Xbox One is an incredibly powerful gaming platform. But it can also do so much more: TV, music and socially connected services are all part of its offering. However, when Xbox was previewed at the E3 gaming expo in summer 2013, sections of the hardcore gaming community were dismayed at what they saw as an abandonment of the gaming heartland.
This put Xbox into a race to win back the hearts and minds of its core audience. UM's challenge was stark – Xbox needed to convince the world it “got” gamers and that Xbox One was for them. UM needed to help Xbox bring it back on side in time for the Christmas launch, just a few short months away.
Xbox's target group fully embrace gaming culture and ‘live’ the games they play. They’re media-savvy, bombarded by digital content and are never going to be convinced by standard advertising.
How could UM cut through to this passionate, hard-core audience, while re-establishing Xbox One’s credentials as a platform for gamers? UM would have to embrace the gaming culture its players were immersed in and tap into the rich heritage of their passion, thereby proving Xbox’s credibility and legitimacy.
UM found the answer buried deeply in the annals of gaming lore, woven into the heritage of the gaming industry: the Konami Code. A cheat used by early gamers, the code would reveal a bonus or ‘Easter egg’ if players pressed a combination of buttons.
First appearing in 1986 in Gradius for the NES, the Konami Code had cropped up in various guises in the gaming community for 25 years, such as in Metal Gear Solid: 2, and even Disney film, Wreck-it Ralph. Latterly web developers had begun to use, enabling surfers in the know to unlock surprises. But these remained activations on ‘owned media’.
What if UM could reinvent the ‘Konami Code’ as a discoverable ad-unit and run it across third-party publisher websites? It would create awareness, conversation and a hunt across the web to find other places it was hidden.
UM's strategy was to adapt the code into a format that would be visible to the gaming audience, and involve an interaction that appealed to their sense of curiosity and fun – two characteristics fundamental to all gaming. In doing so, UM created a never-before-used advertising format and ‘#keycode’ was born.
Not only would this convince fans that Xbox was in touch with its gaming roots, it could also perform a subversive, aggressive function: to hijack the competition. UM realised that if it loaded it onto websites the rivals were focusing ad spend on, they could use the #keycode to disrupt their advertising strategy. And of course, the audacity of this plan would appeal enormously to the ‘winner-takes-all’ mindset of hard-core gaming fans.
From an affectionate nod to the gaming community, #keycode was now a compete-focused strategy that would spark fascinated chatter across social media and beyond. It had become a secret weapon in the war of the consoles.
By drawing on Xbox's great experience in the digital arena, UM built an unprecedented network of 20 major media owners whose content was trusted by hardcore gamers: online sources of news, comment and content, such as IGN.com, Gamespot, Eurogamer, CVG, Games Radar, as well as Total Film, Wikia, T3, and Tech Radar.
UM wanted to make the activity as niche as possible, so made no loud announcements at launch, instead allowing its network partners to seed the idea that something was going on with their website through their social communities.
Visitors activated the #keycode and accessed a series of hidden screens. Each screen referenced a new title for the Xbox One. On one screen, a zombie’s arm smashed through the website’s content, (Dead Rising 3) while on another, the site visitor was plunged into the middle of gladiatorial combat (Ryse: Son of Rome). Each screen then encouraged the audience to further promote the activation themselves through a social prompt and competition.
With Xbox's fierce rivals Playstation having invested millions on site takeovers on the very same sites in their launch week, #keycode became a spoiler, hi-jacking their entire homepage takeovers, completely dominating their branding and causing a major stir.
As well as being a media-first, and an entirely new advertising format, this was exactly the sort of subversive behaviour applauded by the hardcore fans they had set out impress. Xbox fans now had something to champion themselves after months of taunting from rival fan groups.
By delving deeply into the traditions of gaming to find inspiration, and combining it with UM's technical and strategic expertise, it had created a potent, subversive format:
• With absolutely no paid media support and with a unit that was invisible on the webpage until triggered, #keycode delivered over 15,000 activations across a two-week period
• #keycode delivered over 7.5 million organic social impressions from 2,500 Tweets, blog posts and other earned mentions
• Those that engaged with #keycode socially underwent a 41% uplift in brand preference
• UM hit the target audience with a huge amount of plaudits from within the gaming audience, including from the official Konami social manager himself
• Delivered £205k ($343k) in promotional and earned media value (an ROI of 485% on production invested)
UM got Xbox's hardcore gamers back on side, and contributed to one of the largest campaigns ever mounted for a consumer product. All this contributed to an outstandingly successful campaign that made Xbox One the fastest-ever selling console at launch. Mission complete!