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What the Xbox Series X Reveal Teaches Us About Marketing Plans Gone Wrong

Good marketing campaigns require strategy, planning, and timing. You want announcements to come at a time when they’ll have the maximum impact on the desired audience as companies spend months – sometimes years – building up to these moments.

But what happens when it all goes awry?

There are many reasons why a marketing plan might get off track: manufacturing delays, world events, leaks, technical difficulties, the list goes on and on. When that happens, your reaction is critical. How can you recover when things don’t go the way they were supposed to?

Microsoft faced this exact problem in September 2020. When its biggest announcement of the year leaked on unofficial channels, the tech company rolled with the punches masterfully. Microsoft’s impressive handling serves as a great example of how to get your campaign back on track.

Marketing pros, take note.

The Background

Every five to seven years, video game console manufacturers release new “next generation” systems that push the medium forward in terms of technology. For two decades, the console market has been dominated by three companies: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. While Nintendo is still enjoying the massive success of the Nintendo Switch console, Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 are reaching the end of their natural life cycles.

That Microsoft and Sony would launch new consoles in 2020 was no secret, but many of the finer details were still under wraps. As of early September, neither manufacturer had revealed a launch date or price for its new consoles, leading to a stand-off of sorts. In a typical year, these announcements might have arrived in June during the annual E3 convention, but with coronavirus forcing the world into quarantine, there were no such events.

Instead, Microsoft and Sony separately held a series of virtual briefings and released news about the upcoming consoles in bite-sized, easily controllable pieces. At this point, gamers knew that each publisher was releasing two versions of their next-gen systems – a cheaper, diskless version and a pricier one with beefier hardware – but were still in the dark about how much they would cost at launch.

This led to public scrutiny, speculation, and rumors flying left and right. The entire industry, along with media and fans, waited to see which publisher would break first. As it turned out, the decision was entirely out of their hands.

Customer marketing challenges and opportunities

The Leak

On the evening of September 7, Twitter user @bdsams posted an image of a slim, white console in the Xbox family. This was the Xbox Series S, the less expensive of Microsoft’s Xbox Series family of consoles. Alongside the image was a message: “Xbox Series S Revealed, Priced at $299.”

Before Microsoft had a chance to respond, Windows Central confirmed Brad Sams’ information. But the Series S price wasn’t the only leak that night; Windows Central had also acquired the Series X price, as well as the launch date for both systems. Within a few hours, it was widely reported that the Xbox Series X and Series S would hit retail on November 10 at $499 and $299 price points, respectively.

With that, the cold war between Microsoft and Sony was over. The prices and launch date for the new Xbox consoles were out in the wild. All gamers needed was a confirmation from the Xbox manufacturer.

Just before midnight on the west coast, the official Xbox Twitter account posted a meme.

The Response

There’s a pretty significant overlap between hardcore gamers and people familiar with internet culture, so Microsoft’s use of the “awkward look” meme was immediately understood. This post was the company’s way of acknowledging the leaks as it prepared a more official response.

The fact that Microsoft’s first post after the leaks was so light-hearted and funny set the stage for what was to come. Where some companies may have gone into denial mode, shut down communication, or rushed to control the story, Microsoft simply let its social media followers know it was aware of what was happening.

The next morning, Microsoft made the Series S pricing official with yet another tweet and promised to share more soon. The Twitter post contained some new info that the leaks had missed, namely that the Series S would be the smallest Xbox ever. Microsoft’s existing consoles are known for their heft, so this was a significant statement.

But that wasn’t the end of it. A day after that, head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, posted comprehensive release information for the Series S and X on the Xbox news site. The post not only confirmed those leaked dates and prices for both systems, but it also revealed new details about tech specs and launch game lineups. There was even a preorder date to limit chaos: September 22.

At this point, Xbox had dominated the gaming and tech news cycles for nearly 48 hours. Meanwhile, Sony still hadn’t released pricing and release date information (and wouldn’t until its PS5 showcase on November 16). By being transparent and addressing the situation with humor and grace, Microsoft took control of the story and came out looking even better than it had before the leaks.

What Marketers Can Learn from Microsoft

No matter what industry, marketing pros can learn a lot from Microsoft’s handling of the Xbox leaks. The most important lesson: don’t ignore your customers. When something goes wrong in the era of always-online everything and social media, you can’t simply bury your head in the sand and hope no one notices. Because modern marketing is built upon customer relationships, it’s vital that your audience feels like you’ve heard them. That’s what Microsoft did with its first meme tweet: a simple message to say, “we know.”

Step two in a crisis is to adapt your plan, not push through as though nothing happened. Doing the latter could come off as tone-deaf, particularly if your strategy is off-track due to tragic real-world events.

A leaked video game console isn’t the end of the world, but other scenarios could be far more severe. It’s hard to see months or years of planning and hard work go sideways, but if – or more likely, when – it happens, that doesn’t mean everything is lost. As Microsoft has shown, you can right the ship and still come out on top. Take a step back, meet with your team, and find ways to adjust that are respectful to your customers.

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