Atari recently has teased the gaming world with a YouTube video promoting the company’s first new console in 24 years. Besides ominous background music and close-up shots of a wood veneer surface, the only message is: “Coming soon.”
Atari made the first gaming console owned by many baby boomers and featured games from Pong to Pac Man to Asteroids, it fell out of favor. Personally, we loved it and could give anyone a battle – including the computer—playing basketball or space war.
Still, a marketing professor at at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, says the beleaguered company has an iconic brand but will have to work like Pac-Man to chomp its way back into the gaming hardware space.
“Even when the teaser ad came out, a lot of people thought it was a hoax,” Boyd says. “It does beg the question: ‘Can they pull this off?'”
Response to the Ataribox ad, which already has 1.2 million views, shows the residual value in the name. “A whisper campaign can be good for a brand like Atari,” Boyd says. “If you’re reaching people in the know, and they distill the information out to other audiences, then that builds pent up demand from folks who want to know more.”
Boyd says the marketing strategy hinges on how well Atari can recruit influencers — people like the cool kids in high school who spread new trends. Classic brands like Hush Puppies and Converse found success this way during their resurrections.
“When I think of the movie ‘I, Robot’ with Will Smith, he’s rocking the Converse All Stars from back in the day,” Boyd says. “So you can do this if you have an iconic brand.”
Atari might have its first product placement already lined up. The trailer for “Blade Runner 2049” shows a car zipping past giant Atari logos lit up at night in a futuristic city. The Blade Runner trailer is also stirring up fan buzz for the sequel to a film many consider to be the best science fiction film of its time. So the company has some sense about how to create buzz.
Even if Atari can create buzz, it will still need to drop a product that makes gamers want to play. The last time the company tried that — with Atari Jaguar in 1993 — the hype quickly faded. (Imagine the Pac-Man death sound effect.) A limited games library and sluggish sales sunk Atari Jaguar within three years. “It was a disaster.” Boyd says.
In 2017 the company will need to carve a niche away from the “big three” in gaming hardware: Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, owner of Xbox. “They’re going to have to offer something fresh, something new in the gaming world that other companies haven’t put out there,” Boyd says. “That’s tricky.”
One strategy is to go retro, appealing to middle-aged customers who already have a relationship with Atari. “I imagine that’s the group they’re looking for — those people who might engage in a little nostalgia,” Boyd says.
A riskier strategy would be to break ties with the past, carrying nothing forward but the Atari name. Regardless, Boyd says the company will need to offer something innovative with its games. “Content is king,” he says.
Strong vision in C suite
One thing working in Atari’s favor might be strong vision in the C suite. “We talk about being fearless at Maryland,” “We look at Fred Chesnais, the new CEO at the helm. “He’s pretty daring, Boyd says. “Kind of bold. Rather audacious.”
Already, Chesnais has led Atari out of bankruptcy in 2013 with smartphone apps and licensing revenue. “He’s sort of a turnaround artist,” Boyd says. “Most folks would be impressed that he has turned around a company that was bankrupt to where it’s profitable now.”
Story provided by the Univiersity of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. WRAL contributions from Allan Maurer.