My son, Sam, approached me as I was enjoying a hot cup of coffee in my kitchen. Tears in his eyes, he held out his broken Nintendo DS. He showed me that its hinge had cracked when he opened the device.
Perhaps it was the guilt from my extensive business travel in the weeks leading up to that morning, but I was determined to solve this problem right then and there.
Having transformed into “SuperDad,” I leaped into action and went to Nintendo.com to find a customer service phone number. Right there, at the bottom of the home page, I struck gold: A link to a special phone number that offered immediate help “for those with claims of cracked hinges on their DS.” Boom! I clicked and called customer support.
“We’re sorry, but all lines are currently busy. Please call back later. Thank you. Goodbye.” Not exactly the typical “you are number 43 in line with an estimated wait of two hours and 37 minutes” message—just “call back later.”
I stopped to think. Why would the brand provide a customer service number for something so specific? I Googled “cracked DS hinge” and was met with more than 10,000 pages worth of links to videos, photos, and stories of cracked DS hinges and the many complaints that went with them.
In the comments section of a video that illustrated the problem, DS owners were openly discussing their experience calling Nintendo customer service. One caller proudly claimed that the customer service rep he spoke to informed him that while physical damage was not covered under warranty, for a limited time, Nintendo would send him an empty box for him to return his DS for repair or replacement. There was one catch: It would cost $75. A few threads further, another caller expressed his good fortune securing the same offer, but for free.
Because of all these stories, I was prepared to reach a better outcome. When I called Nintendo’s customer service line later that Saturday morning, I reached a representative who, after hearing my plight, explained the following, “Unfortunately, such physical damage is not covered under warranty, but I can offer to send you an empty box for you to send the device to us, and we will either repair or replace the device and give you a new warranty on the device. This is a limited offer for $75. Would you like to take advantage of this offer?”
I explained to her the stories I read online and mentioned that some people were getting the same offer for zero dollars. I could almost hear the page turn as she read me her next offer from the script: “Unfortunately, such physical damage is not covered under warranty, but I can offer to send you an empty box for you to send the device to us, and we will either repair or replace the device and give you a new warranty on the device. This is a limited offer for no cost to you. Would you like to take advantage of this offer?”
I give Nintendo credit for how it handled the wave of negative consumer sentiment that was building. True to the rep’s word, the empty, self-addressed box arrived at our house two days later. Within a week, my son had a brand new DS. This was a prime example of content marketing. In this case, thousands of stories told through video, photographs, and articles from passionate and upset customers created enough pressure for Nintendo to take action. Although the company may have eventually addressed the issue on its own, these stories likely accelerated its response. This event revealed that real stories distributed at scale have the power to cause action.
In a lot of ways, Nintendo’s situation shares similarities with Apple’s recent “Bendgate” scandal. As a happy new owner of an iPhone 6 Plus, I recognize that the product is not without controversy—particularly that it easily bends in one’s pocket. These stories took a toll, with Apple’s stock immediately dropping in value. Apple responded quickly to the growing stories with one of its own: It claimed the device was one of the strongest mobile devices on the market thanks to the special material in the new iPhone design. It also revealed it had only received eight complaints from customers who claimed to have a bent phone. Consumer Reports jumped into the fray and announced the results of its own scientific test to determine—and ultimately defend Apple’s claim of—the device’s strength. Bendgate was over. The battlefield was the Internet, and content was the victor.
The major difference between Nintendo and Apple in these situations is that Apple took immediate action in the same public space where the negative stories were circling. Nintendo responded in its customer service channels, but left it up to customers to tell the story—and the DS controversy lasted longer because of it. However, neither took advantage of the consumer attention, choosing instead to treat it like a campaign. Imagine if both companies had created a sustained storytelling platform for that audience. The stories would shift from the episode at hand to either the gaming interests of Nintendo’s audience or the multitude of interests of Apple’s early adopters. A consistent storytelling platform would’ve given both brands unprecedented reach without the extreme inefficiency of campaign-based thinking.
We all realize the effect of good storytelling at scale. We see it every day in social networks, politics, and economics. It’s staring us right in the face. And while leveraging storytelling to build audiences and affect change has become pervasive, brands have only just begun to realize all the possible applications for this marketing tool.
Red Bull is widely known as a brand that uses storytelling, and its media service of extreme sports content allowed it to build its own sustained audience. Divisions within IBM are well on their way with their work in security intelligence and small business. But most brands are still reactive and think in terms of campaigns. They waste resources ramping up consumer attention, only to lose traction with the audience they’ve developed when that product or service has fully launched. Why stop there when sustained relationships have shown to be much more effective and efficient? Red Bull and IBM know the secret: Talk about relevant topics that both you and your audience are interested in.
As brands rethink their marketing strategies, they would do well to recognize that consumers embrace organizations that provide them with information they love or need. Brands that understand this can develop loyal audiences similar in magnitude to the following that media companies have enjoyed and monetized for decades. Brands just have to remember: It’s not all about them; it’s about the audience they want to develop and treasure.