Unless you’ve just fallen off a turnip truck, you’ve probably heard of Animal Crossing: New Horizons by now. Exclusive to the Nintendo Switch gaming console, the title has sold more than 22 million copies worldwide and helped push the Japanese video game company to what have been described as “stratospheric” earnings.
The game sold nearly 12 million in the 12 days after its March 20 release, and caused a furor when hundreds of people violated social distancing protocols to wait in line outside stores for its release.
Nearly five months later, brands, too, are lining up to stake out their own place inside the game’s virtual world. They are drawn by its enticing combination of cultural cachet and reach, as well as its whimsical, wholesome and brand-safe environment. “A PG paradise” is how it was recently described by the U.S. trade title PR Week
From streetwear brand 100 Thieves making its entire collection from the past three years available for players’ in-game avatar, to KFC Philippines creating a virtual restaurant (complete with an in-game Colonel) that offers players coupons for real-world menu items, brands are increasingly common in Animal Crossing.
Canadian brands have also made some forays into the game, with Hudson’s Bay announcing in May that players could dress their avatar or furnish their in-game home with items featuring its signature yellow, green, red and blue stripes.
But this week saw an unlikely brand activation, with Hellmann’s Canada announcing the creation of “Hellman’s Island.” Developed in association with Ogilvy Canada, the virtual environment aligns with the Unilever brand’s 13-year-old Real Food Movement marketing platform and recent efforts like Real Food Rescue, which has resulted in more than 102,000 meals donated to Canadians in need.
Fashion and tech brands might seem like an obvious fit with Animal Crossing, but mayonnaise? Well, it turns out that just as in real life, there is also a “food waste” problem in Animal Crossing (this is going to require some explanation, so stick with us).
Turnips are one of the game’s most valuable items, sold only on Sundays by a character named Daisy Mae. You can’t miss her: she’s got turnips on her head. Players fork over Bells, Animal Crossing‘s in-game currency, to acquire these turnips, and their prices fluctuate on the in-game “Stalk Market” throughout the week.
Players can sell these turnips for more than they paid, which has led to a robust turnip trade among Animal Crossing players. It has even led to the creation of online tools like Turnip Prophet, which uses data-mining to predict what turnip prices will be for the rest of the week to help players sell at the best price and increase their earnings
The downside to all of this turnip trading, however, is that these virtual veggies last for only one week before spoiling. This can leave players sitting on a mound of rotten vegetables if they fail to sell them before the week is up.
Hellmann’s solution invites players to drop off their spoiled turnips, with the brand donating one meal (up to 25,000) to the food rescue charity Second Harvest for each rotten turnip it receives.
“Whether virtual or real, at Hellmann’s we believe food is too precious to waste and we’re thrilled to partner once again with Second Harvest to provide meals to Canadians in need,” says Gina Kiroff, director of foods at Unilever Canada.
“When we noticed spoiled turnips is a real tension point for many Animal Crossing players, we wanted to take advantage of the insight to create a fun consumer experience that would have real world impact. We’re hopeful Hellmann’s Island will not only be an incredible virtual experience, but also will inspire players to think differently about real world food waste.”
Hellmann’s Island will be open from Aug. 17-22, with gamers invited to direct message Hellmann’s on Twitter to receive a “dodo code” (the system players used to invite other people to their island) that will be shared on a first-come, first-serve basis. Visitors will be given a 15-minute time slot, during which they can drop off their spoiled turnips.
The Hellmann’s Island is also home to Hellmann’s Farm, where visitors can stroll through canola fields or see other Hellmann’s ingredients like eggs and barrels of vinegar; Able Sisters Merch Shop, which is offering downloadable items like Hellmann’s inspired dresses, T-shirts and jackets; and the Second Harvest Outdoor Kitchen, were virtual guests are invited to unwind by a waterfall with a sandwich prepared by Second Harvest.
In one of its recent POV notes, media agency UM said that Animal Crossing reflects the rise of “alternative content” like gaming during the pandemic. “It’s truly a perfect fit for a world on lockdown,” said UM.
According to UM, Animal Crossing has a lot of upside for brands because of its broad appeal and low cost of entry, complemented by game mechanics that can help them make their products come to life.
While the game’s look and feel suggest it is for younger children, UM says the player base is primarily 18-34, skewing female. Nintendo, meanwhile, says that a high percentage of New Horizon players are in their 20s and 30s, and over 40% are female.
“If we’ve learned anything from TikTok’s explosion, brands who were ready to pounce and understood the essence of the app saw greatest success when the platform opened for business,” said UM.
“Animal Crossing is not the only popular video game, but this title and genre of game offer serious potential thanks to the open-ended game play and loyal audience.”
While the game might not be a fit for every CPG brand, Hellmann’s decided it couldn’t let a good opportunity to deliver an important brand message go to waste.