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Opinion: PlayStation Brand Faces Uncertain Future

Opinion: PlayStation Brand Faces Uncertain Future

April 29, 2011 | By Colin Campbell

[All brands face distressing episodes at one time or another. Some work their way through the crisis with smart PR and social outreach. Others aggravate the situation with secrecy and tired deflective tricks. Which one is Sony? Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell investigates.]

There was a time -- let's say, for argument's sake, from 1996 to 2004 -- when the PlayStation brand was awe-inspiring. PlayStation represented all the shining possibilities of the future. Brilliantly, PlayStation ran with the goodwill Sony built up in the 1980s with the Walkman, and super-boosted this reputation for design and technical excellence as well as a natural empathy for what people wanted.

But things do tend towards entropy. Today, the PlayStation brand is in gentle decline. And the events of the past week could accelerate that decline into something more serious. Especially if Sony continues to handle the crisis with the incompetence it has thus far demonstrated.

Brands are weird. They are both robust and delicate. On the one hand, the mythos of Sony's excellence doesn't just go away, any more than Toyota's formidable reputation did after its troubles last year.

On the other, the brand has already slipped from pre-eminence to also-ran, and this debacle can't do it any good. The PlayStation brand has been in decline for the entire life-cycle of PlayStation 3, while the Xbox and Nintendo brands have been steadily rising even through their own turmoils, like RROD and Wii's general faddishness. Unarguably, PlayStation is no longer a byword for next generation entertainment.

If Sony wants to come through this present crisis with the PlayStation brand relatively unsullied it needs to make some big changes to how it approaches the outside world, and how it views itself. Sony has always behaved like a dictator, benevolently dispensing information to favored sycophants according to its own desires. But we live in an age of communal equality, of disrespect and distrust of authority. The sycophants are still there. But fewer and fewer people are listening.

The people demand that errant brands 'fess up, tell us what the hell is going on, and they'd better be polite about it.

I spoke to Karen Post, author of Brand Turnaround: How Brands Gone Bad Returned to Glory (due to be published in the fall by McGraw-Hill). She points out that smart brands can turn disaster into a win.

"A few years back JetBlue experienced a major operational meltdown, leaving passengers in an awful, compromised place. Once the dust and emotions settled, JetBlue made major improvement to their customer service and operational policies and even created a highly publicized Passenger Bill of Rights that has now been adopted by the industry."

It is no coincidence that JetBlue spends a lot of time and effort on its social media outreach, using its blogs as a fun way to connect with people, instead of merely a dreary corporate mouthpiece and bucket for PR assets, which is the norm in the game industry.

Domino's Pizza has scored a lot of success in the last 12 months by admitting that its pizzas were kinda nasty, and offering a better product. This sort of humorous groveling has its place, although I doubt it would work for Sony, because the company sells stature, not comfort. It sells the idea of power, which is difficult to square with overtly goofy marketing.

Toyota's approach was to remind people that it has a long record of excellence and that, surely, takes precedence over the small matter of an eight million car recall and alleged loss of life. But old games consoles don't play as well as classic cars, and I think Sony will need to look forward and not back.

Some brands -- for example bona fide scumbags like BP and Goldman Sachs -- seem to be able to get away with deflecting blame elsewhere and utilizing various dirty PR tricks. But Sony is not selling oil or greed, it's selling pretty electronic gadgets and entertainment. It's selling a dream, and so it needs to make sure its response chimes with the brand's own properties of being in tune. It needs to be loved. This is why the duff notes coming out of Foster City are so excruciating.

A Sorry Spectacle

Here's a little test for you. Which of the following statements are you most likely to agree with in one year's time.

A: "Sony handled that situation amazingly. They held their hands up and took appropriate share of blame. They outlined a clear plan of action to remedy the situation and they made sure all stakeholders were recompensed beyond reasonable expectations. They showed their human side and came out of this a stronger company."

B: "It just kinda went away, didn't it? Sony entirely laid the blame on the hackers, launched a lot of legal flak, refused to take any responsibility, offered the minimum clarity and token recompense. But no-one cares any more. At least they've encrypted my personal data now."

I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that answer B is looking a whole lot more likely than answer A.

So far, Sony's response has been predictably pitiful. The best it could do was send out an email and post a blog Q&A. Sony's bloodless blog update makes depressing reading. Here is Sony skirting with the issue of its own culpability...

"We sincerely regret any inconvenience or concern this outage has caused."

Note the phrase "this outage," as if it were an unfortunate spot of inclement weather.

The statement ought to have said...

"We made a mistake here. We picked a fight we couldn't win, and, even with an attack highly likely, we neglected to protect your stuff."

You'll note that when it comes to protecting its own data, copyrights, money, margins, power, Sony is the model of efficiency and scruples. This is why GamePro called Sony's slowness to inform the public "an astounding breach of trust." When Sony wants to be good at something, everything is dandy.

Sony's poor record in PR is nothing new. Ars Technica's Ben Kuchera tweeted, "Sony, as a company, has been utterly tone deaf throughout the entirety of the news cycle. I can't think of a single right move Sony has made in the PR department in the past three months."

Pat Garratt at VG247 noted, "This long-lasting silence is Sony's biggest failing, not just because it shows disrespect for users, but also because it left time for misinformation, rumor, speculation and lies -- the four horsemen of the PR disaster apocalypse."

Sony, and some of its apologists, are already making the case that this whole mess is NOT SONY'S FAULT. In the company's blog post, it uses the phase "malicious attack" twice, and refers to the "criminal" act, also twice. I don't deny that Sony is the victim of a criminal act. But, so's the bumbling bank manager who leaves the vault door open. This attempt to deflect all the blame on the hackers is a sorry spectacle.

I'm not here to drag Sony through the mud for its incompetent custodianship of your data. Rather for its inability to respond to the crisis. For me, the Sony PlayStation brand is being eroded by Sony's own charmless posturing. The most human thing to come out of the company this week was the statement that the hackers would be hunted down "no matter where in the world they might be located." Surely this is the least attractive response imaginable; the cry-baby tough guy.

Where's Kevin Butler?

What Sony conspicuously lacks is a likable human being who can get in front of the cameras and make us feel some empathy with the brand -- a real-life Kevin Butler. (Oh for good ol' Phil Harrison about now.)

The company should be booking halls around the country and inviting PSN users in for an open Q&A -- hosted by a genuine tough-journalist, not some rent-a-mic ass kisser -- all shown live and connected to an impressive social media wave. All the nasty stuff's got to come out sooner or later -- better this way than in some painful Senate investigation on CSPAN.

Instead of leaving hundreds of loyal followers bobbing around in the frigid seas of its blog, questions unanswered, Sony should have a small armies of nice people contacting the fans directly, offering encouragement and support.

Sony should be booking ads outlining exactly what it's doing, and releasing video docs on YouTube showing us men in white coats explaining what happened, how it's going to be fixed, and what the affected consumers should do. Deutsch/LA should be working on a new ad right now in which Kevin Butler does his thing, getting everyone on board Sony's transparent and believable story about the crisis.

Right now, highly influential outlets like Reddit are teeming with funny virals about Sony. One cartoon shows PlayStation 3 as a useless first date because it's "insecure." Another riffs on the Scumbag Steve meme, positing Sony as a sociopath. There's even a re-appearance of Kanye.

These are the messages that are leaving the biggest impression. Maybe Sony thinks it can drown out all this noise with a big, deflective E3 showing, or an ad campaign on Fox later in the year, or some free DLC. If so, they're wrong.

Here's Sony's problem. In order for people to allow the brand into their lives, they have to identify with its values. Sony's values have always been attractive and alluring. Right now, Sony is hiding. That's not attractive. It does not allure. It frustrates and it annoys.

I asked Karen Post what's the worst things a brand like Sony could do right now. She said, "Fail to focus on finding answers. Fail to be transparent and honest. Behave like cry babies. Underestimate social media."

Sound familiar?

[As well as being business editor for Gamasutra, Colin Campbell works for a marketing agency. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandnarrative.]

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