Gamechanger

From third place to first in two years, Ron Bertram has led Nintendo of Canada's high-scoring comeback

From third place to first in two years, Ron Bertram has led Nintendo of Canada’s high-scoring comeback

There were skeptics who considered Nintendo’s global directive, unveiled in late 2005, to go after families and adults over 45 unusual, even risky, and too far from the typical, well-tread video game target of 12- to 24-year-old males.

But as the old adage goes, with risk comes reward. And in the case of Nintendo of Canada’s GM Ron Bertram, impressive rewards. ‘Ron has led Nintendo of Canada through a remarkable turnaround,’ says John Azevedo, Nintendo of Canada’s senior marketing manager. ‘It required a very clear vision of the future, and involved considerable risk. He deserves much of the credit for the success we are enjoying now.’

‘Ron has a finely tuned sense of cutting through the noise to get to the relevant insights,’ says Pierre-Paul Trépanier, who worked with Bertram for four years at Nintendo of Canada and is now consumer marketing director at Nintendo’s California office. ‘He gets internal and external teams aligned in understanding them, transforming them into strategy and executing with excellence.’

The numbers prove it. ‘Two Christmases ago, everyone was writing Nintendo off as a bit player in the video game industry,’ says Bertram from Nintendo’s Vancouver-based HQ. ‘We were in third place. Over the past two years, especially last year, we’ve turned that around. Now we’re the market leader in a business that has almost doubled in size in two years.’ That equates to revenues that have jumped to $500 million from under $250 million over fiscal 2007.

Under Bertram’s leadership, Canada now boasts higher market share than the U.S., and one of the highest market shares in the world. The portable console Nintendo DS was the most popular video game system, console or portable, in the country over 2007. Wii was the best-selling console. And the brand is also driving growth in the market in Canada’s estimated $1.5-billion videogame market, according to November 2007 NPD Group figures.

Naturally, the sales sensation of both Nintendo DS, which launched in 2004, and especially of Wii, which launched in November 2006 and has already sold 20 million around the world, helped buoy a global game market now worth about $25 billion US. They also allowed Nintendo to regain its footing against rivals Sony and Microsoft.

But in Canada, which has the autonomy to create its own programs, ‘We’ve been a little more successful than the U.S. in attracting the expanded market,’ says Bertram. The secret: highly tailored executions to gain the consideration of a consumer indifferent to Nintendo – and gaming overall – by showing up in unexpected places and putting the product in their hands.

Over 2007, Nintendo was advertised in finger-twiddling environments like doctors’ offices and airports. Gaming sampling kiosks were set up in the lobbies of office buildings, where potential consumers could play the DS over their lunch break. The tag to reach the so-called older gamer? ‘Do something with your nothing time.’

The brand also partnered with WestJet over two months to encourage business travellers to sample the Nintendo DS packages on cross-country flights.

And in one of the brand’s biggest coups, Wii was the lead sponsor of Global TV’s Are You Smarter than a Canadian Fifth Grader?, which included the tagline ‘presented by Nintendo of Canada’s Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree.’

The game show, with its clear family target, was the perfect fit to promote Nintendo’s educational titles to moms and tween girls. It included sponsorship, product integration and both billboard and promotional advertising. Another successful Wii promotion was a cross-country holiday mall tour of 19 malls in 17 cities targeting two groups: moms/dads/families and tweens/teens. More than 290,000 participated.

But the brand’s core – that young male 12 to 24 – was not forgotten, Bertram says. For example, for about 30 new titles that were launched in Canada, such as Super Mario Galaxy, there was a continued focus on traditional video game marketing (ads on YTV and MuchMusic, online and PR).

Bertram admits that the two-tier targeting has required some juggling of positioning and marketing dollars. ‘This is a big marketing challenge for us,’ he says. ‘We’re trying to expand the market without losing the existing market. We still want to compete for the avid gamer against Sony and Microsoft.’

Over 2008, he plans to finesse that balance – but also has loftier goals. ‘I say to everyone at Nintendo of Canada, ‘Why can’t we be as ubiquitous as TVs and have the same type of household penetration?’ TVs are in 97% of households. Video games are only in 44%. Our goal is to become that type of ‘relevant’ over the next three years.

‘It’s ambitious,’ he adds, ‘but I think we can do it.’

Team size: 8

Years at Nintendo: 17

Professional highlight of the year: ‘The most unusual thing we did was get our products, like Brain Age 1 and 2, out of the video game section and into the pharmacy section at Wal-Mart [and other big-box stores]. The whole idea is, ‘You train your body, train your brain.”

Marketing style in three words: ‘Focused. Aggressive. Risky.’

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