Nintendo plays it broad

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The brand of Zelda, Mario and Pokemon is going hip as Nintendo Corp. reaches beyond its core 9-to-14-year-old audience to lure a broader audience to gaming.

The Nov. 18 debut of its GameCube video-game console gives Nintendo a chance to expand its following with gamers ages 17 to 30 and spur development of titles with cutting-edge appeal, while also keeping younger gamers hooked.

Nintendo needs older gamers as it battles Sony Computer Entertainment's $99 PlayStation 1 at the low end, Sony's $299 PS2 at the high end and Microsoft Corp.'s $299 Xbox, new to the console market. The competition is expected to be fierce (see related story, this page).

Attracting mature gamers to its $199 GameCube will help Nintendo, long known for kid-friendly products, reach casual gamers of any age. "With the GameCube, we had a chance to have a fresh start, and not be too dark and techy," said George Harrison, Nintendo's senior-VP marketing and corporate communications. Nintendo began experimenting with a broader brand repositioning earlier this year when it introduced the hand-held Game Boy Advance. Nintendo placed dioramas in airports to hook mobile professionals eager to blow off steam during layovers.

With the GameCube, Nintendo has upped the ante. The ad campaign for the GameCube, created by Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, represents a major departure from previous efforts that showcased hit titles but didn't tamper with the brand's warm and fuzzy image.

Armed with a $75 million ad and marketing budget in the fourth quarter alone, Nintendo's new ads are quirky and sophisticated, but also whimsical-the anchoring TV spot shows a naked man floating in a cube signifying the imaginative world gamers enter via the GameCube. Also new: Cube Clubs, nightclub-style sampling venues set up in 12 cities for 10-day stretches where artists, musicians and gamers play on the Cube. The Cube Club's Los Angeles debut Oct. 3 included stars from the movie "American Pie 2", rapper LL Cool J, model Rachel Hunter and actress Teri Polo.

United Distillers & Vintners' Smirnoff and Dennis Publications' Maxim are co-sponsors of the Cube Clubs, which end their run the week of Nov. 7 in New York. Tickets to the Cube Clubs can be downloaded from the Internet. Big Fat Productions, New York, coordinates event marketing.

So how will the new strategies jibe with the kid-tested and mother-approved Nintendo people know and love? "It's a delicate balance," conceded Mr. Harrison. "We definitely can't overlook the 9-to-14-year-olds. ...We're very conscious about not getting too far away from our core consumer."

Nintendo designated weekend days and other family-friendly time blocks at the Cube Clubs so as not to alienate its loyal base. In a year beset with talk of terrorism, many analysts believe home entertainment, including video gaming, will play well as more people stay home. The video-game industry saw retail sales up 25% in September, according to NPD Intelect.

Another new promotional tack: a live countdown to the GameCube launch starting Nov. 17 on Viacom's MTV. Nintendo has said it will have 700,000 GameCubes available on launch day, Nov. 18, and 1.1 million by the end of December. It declined to specify the number of pre-sold units by retailers.

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