'Guitar Hero' vs. 'Rock Band' -- Which Media Plan Rocked?

Optimedia's Antony Young Analyzes the Music Video Games' Media Strategies

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Antony Young
Antony Young
In my formative years, music defined who you were. You were either into The Stones or The Beatles. Fast-forward 30(ish) years and my 11-year-old son, who's enjoying the same music I did as a kid, finds his music cred is determined by the question, "'Guitar Hero' or 'Rock Band'?"

Product launches for Activision's "Guitar Hero 5" and MTV Games' "The Beatles: Rock Band" last September became a high-stakes marketing strum-off. After some amazing growth in earlier years that saw the console, portable and PC game software industry reach its high score in 2008, sales declined 11% in 2009. These two marketers showed off a combination of skillful hammer-on and pull-off maneuvers in media to bring their products to market. We decided to evaluate each brand's media strategy.


5 stars Outstanding
4 stars Highly effective
3 stars Good
2 stars Disappointing
1 star A disaster

Creative Campaigns

Guitar Hero: "Old Time Rock & Roll"
For the debut of "Guitar Hero 5," a roster of Playboy playmates jammed to "Old Time Rock & Roll," continuing the franchise's play on the "Risky Business" lip-sync scene in its creative. But rather than hosting one or two scantily-clad celebrities, the brand went with 10 playmates and Hugh Hefner enjoying the show before quipping "I like variety" -- pushing a key selling point of "Guitar Hero" compared with the single-artist competitive product due to be released a week later.

The Beatles Rock Band: "Come Together"
Launching on 9/9/09, a date that holds significant value in numerology, "The Beatles: Rock Band" arrived with a reported $20 million in ad spending behind it. Its most notable ad effort was TV creative that blended never-before-seen archived Beatles footage and state-of-the-art technology to bring the 1969 "Abbey Road" album cover to life with John, Paul, George and Ringo greeted by hundreds of fans. Its marketing activity continued through the holiday season with creative integrations that promoted not just the game but the downloadable content available in the game's own music store.

Teaser campaigns

Guitar Hero 4 stars
Rock Band 5 stars

To promote the variety of bands and music available in "Guitar Hero 5," Activision started an online scavenger hunt three months before releasing it. Consumers had to identify the 85 bands represented on the game. Activision rolled out press releases announcing artists, which were then reported by various news media; contestants had to find those stories online as part of the competition. This was promoted via news stories on partner sites, the official site, the Facebook fan page and Twitter.

"Guitar Hero" also released a hilarious viral video called "Naked Girls Get Interrupted" featuring model girls and a not-so-model guy that strip and strut down a street. It's absolutely a spot-on video targeting the core gamer that helped to build buzz prior to the launch.

The "Rock Band" blitz began in June at the annual E3 gaming show when Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison appeared to unveil a two-minute cinematic trailer containing game visuals of the Beatles playing 10 of their greatest songs. This, along with the release of the remastered Beatles catalog, generated massive press coverage including cover stories about the game in Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard and The New York Times Magazine. The media coverage and blogger anticipation was deafening.


Guitar Hero 3 1/2 stars
Rock Band 4 stars

Despite the natural leaning to access this audience online, TV remained a central part of "Guitar Hero" marketing. According to Kantar Media, "Guitar Hero" placed 86% of its 2009 media spend in TV and "Rock Band" placed 95% there. "Guitar Hero" ran 63% of its spend on network TV vs. just 27% on cable. "Rock Band," in contrast, ran just 19% of its TV plan on network, but 74% on cable.

The "Guitar Hero 5" TV campaign kicked off on Aug. 27, going on to run in network prime-time with spots during Fox's Sunday night comedies, college football on ABC and NBC's "Sunday Night Football." It also ran a steady stream on cable channels including MTV, Comedy Central, Spike, VH1 and FX.

Rock Band leveraged its relationship with Viacom, MTV's parent company, to the hilt. It launched the "Abbey Road" commercial and cross-promotions on all of Viacom's cable networks at the same time: 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on 9/9/09. One excellent example of this was VH1 Classic, where "Rock Band" ran spots featuring old rockers reminiscing about how much they loved The Beatles. In addition to commercials, MTV marketed the game by scheduling frequent Beatles-related programming on MTV, VH1, BET, CMT, Logo and Nickelodeon. They came back for the holiday season by targeting a broader consumer market on TV.

Social media

Guitar Hero 4 stars
Rock Band 2 1/2 stars

"Guitar Hero" has a presence on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The YouTube page features its commercials and its current page design promotes "Guitar Hero: Van Halen." "Guitar Hero" became the first video game to reach 1 million fans on Facebook -- 1,135,431 at last count. The page is highly active and features a lot of interaction between fans on the wall, numerous events and comprehensive videos and photos both from "Guitar Hero" staff and fans.

Activision also created "Guitar Hero Smash Hits Music Awards 2009," an interactive awards show in which people vote online for best vocals, best breakdown, best scream and six other categories. The website allows users to post comments and feed them to their Facebook page. This promotion works well with the game concept of having the best "Guitar Hero" songs in one game.

By contrast, "Rock Band" has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. The Facebook page features a wall and company information, plus a tab for streams to its Twitter, My Flickr and RSS and blog feeds. Its Facebook page has 338,684 fans and is well-maintained, but doesn't have the degree of fan interaction Guitar Hero does.


Guitar Hero 3 1/2 stars
Rock Band 4 stars

"Guitar Hero" released a new design of its website on Sept. 1. It contains information, video clips and links to purchase downloads for all Guitar Hero products. The front page displays a video playlist of "Guitar Hero" commercials and its own music charts. The website integrates with the game itself, publishing a global leaderboard and facilitating online tournaments. "Guitar Hero" developed an application to pull in game stats, deliver fresh news via the popular Digg forums, and allow for YouTube content to be uploaded and rated -- all with the ability for community members to share any and all content via Facebook or Twitter.

A number of fans did not react well to the changes, making numerous posts on their community board largely complaining about the changes. Those "Guitar Hero" fans are a tough crowd.

The "Rock Band" website put similar downloadable content for sale on all its games and rankings. "The Beatles: Rock Band" home page mainly features videos, news and forums. Its site offered up a bit more for the music purist with some nice added features, including the ability to view the original music video on potential tracks. The Zine section includes a series of articles more about the music than necessarily promoting the game. The Music section features write-ups on the tracks in the Rock Band games written by Brett Milano, a well-established ace rock journalist.


Guitar Hero N/A
Rock Band 4 stars

From Labor Day weekend through Sept. 9, 2009 -- dubbed "Beatles Day" -- 100 radio stations across the country devoted hours of airtime to a variety of special content, playback of the newly minted masters, contests and other Beatles fare. Classic rock station 97 Rock (WGRF in Buffalo) got its audience involved by taking listener votes at its website to tabulate the "Top 97 Beatles Songs According to You," which aired on Sept. 9 beginning at 9:09 a.m. Rock station WRXP in New York broadcast "The Rock Show with Matt Pinfield and Leslie Fram" remotely from Abbey Road Studios. Nice to see radio being used so innovatively.

Experiential marketing

Guitar Hero N/A
Rock Band 4 stars

"Rock Band" created a really smart localized program providing a toolkit for bar owners to host their own Rock Band Bar Nights as a means to help them increase foot traffic and provide fans and novices with a live opportunity to engage in a "Rock Band" social experience in front of a live crowd. To help venues host and promote their own Rock Band Bar Nights, the program offered registered bars exclusive Rock Band marketing materials they could access online prior to the Sept. 9 launch. Rock Band fans were able to find official Rock Band Bar Nights in their area through an online application searchable by ZIP code and a mobile version available for download as a free iPhone application.


Guitar Hero 4 stars
Rock Band 4 1/2 stars

"The Beatles: Rock Band" recorded sales of 1.18 million units in 2009 while "Guitar Hero 5" sold 996,000. It's hard to judge the campaigns purely on these results. One has to take into account The Beatles' pulling power, balanced out by the far-reaching market leadership position and better value offering enjoyed by "Guitar Hero." Both campaigns hit the mark for me.

The "Guitar Hero 5" campaign had great TV creative that cut through and got people buzzing. The brand clearly looked to exploit that with a highly visible TV plan. Its social-media platforms earned excellent buzz despite the challenge of getting visibility in a busy year when "Guitar Hero" released four new products into the market.

The one word that sums up "The Beatles: Rock Band" media strategy is leverage. It expertly leveraged the media properties of holding company Viacom; it leveraged the PR masterfully around events, and in the press, it leveraged its content into social platforms and it leveraged its relationships with marketing partners. Yes, "Rock Band" put more dollars behind its campaign, but it wins in my book because of the many, innovative ways it used media.

Antony Young Young is CEO of Optimedia US, a Publicis Groupe company headquartered in New York. He is a regular contributor for Advertising Age on Brand Media Strategy.

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