The basement behind the launch

In a dimly lit room, six twentysomethings lounge on easy chairs and sofas, bantering enthusiastically about the latest in video gaming, the importance of a visceral connection to Tupac Shakur's lyrics, and the various qualities of cheese pizza.

In a dimly lit room, six twentysomethings lounge on easy chairs and sofas, bantering enthusiastically about the latest in video gaming, the importance of a visceral connection to Tupac Shakur’s lyrics, and the various qualities of cheese pizza.

For Microsoft’s Xbox team, this is the lion’s den of brand creation.

As the discussion heats up, one of the young and hip reaches unselfconsciously for another slice of pizza from the open box on the coffee table. Sinking back into the sofa’s overstuffed cushions, he rips off a hearty mouthful of double cheese and pepperoni, still managing to stab a finger into the air to drive home a passionately held position on one of the finer points of gaming. Welcome to the brave new world of market research.

From a couch-side perspective, this group is participating in a rite of passage – hanging out in a friend’s basement, eating, talking and listening to the latest music. But if you venture outside the door of this rec-room cocoon, you’ll find yourself in a busy ad agency hallway.

The ‘Basement,’ as it is known by the team at MacLaren McCann in Toronto, is one of five ‘Pulse’ rooms designed to replicate a typical environment of a specific consumer life stage – in this case the hip twentysomething. Outfitted with appropriate furnishings and fixtures as well as personal touches, such as shoes and photos, the rooms reach out to the age ranges and lifestyles of key target audiences.

Pulse is a proprietary research tool used by MacLaren McCann and the McCann World Group to track qualitative consumer insight. It consists of casual sessions led by a moderator who is fully dialed in to the target community. He or she hosts regular discussions on an ongoing basis with groups consisting of six to 10 representatives in a setting that naturally corresponds with the target consumer demographic.

Taking the gamers’ pulse:

Xbox insight

The introduction of Xbox marked Microsoft’s debut into the highly competitive video console gaming industry. For Microsoft to succeed, it first needed a superior, category-dominating technology. But it also needed a brand that strikes a powerful emotional chord with the gamer community, and as it learned through the Pulse process, that’s no simple matter.

While initial expectations were that the association with the established, corporate Microsoft brand might be an issue with our target, research demonstrated the opposite. In fact, Pulse participants indicated that the Microsoft name would bring added credibility to its gaming and software development, because the brand was perceived to have the resources to develop the best system yet.

Tapping into the mind-set of males ages 18 to 24, especially hard-core gamers who play over 10 hours a week on their video game consoles, the Xbox team learned that the best way to gain credibility would be to understand and assimilate with them.

It also became evident that the marketing had to emphasize the technical prowess of Xbox, its advanced game graphics and audio capabilities, if Microsoft wanted to attract the more mature gamers.

Further, the research showed that playing a video game console revolves around its social aspects: multi-player games, annual tournaments in friends’ basements, and of course the ‘ne plus ultra’ for the hardcore gamer, staying up all night.

The technical abilities of Xbox (such as 256 channels of audio, 64 of them in 3D with DSS), combined with the overall enhanced social aspects of playing the system, opened the door to expand the brand experience. This translated into events at nightclubs and the release of a music and multimedia CD.

The sessions not only proved resoundingly that music and gaming truly go hand-in-hand, but they also contributed insights that shaped the strategy and communications for Xbox Soundtrack 1 – the Xbox compilation CD offered in Canada in collaboration with Universal Music Canada and EMI Music Canada.

The sessions even influenced the content of the CD: When one participant said that ‘what Tupac sang was from the heart,’ while others ‘sing about their Benz and their $40,000 worth of jewelry,’ we listened.

The final product, released last Tuesday, brought together 18 tracks of eclectic music by such groups as The Crystal Method, Wu-Tang Clan, Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers, Rob Zombie and Ludacris, as well as some homegrown Canadian and upcoming talent.

Finally, the Pulse sessions were used to help plan the national Xbox launch party held last week at the Docks in Toronto, as well as the various regional Midnight Madness launch events across the country.

The research explored the target groups’ opinions on the ‘ideal’ launch event, assessing everything from prizing to entertainment, performers, style of music, lighting and décor.

For example, while it was originally thought that nationally-known bands and high-profile DJs would fit the bill, Pulse sessions revealed that you didn’t have to look much further than your own backyard to appeal to the majority. Key findings showed that a combination of popular underground bands and local DJs, along with groups such as Baby Blue Soundcrew and Choclair, would be much more successful at winning the respect and attention of most hard-core gamers.

The launch is now just behind us, but the research goes on. Monthly sessions with the target demo will continue to reach out to hard-core gamers to glean information for future campaign developments.

Wells Davis is VP, director of planning, and Erin Pond is a strategic planner with Toronto-based MacLaren McCann.