Founded in July of 2006, Nintendo of Korea has faced an uphill battle since its inception. A notoriously difficult market for non-PC games and platforms, Korea presented a great many challenges to the company, not the least of which was the widespread prevalence of piracy.
An even bigger challenge for Nintendo, however, was the lack of any previous presence in the country, or any significant base of loyal fans. A good number of young people could identify Mario and Pikachu, but there was no real connection to Nintendo itself. NOK, therefore, had to start from scratch.
Living in Seoul over the past decade, I've been able to observe firsthand the ups and downs of the current generation, and in large part, things have not been pretty.
Microsoft started with a strong marketing push for the Xbox 360 in early 2006, but the platform was met with a lukewarm reception outside of the hardcore crowd. Soon, demo kiosks at big box retailers were the console's only major remaining source of visibility -- a fact which continues to hold true today.
On Sony's end, the PSP has been a steady success since its release in mid-2005, but after the initial well-executed advertising push, marketing visibility in the real world has been virtually non-existent.
Likewise, the PlayStation 3, launched in mid-2007, was marked by an early advertising campaign that reached the masses, but ever since has been all but invisible, much like the Xbox 360 before it. PS3 demo kiosks are generally harder to find than their Microsoft counterparts, as well.
In the eyes of the public, then, the pattern that emerged from both Sony and Microsoft suggested that they had quickly given up on the mainstream Korean market, evidently seeing little further hope for it in this generation. Systems are certainly available on retail shelves, but they feel decidedly neglected -- even abandoned.
Nintendo, on the other hand, has forged out for itself a very different path in Korea. The success of DS in the country has been well documented, and Wii, while not a DS-level phenomenon, has made significant inroads into the Korean living room since its launch in mid-2008.
That's not to say that NOK has had an easy go of things. Korea remains as difficult a market as it's ever been for non-PC games, and the massive prevalence of piracy has proven to be a major obstacle for the company.
In spite of these difficulties, however, Nintendo of Korea has shown an unmatched dedication to the market since day one, and this has proven to be its main point of differentiation from competitors.
Starting with the launch of the DS lite, all of Nintendo's advertising has been consistent, unified, and tasteful, and most sigificantly, it's been visible everywhere -- on TV, in magazines, on the internet, and in the real world.
Na-young Lee, one of the first stars of Nintendo's ads in Korea.
Nintendo and its products were suddenly plastered in the faces of a people who had never been exposed to them before, and they responded positively. The uniform nature of the ads made them recognizable immediately, featuring some of Korea's most popular celebrities in ways that came across as natural, not forced.
Most importantly, visibility has never tailed off in the slightest -- the same intensity that accompanied the DS Lite's launch at the outset of 2007 is still in force today. In short, Nintendo came out firing on all cylinders, and has maintained a sort of omnipresence in Korea ever since, despite the fact that the obstacle-ridden market is nowhere near as fertile as those of other major territories.
Along the way, something very interesting happened, something that started with schoolchildren and worked its way up to adults: video games themselves became synonymous with the word Nintendo.
Just as "playing Nintendo" meant "playing video games" among U.S. schoolchildren in the 1980s, Korean kids were now saying the same thing, only the "Nintendo" they were speaking of wasn't a large grey box in front of the TV, but a two-screened clamshell in their backpacks.
You'll be hard pressed to find a child (or an adult) in Korea who refers to his or her DS by its proper name -- it's simply a "Nintendo", just as the NES was to Westerners some 20 years ago.
In other words, a company with no previous name value in Korea managed to forge its way into one of the toughest markets around, becoming a part of its very culture in no time flat. If you know Korea, you know that's an impressive feat.
The individual entrusted with the task of heading up Nintendo's entrance into the Korean market was Mineo Koda. Having been with the company since 1983, Koda previously handled sales in Europe, Australia, and Asia, later going on to develop the markets of India and the Middle East before being assigned to Korea in 2006.
I recently had the chance to speak with President Koda about some of the challenges NOK faced in starting from square one in Korea, how these were overcome, and what it means to have made significant inroads into both the country's market and culture. Some highlights follow.
A few years ago, the words "Nintendo" and "Mario" meant virtually nothing to the Korean people, but that changed in a remarkably short period of time. What were some of the challenges faced in launching in a country where Nintendo had so little previous footing, both in terms of market share and public familiarity?
Mineo Koda: Well, to begin with, Nintendo's global strategy is to "increase the gaming population," which means that we want to increase the number of people who play games across the boundaries of age, gender, and prior familiarity with games.
So in order to achieve this, our goal is to offer products that can be easily enjoyed by all people, regardless of age, and the same philosophy applied to Korea.
As you've pointed out, prior to our official entry into the Korean market in 2007, people's familiarity with Nintendo in this country was very minuscule, limited to a small portion of video game enthusiasts, and any popularity was virtually nonexistent. This was certainly a challenge.
In Korea, online computer games have commanded such an overwhelming share of the market that the word "game" has simply meant "online computer games" to most people. Still, even in the face of this fact, we did not believe that Nintendo's games were unmarketable in Korea.
Notably, our goal here was never to compete with or steal the market share of online computer games, but rather, we were seeking to forge an altogether new market, one that would offer experiences that could not be obtained via online computer games, and the same holds true today.
In other words, reiterating what was stated before, our goal was to expand the user base, and thereby to expand the entire gaming population, both here and everywhere.
Therefore, we have tried to communicate to people new types of play and interaction in order for more and more people to enjoy video games, creating a whole new market outside of what existed before. So in Korea, this has meant seeking to make even those people who are not interested in online computer games wish to try Nintendo games just once. This was our chief focus in approaching the Korean market, and it continues to be.
The visibility of Nintendo's competitors in Korea fell off quickly after their initial waves of advertising came to a close, but Nintendo has kept up the same pace from day one until now, always remaining highly visible in a unified fashion, with an accessible public image that spreads across both products and advertising. What do you feel this has accomplished in terms of making inroads into Korean culture?
MK: As we were preparing to enter the Korean market, our first major area of concern was making sure that everything we would do would be relevant to the the Korean people, and on thoroughly localizing software before entering the market.
We felt that in order to be accepted by those who make up the mainstream Korean market, more than anything else, we needed to focus on making quality and meaningful localizations that would really speak to people, and that this mindset had to cover all of our communication.
Hence, from day one, all of the software that we issued was thoroughly and rigorously localized for the Korean market, and it continues to be.
At Nintendo, we are fortunate to have the most widely-loved and recognizable software franchises in the world -- Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, etc. -- but in spite of these, if we would be unable to express to consumers the unique facets of our game systems, which are vastly different from those of other companies, we would never be able to reach our goal of expanding the gaming population.
In other words, we couldn't simply rely upon well-known franchises and characters. Therefore, we felt that beyond all else it would be necessary to emphasize the unique experiences and charm that would only be possible with our software, and to make the Korean people understand these through our marketing.
Additionally, in Korea, a great emphasis is placed on education, and games are thought of negatively, as obstacles to children's studies. This was a huge wall to surmount for us in selling games.
Therefore, we decided that it would be best to first begin by advertising Brain Training for DS, a title that had already played a huge role in expanding the gaming population worldwide. We wanted to introduce ourselves to Korea with this title, which broke down the walls of age, gender, and people's previous familiarity with games -- a piece of software that everyone could feel had something to offer them.
Brain Training went on to become known here as the first-ever software that could work as a tool to improve intergenerational communication, and by means of it, we were able to convince people in Korea who previously had no interest in games that they could in fact be a source of real value.
Magical Chinese Characters, a Korea-specific game that has proven to be a huge hit with kids and parents. As schools place less and less emphasis on teaching Chinese characters, many parents invest in outside tutoring so that their children can learn them. This game has become a valuable (and cost-saving) tool to that end.
Outside of this, we went on to publish a wide range of games that have featured activities and educational experiences that people had never associated with games in the past: raising a puppy, learning English, studying Chinese characters, cooking, fitness, playing musical instruments, etc.
Many of these were localized, and some were all-new, specifically created for the Korean market. Such software has worked to expand the very definition of video games, achieving acceptance by a wide range of age groups and demographics, and effectively widening our user base.
Thus far, Nintendo of Korea's efforts have succeeded in making Nintendo's name, products, and characters common elements of Korean society, both among youth and beyond. Moving forward, what will help Nintendo to find greater success in the Korean market, further expanding the user base and the number of people who think positively of Nintendo?
MK: Moving forward, we believe that the interactive element of games will continue to increase, and that games will continue to develop into an element of culture that aids in the emotional interchange between people, increasing and expanding the meaning of games in a cultural sense, and effectively giving them an entirely new meaning.
As we've done up to now, we will continue to make great efforts in Korea so that the DS and Wii can further become convenient, helpful, and invaluable tools in the lives of consumers, creating experiences that can be enjoyed with friends and family and that impart joy to all who join in. This is our vision.
Also, we will continue to actively support the development of Korean-language software for DS and Wii that is being created by talented developers both inside and outside of Korea. Through this, we hope to deliver unique and exciting game experiences to Korean consumers, and to continue helping the Korean games industry to grow and develop in new ways.
To reiterate what we first talked about, our foremost focus is on expanding the gaming population by growing the number of people who participate in games, and this goal will guide all we do in Korea. By means of our efforts, we hope that the market for family video games will expand, and that the industry will take another step forward.