'Halo' Reaches Out With Biggest Campaign Yet

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Three-hundred-million dollars in first-week sales, two Cannes Grand Prix and "advertising" that took the form of a traveling museum exhibit. That's what Microsoft's Xbox got for its last marketing blowout for the Halo video-game franchise. With the latest installment out in September, how in the extraterrestrial world is it going to beat that?

After teaser shots, the marketing for Halo: Reach, the fourth release in the franchise, will ramp up this week. It will be the biggest game campaign from Microsoft in the marketer's history, said Michael Stout, global product manager for Xbox. There will also be a robot.

Xbox is launching a website today through which users can manipulate a real-life robot in an undisclosed San Francisco warehouse to build a monument out of lasers for this game's protagonist Noble Team.

Independent digital agency AKQA handled the interactive component, while Interpublic Group of Cos.' AgencyTwoFifteen handled strategy and video. Both agencies were involved with the previous "Halo 3" campaign, which swept 2008 ad awards shows, including two top prizes at the Cannes Adverting Festival.

"We're not looking at it as trying to top what we've done," said Scott Duchon, executive creative director-partner of AgencyTwoFifteen. "But we're trying to find a new way to find success for Halo. How do you market the story before Master Chief? We approach it as a particular story that needs to be told, not the franchise. That's why it's a different approach altogether."

It's going to be quite a task for this latest Halo release to get any bigger. It's a top 20 video-game franchise, according to the NPD Group, and to get higher in the ranks, the 9-year-old franchise will have to best titles such as Mario Bros., Lego, Madden and Grand Theft Auto. Microsoft has sold more than 34 million Halo games since it debuted in 2001. Franchise games and merchandise brought in nearly $2 billion worldwide.

And while Halo 3 grossed $170 million in first-day sales in 2007, setting a record at the time, last year's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the record to beat with $310 million in first-day sales.

To try to attract new entertainment audiences, Xbox is looking to pull at the heartstrings.

"You don't have to know anything before going into it," said Taylor Smith, director of global marketing communications for Xbox. "We're trying to tell the story in broad strokes and universal themes that people know all around the world. And get our core fans even doubly excited."

To that end, spots and web films will feature live action as the Halo 3 "Believe" effort did, rather than the game footage so often found in gaming ads. These videos will be seen through "high-profile digital distribution and big in broadcast media," Mr. Smith said.

"We're trying to get people to connect back to their lives, not computer graphics or something overly sci-fi," he said. "Live action is a way to capture that."

Partnerships are also a ploy to reach new audiences. Xbox is again partnering with PepsiCo, this time for its biggest brand integration to date. Starting in September, 300 million Mtn Dew bottles and 30 million bags of Doritos will feature Halo packaging and under-the-caps sweepstakes. Xbox will also roll out a highly integrated promotion with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

"As a gaming franchise we have the luxury that people want to come to us," Mr. Taylor said. "But we also need to be out there in pop culture: That's how Pepsi fits in and broadcast fits in."

Halo: Reach also got the big-marketing treatment much earlier in the game's life cycle than is usually the case. A teaser spot unveiled in the spring, "Birth of the Spartan," was meant to drive more trials during the game's beta phase, where gamers are invited to provide feedback on game play.

Knowing that trial drives purchase intent, "we went out earlier in the cycle with the intention of driving volume to test the beta before the game even came out," said Xbox's Mr. Stout. Things look good so far—the beta attracted 2.7 million players, more than any other title on the console before.

Xbox declined to disclose budgets for Reach, but we know the campaign at the very least beats the Halo 3 effort, which came in at $6.5 million in 2007 paid media, according to Kantar Media. Microsoft spent $12 million in media for its video-game division in 2009, according to Ad Age Data Center.

And this campaign may not be the final one. Reach is the last title from "Halo's" longtime developer, Bungie, but, said Mr. Stout, "I think it's safe to say we're not done with Halo."

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