From the department of brand-killing marketing ideas comes Mercedes-Benz’s latest venture: in-game product placement for popular Nintendo game Mario Kart. Why? Because Millennials, that’s why!
For those who are unfamiliar with the series, Mario Kart is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. There’s been at least one game on every Nintendo system since the days of the square-controller Super Nintendo. It’s easily one of the company’s most valuable franchises, right up there alongside perennial moneymakers like the Zelda and Super Mario Brothers series.
Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U, Nintendo’s current-generation home console, sold over a million copies in four days after its late May release. True to the Mario Kart tradition, MK8 is a zany, fast-paced arcade style racing game with broad appeal. Unlike Forza, Gran Turismo, or other serious simulator-type racing games, MK8 is all about casual play online and amongst friends. Comic explosions and crazy items abound, including banana peels, turtle shells, mushrooms that make you go faster, and squids that cover the screen in digital ink. Into this atmosphere steps Mercedes, which in partnership with Nintendo has announced it will sponsor a “GLA-class” kart as a piece of downloadable content (DLC) for the game sometime later this summer. That means it will most likely be a free, voluntary addition to the game, but the announcement already has many Mario Kart players steamed.
The GLA, and its CLA sedan cousin, are aimed squarely at the entry-level buyer demographic that luxury brands are currently chasing with wild abandon. Mercedes, Audi, BMW, and other luxury brands all want younger blood in their dealerships, as they try to set up a new class of lifelong repeat customers. Millennials make up a huge chunk of the player demographic for the Mario Kart series, so from a pure exposure standpoint the Mercedes sponsorship seems to make sense. Even so, the context of the game wildly clashes with Mercedes’ brand image in North America. That’s partly because this particular venture is something of a digital leftover.
It’s important to note that the GLA kart wasn’t originally intended for the North American market. Instead, it’s the fruit of a Mercedes tie-in with Nintendo in Japan. That includes a classically bizarre Japanese TV commercial (viewable in the link), where a chiseled Mario steps out of a GLA in front of a windswept castle before accidentally stepping on a Goomba. For the Japanese market, though, this is positively vanilla. Freaky ads for luxury goods and virtually everything else are pretty much the norm in the Land of the Rising Sun (if you don’t believe me, waste an afternoon on this Youtube channel). So are tie-ins between seemingly unrelated categories of products, like a German luxury automaker and a homegrown electronic entertainment conglomerate. For the American market, though, this JDM import seriously risks getting lost in translation.
At the heart of the problem is Mario Kart’s overall aesthetic. As explained earlier, it’s the kind of game where crazy power-ups coexist alongside cartoon animals and giant flowers used as parachutes. There’s absolutely nothing realistic about it, and none of the karts resemble actual vehicles in the slightest. It’s a game that exists entirely inside the made-up Nintendo universe; that’s part and parcel of the appeal. Where does a chunky, semi-realistic rendering of a Mercedes-Benz trucklet fit into this?
The short answer is that it doesn’t. Gamers are already complaining that in-game product placement of this type is completely out of line with the spirit of the series. Pessimists will counter that many of these complainers are likely to be twelve-year-olds and basement dwellers whose opinions don’t matter, and they might be right. But this product tie-in encapsulates everything that Millennials hate about marketing targeted at them: a heavy-handed attempt to make something look “cool” and “hip” by sticking it where it doesn’t belong. To those potential customers, Mercedes will now be known as the company that ruined Mario Kart by sticking a fugly CUV inside of it. For everyone else, they’ll just be a laughingstock.