MARKETING SUPERSTARS;SONY PLAYSTATION;AKIRA SATO

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TOKYO-Akira Sato had a tough task launching the PlayStation videogame system last December in Japan. He had to take Sony Computer Entertainment into a whole new product category already dominated by Nintendo Co. and Sega Enterprises.

And with a September 1995 launch planned for Europe and the U.S. by his counterparts there, Mr. Sato, 46, had to make Play-Station a hit in its first market and create an instant global brand.

"We knew that both Nintendo and Sega had almost 100% market share, and their marketing power was so strong for us to compete with," said Mr. Sato, exec VP of Sony's Software Development & Marketing Division. "However, the videogame [industry] is not a hardware but a software business."

The focus on software is paying off. Nine of the top 20 videogames purchased in Japan earlier this year are PlayStation games. Five pieces of software are being sold for every hardware unit sold-a ratio double the industry average.

Besides scoring with software, Sony went straight into the new 32-bit market with stunning 3-D computer graphics before Nintendo and Sega had switched from older, less powerful machines. They are now producing 32-bit systems, but videogame novice Sony is leading the market.

Sony sold 500,000 PlayStation units in the first three months after the Dec. 3, 1994, launch, and sales hit 1 million in May. The company expects sales in Japan to reach 2 million consoles and 11 million game cartridges before yearend. For Sony, PlayStation is the biggest hit since the Walkman personal stereo and the Handycam camcorder.

PlayStation is an expensive item-at $395 for a console and about $60 per game cartridge-and Mr. Sato knew Japanese youngsters would need at least six months to save for it.

"We started advance notice and advertising from the spring of 1994, using mass media and special-interest magazines, so [youngsters] could start saving money," he said. He is working with Hakuhodo, Yomiko Advertising and Tokyu Agency.

In July, Mr. Sato cut the price by $100 to sell more consoles.

Meanwhile, in Europe, a $30 million launch campaign broke in late September with humorous ads by Simons, Palmer, Denton, Clemmow & Johnson, London. The agency created the nerdy Society Against PlayStation, or SAPS, to warn against the dangers of the too-exciting new videogame system.

The U.S. introduction kicked off with $45 million in sales the first day, and is backed by a $30 million campaign through TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif.

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