Guitar (Hero) Marketing

aerosmithgh_lgMarketingProfsAnn Handley writes great stuff on her personal blog, Annarchy.  In a recent post, she talks about the transformational magic of Wii Tennis.

“Tennis is a ridiculously hard game, and there are a relative few who can, in the real world, reach pro status. Few of us can do much of anything well enough to attract real acclaim. But it’s a blast to try. And it’s even more fun to feel some pleasure of success from your efforts. To forget–even for a few foolish minutes–that you aren’t an uncoordinated undesirable left standing on the sidelines. That, instead, you are gifted. Talented. A winner on the court. The kind of person the captain picks first for the team.”

If you’ve played Wii Sports, you understand this and it got me thinking about why some experiences can trigger very passionate responses in people.  Videogame designers have has evolved the medium from relatively simple (albeit fun) arcade style formats to realistic 3D-like environments with genres that appeal to sports enthusiasts,  pilot wannabes and fantasy/role players.  The Wii’s interactive controller design takes that to a new level allowing the player to use physical movements to control the game.  This immersive experience puts the player on the court, field, fairway or in the case of the wildly successful Guitar Hero series, on the stage.

The question is whether or not these simulated experiences can motivate some players to try the real thing.

Beyond the numerous debates regarding the level of exercise a person gets playing Wii Sports, I haven’t seen any reports suggesting a game-inspired sporting goods sales surge, but Guitar Hero appears to be an altogether different tune.

Since its introduction on Playstation 2 in November 2005, Guitar Hero has spawned its own culture of fans and fanatics.  Just check out the number of Guitar Hero videos on YouTube.  The Guitar Hero series has been financially lucrative for Activision, the company behind the games. In April, 2008, Wired magazine reported that the franchise had sold 14 million units which equates to about  US$1 billion in sales.  Sensing an opportunity to tap into the passions of music enthusiasts following the initial launch of the game, music instrument retailer Guitar Center partnered with Activision to be the in-game virtual music store starting with Guitar Hero II.  It appears their instincts were right as the musical instrument retailing industry has seen record year over year competitive store increases since the game was first introduced.

Guitar Center recently conducted a survey which “confirmed that the majority of those who play the games are more interested in picking up real instruments, it also revealed that most musicians who play the games use their real instruments more frequently as a result.”

Guitar Center’s move encouraged others in the music business to get their products into the game (literally).  The latest versions of Guitar Hero are music marketing masterpieces with product placements by everything from bands to music publications and beyond.  On a basic level, there is embedded advertising for products from leading manufacturers like Gibson, Mackie and JBL.   These product and logo placements are both passive (a logo on the stage monitor) or active (play a Les Paul guitar).  Beyond the direct music tie-ins are lifestyle placements from brands like Axe and Pontiac, and music publications like Guitar Player and Kerrang.  From a content perspective, record labels have replaced the cover versions found on the original game with the real artist recordings.  Players are exposed to new and “new to you” music.  The more you play, the more new stuff you hear and you are more likely to listen to a song that you might otherwise turn off because you are interacting with it.  The results are impressive:

  • Sales of gear for first-timers at Guitar Center has surged.  In the holiday selling season in the last quarter of 2007, Guitar Center saw a +20.7% jump in comparable store sales for beginner-level electric guitar & amplifiers. This surge grew even stronger through the first nine months of 2008, when Guitar Center’s cumulative comparable store sales for the category increased +26.9%.”
  • Gibson said that it had seen sales on the rise, particularly those that are featured in the video games such as the iconic Les Paul guitar.
  • Digital downloads of older and more obscure music featured in the game have increase dramatically.

So at its core, what is it about Guitar Hero that allows it to not only be a great piece of entertainment but also an effective marketing vehicle and an inspiration for some to take up real guitars?

It’s all about appealing to a lifestyle.  Like the way Harley Davidson has figured out how to be a lifestyle company, Guitar Hero resonates with rock music Passionistas because it taps into that inner rockstar that so many have wanted to be at some point in their lives.  It works because it gives players a taste of an experience that they want in a way that lets them forget–even for a few foolish minutes–that they can be more than just a fan in the audience.  That, instead, you are gifted. Talented.  A rocker on the stage.  The kind of person who gets their face on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Do you have Passionistas as customers?  Are you helping them to tap into their inner rockstar?

17 thoughts on “Guitar (Hero) Marketing

  1. I was thinking about that the other day when attempting to play my nephew’s Guitar Hero. I had a feeling the game would lead to increased music instrument sales. Glad to know my perceptions were correct. I hope music stores don’t overlook Guitar Hero’s importance.

  2. Interesting, Doug. And I agree with Steve, “passionistas” is an awesome term!

    My kid (the Wii tennis pro) did mention the other day that he was thinking of picking up an ACTUAL racquet when the snow melts… and it’ll be interesting to see whether he does. Generally, though, my guess is that the sports doesn’t dovetail as easily into reality, perhaps because it’s not as easy to pick up at any stage of life?

  3. I disagree with your surmise Ann. I think these virtual world activities will translate into RL activities. Doug’s article is proof of that, and I include sports in that mix.

    However, what I expect would happen is that, once people realize how difficult ‘real’ tennis is, or how hard it is to really learn to play guitar (name your instrument), they’ll quickly put it down.

    In fact, I can give you a personal example. For years I wanted to learn to fly, just didn’t have the funds available. I started using Microsoft Flight and it so whet my appetite that I started taking flying lessons. My dream was realized and I’m now a certificated private pilot. But, it took a VR game to tip me.

    BTW, regarding tennis, I have two strokes: Over the fence and into the net. On that score, I’ll be definitely sticking with the Wii.

  4. Everyone, Thanks for the conversation on this.

    Paul, it’s a fascinating story and I agree totally with your second comment. Rich VR simulations can be the catalyst to get people to try the real thing. Not all will go on to become pilots or killer guitarists. Some (most?) will learn that it’s really not for them but that’s OK and they can still be passionate about it.

    Anne, I’m not sure if age is the only factor. While I love golf and would love to be able to play tennis, I didn’t grow up being constantly exposed to the games. On the other hand, Rock&Roll has been deeply embedded in American culture for 50 years now. I would bet that many more kids have aspired to be rockstars than have wanted to be tennis or golf pros, so there’s just a much larger population for Guitar Hero and Rock Band to resonate with.

    Regarding the term “Passionista”, I must credit my friend and innovation strategy consultant Amy Muller with originating the term when worked together at my former employer. I have long sense adopted it as my own.

  5. As a “real” guitar player myself, and someone who has never played Guitar Hero, I’ve had my skepticisms about the game and what it does for the instrument biz. This post is extremely enlightening, and encouraging. Of course, we’ll see how many folks are actually willing to suffer through the callouses and more than just 4 buttons for frets.

    What’s most exciting is the new interest in real, classic music.

  6. Hi Brett. Thanks for your comment. I’m a “real” guitar player too and like many, I don’t do so well with Guitar Hero. It’s a great vehicle for introducing kids to 60’s & 70’s rock. A report from a UK paper quoted a music teacher say the kidw were coming in ask to be shown how to play some classic stuff. He didn’t know why but then learned about the game.

  7. I tend to agree with Brett

    the art of learning the instrument cannot be compared to pressing 4 button.

    I guess as long as you are having fun so be it!

    Would be cool tough to see more real music in today’s world, maybe the kids will be more inclined to real instruments again.

    guitar instructions

  8. Hi

    As a keen online gamer I like the way you express your points. Although I dont think I’m gonna jump into the cockpit of a F1 11 any time soon

  9. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you ought to write more about this issue, it may not be a taboo matter but typically people do not discuss such subjects. To the next! Cheers!!

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