If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Brand Values

Can Sony convince loyal consumers it's time to upgrade?

Reaching the top of any hierarchy creates problems. The sense of achievement is great, but once you've reached the top there's really only consolidation or failure to go to. It's vulnerable up there, with rivals trying to topple you and severe danger of overexposure leading to a decline in popularity. Not to dwell on tenuous topical comparisons too heavily, but you don't need to look too far in last week's headlines for examples of how vast public popularity can turn sour after a decade of ubiquity.

In spite of the European release delays and predicted supply issues in other territories, Sony is in no danger of having to see its huge market share handed over to Microsoft next spring. Whatever advances Microsoft may make over the next few months, the pace of sales to date indicate that the Xbox 360 is a steady seller rather than a mass market phenomenon. An increasingly impressive software line-up and better bundles will bring more gamers on board, but the console is some way from penetrating the mass market.

And it's outside of the minds of hardcore and even semi-casual gamers that Sony's strength lies, in the cultural mainstream. While âPlayStation' and âvideogames' are not as interchangeable in the public mind as âHoover' and âvacuum cleaner', nonetheless the brand awareness of PlayStation and its status as the dominant videogames console is formidable.

Even in its second iteration, the Xbox brand is nowhere close to that level of awareness in the mainstream. While the Nintendo name is well-known, what it currently stands for isn't, and perceptions are likely to change again with Wii.

As it stands, in mainstream media, gaming means PlayStation. It's the default option, a reliable brand that consumers without any access to sales figures and technical details trust. They do so at least partially because familiarity and prominence create an aura of respectability and reliability, just as otherwise canny consumers will pay over the odds for products at a High Street store rather than a new, cheaper internet retailer - the former has a solidity that suggests the consumer won't be left high, dry and out of pocket.

The pre-eminence of PlayStation as a gaming brand has a wider effect than on marketing statistics. Both the industry and consumers have come to associate Sony's consoles with a dominant, secure position, and take for granted certain things with Sony hardware: a large installed user base, a wide and varied range of software, and that, with the exception of those owned by rival hardware manufacturers, the majority of major games franchises will gravitate towards a Sony platform over time.

Microsoft and Nintendo will have tremendous difficulty shaking the presumption in the mass market that Sony's latest console will be where the action is, and that PS3 will, sooner rather than later, be the common ground on which most great or popular games will be found.

The deal to keep Pro Evolution Soccer 6 and FIFA 2007 exclusive to Xbox 360 for 12 months may be a demonstration that, if anyone ever doubted it, Microsoft can play with the big boys, but no-one doubts that those titles will make their way to PS3 once the deal is up.

Dead Rising and Lost Planet may be Xbox 360 exclusives now, but memories of Capcom's rapid PS2 conversion of the âGameCube exclusive' Resident Evil 4 are too recent for comfort.

So, if Sony has such a prominent brand in PlayStation, then surely all those PS2 owners will rush out to get a PS3 under their TV as soon as possible? Well, not quite. Massive awareness of the PlayStation brand will not necessarily translate into automatic adoption of PS3, and Sony has set up some barriers for itself in terms of convincing Joe Casual to open his wallet.

There's cost, for a start, with an initial price tag well above that of an impulse purchase, and even the most basic system likely to be closer to 400 pounds in the UK than the 360's 279 pounds premium pack.

Then there's the hard-drive choice itself, which by providing prospective buyers with a choice at the stage of purchasing the basic hardware undermines the idea of a games console as a one-size-fits-all alternative, requiring consumers to make an educated choice on a technical matter.

It's a choice many may feel unqualified to make, and unless Sony can convince them that the 20GB option is a valid one rather than an underpowered compromise that will be superseded by the 60GB version, then consumers will feel obliged to go for the latter or nothing.

At this point the price factor may send consumers scurrying back to their PS2s. In trying to establish the PlayStation 3 as an essential buy, Sony may find that its main rival is its own previous console. While most of the rhetoric between hardware manufacturers maintains the pretence that âgenerations' of consoles are discreet commercial battlegrounds, that isn't necessarily the case. Aside from the question of whether current PS2 owners should buy a PS3 over the cheaper 360 or Wii, there's the wider question of whether they need to replace their PS2 at all.

With hardware under less than a 100 quid and a steady stream of new, relatively cheap games, the PS2 is a very appealing proposition, and PS3 will need to provide some truly outstanding experiences that the current generation can't match to persuade consumers to pay out for an expensive new machine. Graphical upgrades of games already available elsewhere are all well and good, but they're not necessarily a strong argument to buy an expensive new console when you already own a perfectly good old one.

In practice, of course, the question of how PS3 will play with the wider mass market is a question that won't become relevant for many months, as the console's initial, limited shipments will sell out to a hardcore of early adopters. It's once the dedicated gamers have been satisfied and stocks become steady that it will become clear whether PS3 has the wide appeal of its illustrious predecessors. From the lofty position of PS2's huge popularity, Sony has a long way to fall. The next year will see whether they can maintain their position.


Mark Clapham