenon. In an interview with The New York Times, Rishi Chadha— Twitter’s global head of gaming partnerships—said that Animal Crossing: New Horizons had become “the No. 1 most-talked about game in the world” within a month of its release. Additionally, The New York Times reported that people had tweeted about the game 38 million times.
But still, what makes Animal Crossing: New Horizons so appealing to brands, and why is it so well- positioned to host certain types of campaigns?
Animal Crossing is uniquely personal
One reason is that playing Animal Crossing with others is necessarily intimate. Unlike the large-scale social experiences of games like Fortnite or Minecraft, Animal Crossing: New Horizons can only accommodate eight players in a single online session.
As a result, an island visit is very much like visiting a person’s home; it’s a conducive space for gift-giving, showing off your designs, and spending personal time together. This helps put Ocasio-Cortez’s island visits into context: What better way to forge an earnest connection with a supporter than by taking the time to drop by their own personal island?
Ad agency Ogilvy also leveraged Animal Crossing’s intimate nature to craft a promotional event for KFC Philippines wherein they set up an in-game KFC restaurant, complete with a dining area, kitchen, and islets shaped like the letters “KFC.” The detail that drove the promotion home, however, was the presence of a Colonel Sanders avatar who supplied visitors with coupons for real-life food. The gesture served as an injection of humanity, a subtle reminder that there was a living person operating the event beyond the screen.
Additionally, Animal Crossing’s objectives are all related to creative self-expression and self-fulfillment. While character skins might be purely cosmetic in the context of, say, a competitive first-person shooter like Valorant or Apex Legends, expressing oneself through fashion and design is an integral part of Animal Crossing’s reward system.
This presents a unique opportunity to apparel brands looking to make their mark in the game. For example, fashion houses Marc Jacobs and Valentino reproduced digital versions of their luxury clothing lines in collaboration with an Instagram account called Animal Crossing Fashion Archive.
Animal Crossing also allows players the chance to flaunt their taste through interior design. To aid players in decorating their walls, The Getty offered pixelated versions of their entire open-access catalogue of artwork for Animal Crossing players to hang on their walls. From fashion to art, each of these campaigns validates the player’s impulse to treat their island as an extension of their personal aesthetic.
These attributes draw a specific section of the gaming audience whose interests might differ greatly from those who prefer competitive, challenge-driven games. This is an audience that’s more likely to treat gaming as self-care, to enthusiastically generate their own content, and to seek social connections in the form of cooperation and reciprocal giving rather than competition.
What’s the next Animal Crossing?
This raises the question: What else sparks this audience’s interest, and where might they migrate next?
Check out Ooblets, a recently released creature-collecting and farming simulation game that Wired has already cited as an alternative to Animal Crossing. Also keep an eye on Temtem, a Pokemon-like MMORPG that sold 500,000 copies in its first month of early access and is set to release on consoles in 2021. For more insight into this “wholesome” genre of games, this “Wholesome Games Direct” covers a lot of ground.