Sony’s PlayStation 4 official brand logo

Overview
In the months leading up to the release of the PlayStation 4 (PS4) in late November of this year, Sony carried out a wide marketing campaign to sell the first “next generation” game console. In this campaign, Sony described the new era of gaming as being focused around the social capabilities of today’s technology and of course being best facilitated by the PlayStation. Despite these assertions, the future of gaming consoles is increasingly brought into question when critics consider the
proliferation of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets that have brought video games to previously untapped demographics. The PS4 brand targets adult consumers that remember a world before the iPad, in which home gaming was largely bound to the television screen. Brand managers attempt to position the target demographic not as passive consumers, but as active producers of creative content and social interaction. This strategy is enhanced through conscious appeals to nostalgia and the notion of the PlayStation gamer as a dynamic but perhaps life-long identity.

PlayStation 4: A brief genealogy

Graphical depiction of brand evolution, plus milestones and trivia; Photo credit: sonyps4.com.

The PlayStation brand can be traced back to early to mid-90s with Sony Computer Entertainment’s launch of the PlayStation console (commonly referred to as the PSX or PS1). Up until that point, Sony had been primarily known for the invention of the Walkman and co-creation of the standardized CD. Then, Nintendo and Sega dominated the video game industry; however, Sony’s competitors had a weak spot according to The New York Times: their games were stored in cartridges, which were expensive and slow to manufacture. Sony adopted the CD format, lowering the average price for the consumer and better facilitating technological access for developers. “In its first year,” the Times wrote in 1998, “Sony released about 100 games from dozens of developers.” These original games were marketed to the 15 to mid-30s age demographics since marketers recognized that competitors had a strong hold on younger consumers. Sony’s foray into this younger demographic wouldn’t begin for another 4 years, but would be wildly successful .

The original PlayStation is commonly considered one of the most successful consoles in history. At one point, Sony claimed that one in four households in America had a PS1. Sony’s unparalleled success would be questioned in 2000, with Bill Gates’ introduction of Microsoft’s own console, the Xbox. This console debuted within a year of Sony’s PlayStation 2 and heavy marketing for both devices fostered a well-known brand rivalry. The strong competition for consumers continued with the subsequent generation of gaming in the mid-2000s with the PS3 and the XBOX 360. While affordances of CD technology gave Sony a competitive edge in the early years, Microsoft’s emergence into the video game market likely pushed PlayStation to develop a stronger brand identity in order to fight off the somewhat technologically advanced (or at least technologically comparable) Xbox system and its later incarnations.

In “Brands: Markets, Media and Movement,” from Consumer Culture, Celia Lury states that marketers have found “ways to show that products are not adequately defined by their functional properties alone…. that a product’s potential existence extends beyond being a discrete physical good.” Furthermore, marketers no longer saw their role in selling a product “in terms of stimulus-response,” rather, marketing came to be “conceived as a relationship” (141). Selling this relationship to consumers has been especially important to PlayStation in the wake of legitimate market challenges from Microsoft.

As it stands today—nearly a month after the launch of Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One—the final verdict is still out on which device has won over critics and consumers, but signs point to the good sales numbers for both companies. An analysis of PS4 marketing materials and community reception helps illustrate the tactics and appeal of the device, which has lead Sony to find continued success in the PlayStation brand.

Greatness Awaits

"Greatness Awaits" is the official slogan of the PS4, and featured across a variety of platforms and marketing materials.

“Greatness Awaits” is the official slogan of the PS4, and featured across a variety of platforms and marketing materials. Photo credit: playstation.com

In “Capital, Class, and Consumer Culture,” Lury discusses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of lifestyle, drawing on the work of Mike Featherstone. Featherstone writes, “Rather than unreflexively adopting a lifestyle… the new heroes of consumer culture make lifestyle a life project and display their individuality… in the particularity of the assemblage of goods, clothes, practices, experiences…,” which brings about personal pleasure and identity (qtd. in Lury 95). Bordieu takes this theory a step farther, claiming the presence of a standard under which “pleasure is not simply permitted but demanded, so that the individual is encouraged to work at pleasure” (Lury 96).

Bordieu’s concept is reaffirmed through by the PS4 brand. When Sony began the PS4 marketing campaign, it released a teaser trailer that strongly focuses on the console’s intangible essence, rather than the physical device itself. The commercial features a suave young man in a suit delivering a confident monologue directly to the viewer. In his speech he discusses the viewer’s “greatness”—greatness of power, creativity, and innovation—and the compulsion to express it. “Speckled with cameos by [PlayStation] game characters and self-destructing set designs,” Adweek writes, “the ad ends with the actor diving into the fray to break some pirate legs and clothesline a few clowns.”

“Greatness Awaits” (1:31):

Through the process of addressing the viewer directly, the narrator interpolates the viewer into a subjectivity where one’s own “greatness” is simultaneously affirmed and understood to be repressed. In essence, one must work to achieve a more satisfying leisure and pleasurable lifestyle formation. The PS4 logo at the end of the spot suggests that Sony’s “great” new console is the catalyst required to create and express a more satisfying lifestyle.

Some brand community members have taken to the PlayStationUniverse fan forums to express their satisfaction after having used the new console. Zaxtor99 writes in his topic entitled, “Sony is BRILLIANT. They have made such a DRASTICALLY IMPROVED DualShock…,” that he feels,

…gravitated towards the PS4 not just because of the shinier graphics but more for the much better controller…It’s an addicting upgrade over its predecessor in every way, shape, and form.”

Similar technological praises are also expressed in the PS4freak’s topic, “What are your favorite features of the PS4?” ” In response to the member’s topic question, most members praise the fluidity of switching between apps, processor speed, background downloads, and other features that seem to allow the gamer to reach a greater potential.

Brand community members like those above are largely uncritical of the notion that the PS4 presents cutting edge technology and thus revolutionizes gameplay. Against this trend, one community member, keefy replies to PS4freak’s topic by saying,

WOW everything you describe i have experienced on PC 5 years ago.”

Keefy’s comment challenges the brand ideology, prompting PS4freak to respond:

Well this is a gaming console go figure. Who gives a shit what the PC could do 5 years ago. This is talking about a console that are running their own OS that isn’t Windows. I’m pretty sure we all know what that tried and true format can do. All for $400, I think I’ll take it.”

For those that accept the brand ideology, the PS4 is the access point for “greatness” regardless of whether or not the same technological affordances have been accessible elsewhere. What may ultimately be more important to members of the brand community is the lifestyle expression through the PS4, as is defined through brand marketing campaigns.

“For the Players…”
Although we may not have direct access into the minds of the PS4 brand representatives, the ideal consumer of the new console is identified through representational strategies employed by brand marketing materials. The commercial, “For the Players Since 1995,” addresses consumers quite differently than “Greatness Awaits” does. In 3 minutes and 20 seconds, it shows a young man go through different stages in his life—adolescence through established adulthood—all from the perspective of his bedroom. The ad shows the physical world outside of his bedroom window transform, mirroring changes in his room décor and apparent shifts of acquaintances in and out of his life over time. Despite these changes, a Sony PlayStation console always sits next to the TV in his room, though it too evolving with the passage of time. The viewer sees that the PlayStation changes from a PS1 to a PS2 to a PS3, each corresponding with a stage in the man’s life as he grows up. The last segment shows him playing a new PS4 with his friend from childhood, just like as they had over 15 years earlier.

The “For the Players Since 1995” (3:22):

The title of the spot clearly indicates who is targeted in the commercial: an adult PlayStation consumer that has strong brand loyalty. The representational details of the ad further indicate that the target consumer is male, with friends that share an interest in the PlayStation brand. While the consumer has grown, the PlayStation brand has also grown and changed alongside him. The ad utilizes references to iconic games and franchises throughout gaming history in an attempt to inflate the PlayStation brand as the underlying connection between these individual consumer experiences. The “greatness” of these video game franchises mirrors the “greatness” of the man’s friendship with his buddy from childhood, also facilitated by the PlayStation consoles. With the new PS4, even more “greatness awaits,” even though childhood and adolescence are left in the past.

According to Arvidsson in “Brands: A Critical Perspective,” brand managers construct “intertextual spaces,” that “pre-structure and anticipate the agency of consumers.” “Within these spaces,” he writes, “consumers are given contours of and raw material for the exercise of their productive agency.” What’s created in turn is a “set of social relations and shared meanings—a common,” that can be “a matter of participating in the creation of a collectively shared experience” or “creating a local and
specific meaningful dimension…that makes it possible to experience the brand as endowed with an authentic meaning in one’s own life-history” (Arvidsson 247-248).

The PlayStation 4 brand is readily understood through the author’s theory. Although Arvidsson may be discussing marketing events, retail experiences, and sites largely under direct control of brand representatives, marketing materials like “”For the Players Since 1995” construct the consumer’s own bedroom as a site for free labor. The commercial marks the bedroom as the location where friendships and shared memories are made through the mutual playing of iconic, culturally significant games, and of course this environment is consistently made possible by PlayStation consoles. In fact, the evolution to the PS4 and continued presence of the brand seems as natural the passage of time, bound to the consumer’s “life-history.”

A screen-cap from the "For the Gamers..." spot highlights the cross-media nostalgia strategy employed through the hashtag: #playstationmemories.

A screen-cap from the “For the Gamers…” spot highlights the cross-media nostalgia strategy employed through the hashtag: #playstationmemories.

A targeted Facebook ad to my personal account emphasizes the legacy of the PlayStation brand, and my role (as a young adult male) to produce memories along side it.

A Facebook ad that targets PlayStation fans emphasizes the consumer’s ability to conspicuously be “great” in the production of both personal memories and brand histories.

The Players: Demographics
The Alexa domain analytics tools below break down the gender and education level of site visitors to the brand’s official website, playstation.com:

Screen-cap from Alexa analytics of playstation.com, accessed11/24/13.

Screen-cap from a Alexa analysis of playstation.com, accessed11/24/13.

More in-depth tools were available for an analysis of PSU.com, the playstation fansite that features news, reviews, forums, and more. This community-centric platform perhaps offers more accurate information about those who relate and interact with the brand, unlike the varied traffic that the informational main site may attract. A Quantcast analysis of U.S. visitors to PSU.com is demonstrated in the graphic below.

Screen-cap taken from Quantcast analytics of PSU.com, accessed 11/24/13.

Screen-cap taken from a Quantcast analysis of PSU.com, accessed 11/24/13.

PSU.com findings mirror the gender and educational aspects of the playstation.com analysis, together suggesting that the brand community is indeed composed of males, ages 18-34, many of whom are currently attending or have attended college. This evidence supports the representational strategies used in the “For the Players Since 1995” spot, “Greatness Awaits” commercial (if we consider the narrator a representational figure of sorts), and other spots like “Perfect Day,” which features two men in their late 20s.

The Players: Brand Interpolation and Rejection

"I'm among you now, my brethren !" exclaims an new community member, clearly excited about expressing the PlayStation gamer identity on the PSU forums.

“I’m among you now, my brethren !” exclaims an new community member, clearly excited about expressing the PlayStation gamer identity on the PSU forums.

The brand’s emphasis on the relationship between Playstation’s evolutionary history and the consumer’s own personal growth is embraced by the brand community. For example, on Playstation.com’s Playstation General forum, ccrogers15’s topic, “What was your first dive into the Playstation Universe?” continues to be active months after its initial post in September 2013. Ccrogers15 and other members discuss their favorite games from childhood that got them “hooked on PlayStation.” This nostalgia, especially as a point for socializing production, echoes the tones of the “For the Players Since 1995” spot and signify acceptance of brand ideologies.

Though most members accept the claim that the PS4 has opened the door to a distinctly new type of gaming experience, many feel that launch title games (the first games to be released for the PS4) have not followed through on brand promises. “When do we see the performance we paid so much for?” posts jonathanm1978,

We all know that lots of games you can get as launch titles on both new consoles are also available on last generation…which begs the question ‘how much work was put into title…???'”

Duffman1986 replies,

Good things come to those who wait!

In a later post, the topic author comments:

I’ll be the first to stand up and defend Sony and my purchase of PS4. When it comes to being a fan of Sony…I’m first to say that I love the Playstation brand…not so much that I’d follow them to the pits of hell, but I’m firm into my Playstation lifestyle….since the PSone days. With that said, I don’t see the need to defend them aimlessly because they do make bad marketing decisions.”

At least partially conflicted on their attachment to the brand, some community members feel that even after purchasing the PS4 the promise of greatness still awaits.

The product’s shortcomings result from a disconnect between the sense of immediacy evoked by brand marketers in selling the console and the external technological and market drawbacks. The PS4 does provide the hardware and interface to allow gamers and game developers to create “great” experiences, but without a wide selection of unique games readily available, those that have purchased the console early on may feel let down in the time-being. For better or worse, this is representative of an effective brand strategy that has in part detached material realities from the personal lifestyle value of a product.

Furthermore, we see that the PlayStation has recently won over new community members who value of the lifestyle and identificatory elements of the brand. Language used in forum topics like PricelessBunion’s “New xbox convert” and chillighost’s “Xbox Switcher – Waiting for my PS4 🙂”  perpetuates mutually exclusive labels for Xbox and Playstation users, a binary of sorts. With the current generation of consoles (and likely the previous brand incarnations), binary discourses force reflexive contemplation of identity and allegiance for the gamer but never draw into question the necessity of the gamer identity itself.

Conclusions and Brand Outlook
Given that initial reports call the PS4’s release the “largest console launch in history,” it may be precocious to declare the death of the home gaming console. Strong consumer reception and community interaction suggests successful interpolation of the PlayStation ideology by consumers. Brand marketers may have concerns down the road about introducing the PlayStation lifestyle to younger consumers; appeals to nostalgia are likely generationally specific. However the other fundamental component to the PS4/PlayStation brand—the facilitation of “greatness” and the production of memorable, shared experiences—is more universal according to theorists like Bordieu. For the PlayStation brand to survive it must continue to sell the idea of personal and social growth for consumers, and back up this notion through hosting games to achieve this end before brand community members become disenchanted.

Text Sources:

Arvidsson, A. “Brands: A Critical Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Culture 5.2 (2005): 235-58. Print.

Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2011. Print.

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