Earlier this week it was revealed that Sony filed a lawsuit against actor Jerry Lambert and tire company Bridgestone for Lambert's performance in a Bridgestone ad promoting Nintendo Wii. Sony alleges that it's a breach of contract, but Bridgestone contests that it's not actually the Kevin Butler character in the ad.
Regardless, we haven't observed a new Butler ad on TV in many months, and it's pretty likely that the fictional spokesperson Kevin Butler is now dead. The character was hugely popular in America - to the point that Sony actually trotted Lambert out onto the E3 stage alongside Jack Tretton a couple years ago - and Sony needs to figure out a new marketing direction for the holiday season pronto. So what's the strategy? And just how important was Butler to sales anyway? GamesIndustry International discussed the Butler fallout with PR/marketing experts and analysts.
"Obviously the days of Kevin Butler are over," said Scott Steinberg, CEO of TechSavvy Global. "You're not going to sue somebody you're looking to do business with and have an amiable relationship. His character served as a spokesperson for the brand and the last thing you want is to be in a very public battle with someone who is representing you as the public face of your organization. Ideally, in a situation like this it would have been best resolved in a prior litigation. My suspicion is they had conversations beforehand and now this is push coming to shove."
He continued, "Kevin Butler was beloved by millions and was a huge PR coup for Sony and it helped put a human face on the brand for what was previously seen as a very technology driven company. Ken Kutaragi, Kaz Hirai, Andrew House... they're all business people and it was Kevin Butler who helped bridge the gap and speak to everyday game players."
"Sony really needs to shift the focus back to what are the games and features we've got that you're not seeing anywhere else...I think the spokesperson thing will be quietly swept under the rug"
Another PR professional (who wished to remain anonymous) added, "I think it's a real loss for Sony because Kevin Butler was the only real advertising success for the PS3. It took a long time and a shuffling of agencies to finally strike a chord. I think this campaign resulted in the wider game audience (finally) connecting the PS3 with 'fun'. Their ads up to that point were almost shockingly weak. I always figured they would stick with Kevin Butler at least for the life of the PS3, so the real pain is in the short term."
While Butler's antics struck a chord among the hardcore fans, it's unclear whether the ads did what they were supposed to: drive sales upwards. "They may not have been particularly effective in driving sales," said Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. "I think they blew it in the first place when they dumped Chiat Day for Deutsch as their agency, because the ads went from featuring the product to featuring the spokesperson, and I don't think that served to drive sales. They might be better off with a product focused ad campaign going forward."
Marketing experts agree. It's time to put the games front and center. Explain to customers why they have to buy PlayStation products. Finding a new spokesperson can wait.
"If I were Sony I'd be emphasizing what you can get on PS3 that you can't get anywhere else, and how you package and message that, that's the big question mark," said Steinberg. "But you're not going to roll right into another spokesperson; you're not going to just swap somebody out into Kevin's place. Probably what they're going to do is either a software driven campaign, an in-game character driven campaign, or a campaign driven around the features of the system itself."
"Nintendo is coming out with something completely different and everyone else is homogenized... so Sony really needs to shift the focus back to what are the games and features we've got that you're not seeing anywhere else," he added. "I think the spokesperson thing will be quietly swept under the rug until they have a major event, which they can kick off a new campaign with... so maybe an event like CES or E3."
"It's unfortunate that it got to [the Butler campaign ending], as it was a great campaign, program and push for the brand that has been soiled," an industry veteran close to the situation commented. "In my opinion, they need to focus more on the games and network, no gimmicks, just straight education and sizzle, and justify the reason to get the hardware (PS3 or Vita) this late in the generational cycle. That's what I'd want to hear. Justify why they should pick up hardware and remind those that have it what the offering on the software front is."
"I'm guessing Sony will strive for simplicity and make an effort to communicate value more and more - this will probably mean less clever ads, sad to say"
Anonymous PR professional
Our industry veteran source also noted the growing importance of PSN, and Sony just hasn't done enough marketing on that end, he said. "In my opinion, they've drastically undersold the value of PSN and PS+ and that's a big opportunity, and frankly a need, they should address. PSN and PS+ are huge differentiators that need a light shined on them, not for a short period, but for the long haul. It can't be a short lived campaign, they need to triple down on the spend to compete," he added.
How Sony handles its marketing and PR strategy for the rest of the PS3's life and the beginning of the PS4's will be hugely important. There have been too many stumbles already. "Sony's image has taken a few knocks lately with closing Studio Liverpool, recent layoffs and a disgruntled vocal former staffer, so it's not like they need more bad publicity," Meelad Sadat, PR director for [a]list games, told us.
Our anonymous PR professional noted that at this point in the cycle, the messaging just needs to be simple and to the point. "For launch of PS4 it's probably likely they would have changed gears anyway. The question is how they will position its marketing from now through PS4, as the audience becomes more price conscious, the PS3 price drops, less AAA games arrive, and the hardcore holds back for the new system(s). I'm guessing Sony will strive for simplicity and make an effort to communicate value more and more - this will probably mean less clever ads, sad to say. The more inspired ideas will be held back for PS4 launch," he said.
In the end, Sony's marketing team will recover from the loss of Butler. "They certainly had marketing campaigns that were successful long before Kevin Butler and will continue to do so long after," said Steinberg.
Sony declined to comment for this story, and attempts to reach Jerry Lambert's agent were unanswered as of press time.