The Brilliance of Nintendo’s Meme Marketing


We exist in a digital age, an era wherein immediacy and reactionary jokes are rewarded on the internet. It’s a space that over time has allowed long form cultural commentary to be replaced by highly shareable and highly relatable memes – usually through our favorite social media platforms. While memes have been around for decades, long before the World Wide Web existed, we’ve seen somewhat of a reemergence within the past 15 years; and in recent times, a more frequent use within the realm of advertising.

Arby’s, DiGiorno’s, Taco Bell, Sonic the Hedgehog – they’re all examples of brands who are attempting to use platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to establish a more human element in their marketing efforts. It clearly works, too. Take a look at any one of these brands’ accounts and you’ll find a highly engaged audience that’s comprised of not only customers, but genuine fans. Though part of me sees it as pandering, these businesses have successfully converted internet bystanders into consumers by way of humor and relatability.

However, there’s one company who’s quietly been changing the game over the past few years. A company whose ignorance and tone deafness served as the perfect disguise to subtly transition into their new marketing mindset, one focused on memes and shareability. An organization which used to continually find itself at the butt of our jokes, a leadership team that up until now I’d pitied, but now stand in awe. Enter Nintendo.

mario rabbids kingdom battle

The release of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, a game created by Ubisoft in partnership with Shigeru Miyamoto, is what ultimately convinced me of Nintendo’s self awareness. While the game is focused on providing rewarding tactical gameplay scenarios within a Rabbid-infused Mushroom Kingdom, what ultimately caught my attention was how it seems so dialed in to current internet culture. Rabbid Peach continually takes selfies at the most inopportune times, Peach references cosplay, and Luigi dabs. There’s even a joke in the game about a Goomba getting an enema. Overnight, it seemed like Nintendo’s brand had drastically changed, and the company was now incredibly focused on creating moments that were ripe for internet circulation, but then I looked back at the company’s past year and I was astounded.

For nearly every Nintendo game that released this year, there’s a meme or joke associated with it in my brain. Furthermore, in almost every one of the company’s presentations, there was an out of place moment that almost too perfectly gave way to a new wave of internet engagement. I believe this was all on purpose. You’re likely skeptical, as was I, but let’s take a quick walk back through the past ten months for Nintendo:

  • The Nintendo Switch is revealed in October 2016. In addition to largely positive reception, anti-social rooftop party girl, Karen, becomes a meme.  
  • In January, Nintendo hosts a Nintendo Switch Presentation, showing off the console’s lineup and hardware. The event is subsequently mired by an incredibly awkward translator, hilariously tone deaf performances, and several moments prime for .GIF and meme opportunities. Shortly thereafter, Nintendo tweets about a job opening for a translator.
  • Again, the internet caught on fire after Prince Sidon stole everyone’s heart in Breath of the Wild, and he even became the subject of countless Zelda fan-fictions.
  • Nintendo of America’s COO, Reggie Fils-Aime, performed a spoken word in the middle of the company’s E3 2017 presentation. Also, don’t forget the fact that Splatoon 2’s versus battles and miiverse drawings lead to over 2 million Tumblr posts relating to the game in July and early August.
  • In mid-June, waifu culture took over Arms characters Min Min & Twintelle. There was some rightful backlash regarding a few of the characters, but since Nintendo has fully embraced the immediacy of memes, they were already on to the next thing.

All of these instances seem largely innocuous on their own, but I’d argue that when compounded together, we have a large amount of evidence pointing to the fact that Nintendo is different now. They’re no longer the butt of the joke, and in fact, I’d argue that they’re the ones in control. To be perfectly honest, I’m not exactly sure as to when the company emerged from its former outdated cocoon, but it’s clear that 2017 has been a pivotal year for establishing the software and toy company’s new identity.

luigi dab
Image courtesy of Nintendo NY’s Twitter

Anytime there’s a Nintendo Direct, I go to Twitter. When I hear there’s new details about Super Mario Odyssey, my eyes are fixed on the game’s subreddit. Why? Well, I’ve been trained to stay engaged, as I’m rewarded with timely jokes, witty banter, and funny Nintendo memes whenever I interact with the brand online. When I think about it, this behavior of mine is nearly puppet-like, and it seems Nintendo’s been pulling the strings for months, even years.

Memes are circulated on the internet more so than anything else, and when Nintendo video games are as shareable in nature as they are, while also maintaining a high bar for quality, they garner an immense amount of fan engagement. Though I’m sure some of their successes are unintentional, Nintendo creates content and moments within their games and presentations that directly feed the creative humor of the web, which in turn churns out free marketing, increased brand visibility, and down right good will for their software products.

Sure, it’s possible there isn’t a puppet master behind the scenes, and perhaps Nintendo is just a product of the culture it inhabits, but maybe, just maybe, this is all the genius work of a marketing mastermind.

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