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How Sentosa and BBH hacked Animal Crossing and redefined a tourism marketing strategy

sentosa

Leisure and tourism brand Sentosa was hit very quickly by lockdown restrictions. But, with the rest of the market beset by the same worries, it took a longer-term view and launched some of the pandemic’s most memorable and fun digital advertising.

The clever hack of hit game Animal Crossing: New Horizons saw the Singaporean island, known locally as the ‘State of Fun’, become a global talking point as it hit the news around the world. 

Sentosa director, brand, marketing and communications, Mira Bharin and Sascha Kuntze, chief creative officer, BBH Singapore, the agency behind the work, spoke to The Drum as part of The Drum Can-Do Festival, to explain how some clever digital creativity kept the tourism brand top of mind for consumers.

Over the months that Singaporeans were in lockdown (the ‘circuit breaker’), Sentosa launched virtual Zoom backgrounds that placed people at famous landmarks. It streamed virtual DJ sets and beach yoga sessions and it created its own island on Animal Crossing, which even hosted a wedding.

Bharin explains that the guiding principle for digital activity through lockdown was its brand conviction around the importance of tracking a break.

“Sentosa believes in the importance of taking a break, and really making time for what matters. As a destination brand, we had to really synergize with our offerings on the island. Therefore, uses of digital, like gamification and online platforms, really build on the strengths of a leisure destination. We were tapping on our iconic island offerings to connect us with our guests digitally,” she explains.

The great Animal Crossing hack

The most talked-about part of the campaign was the Animal Crossing island, which tapped into the fact that the game had become a huge hit globally while people were stuck at home. Sentosa and BBH managed to create a branded experience on the game very quickly, largely through hacking the games building functions. 

Creating at the speed of culture was fundamental to the success of the campaign, according to Kuntze, adding that advertising agencies needed to keep aware of mainstream cultural trends.

“We‘re living in times where our audience literally is paying money to avoid seeing our work. We really needs to work a lot harder to provide value. A shortcut to that are those cultural moments... because they immediately make you relevant and interesting. It‘s really important that we leave this bubble of the hip, Netflix-watching ad men and women and really look out to see what the majority of people really care about,” he says. “Animal Crossing has been a phenomenon. When people open the history books in 20 years, not only will 2020 be a book by itself, but in it will be a chapter about Animal Crossing. We wanted a piece of that and we wanted to be first.”

In terms of how it worked, the agency used the game mechanics to build the island, much like any game player could, as official brand partnerships would not have been feasible in the short amount of time. It essentially hacked the game.

“It took us 12 days from the go-ahead to launch. We knew we needed to be the first, so urgency really became our middle name. We even started working on the island before it was fully sold in,” says Kuntze.

“We adopted a hacking spirit because we weren‘t creating a game from scratch. If you do that you can just do anything you want with money, you just create your world, but we were hijacking one, which means we have to operate within the rules and the laws of the game. We had to harvest raw materials, like softwood, hardwood and clay to build anything on the island and that cost time. We had to find a way for that, so we created a supply chain, linking together several Nintendo switches, harvesting those raw materials and finding a loophole where we could gift it to the main builder. We then used them to build the island. We had to work in a shift system, which meant our producer suddenly had to take on a logistics role and transport the Nintendo Switch from home to home because we were all working from home doing this, which was an added complication,” he adds.

In the end, the agency created over 50 custom-made designs for the island, which represented individual brands and attractions on the island, such as restaurants and clubs. 

The lesson from moving so quickly as an agency while working from home? It was about “mindsets, not job roles”, according to Kuntze.

Investing for the long-term

For Bharin, the success of this campaign helped teach a major lesson for the brand in staying true to a brand’s philosophy. 

“Staying true to our brand identity and brand philosophy became a really big lesson. Virtual Sentosa Animal Crossing is a perfect example, and it was so powerful for us because it really synergizes what our brand stands for. We are an island, a holiday island. I think that‘s key learning – to not jump on a trend just for the sake of jumping on the trend, but to link it to your brand identity,” she says.

The Sentosa story is one that many brands can be inspired by. It shows a brand that invested in its customers and stayed true to its identity while launching quick, creative work, during a time when it could have been quiet. For both Sentosa and BBH, the long-term implications of investing now outweigh short-term needs.

Bharin and Kuntze spoke with The Drum’s Charlotte McEleny as part of The Drum‘s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full can do schedule here.

Featured by The Drum

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