What Is Mercedes-Benz Doing In Nintendo Games?

Targeted advertising has always been a thing in the entertainment, as marketers try to determine what their desired demographics like to watch/play/do, and then shoehorn their products into those things and activities. Sometimes these partnerships make logical sense, such as sticking an automotive parts company logo on a stock car. Other times, the relationship is more subtle: For example, prescription drug ad during network news broadcasts because those viewers skew older than the general population, or Tide in NASCAR because they figure everybody has to do laundry.

Then there are partnerships that seem to make no sense on any level whatsoever. Exhibit A: Nintendo and Mercedes-Benz.

Mercedes’s contribution to gaming thus far includes a trio of playable vehicles in Mario Kart 8, and a Mystery Mushroom costume (as well as an admittedly-cool event course) in Super Mario Maker. The additions fit the games well and are interesting to use…but what is Mercedes’s endgame here? Why are they sticking their brand into games played mostly be people who a) aren’t old enough to drive, and b) couldn’t afford a Mercedes-Benz even if they wanted to?

I have a few theories on the matter:

  • As Nintendo has recently copped to in its ads for the Nintendo Switch, its audience isn’t nearly as young as people might think. Nintendo is making a play for the young professional audience with the Switch, which is exactly who Mercedes would like to bring into its fold:

“…the GLA is part of a new generation of compact-class luxury cars aimed at an affluent and progressive audience, making it a good match with a significant part of Super Mario Maker’s target audience.” —Fortune, Dec. 15 2015

  • Going at least as far back at the Wii, Nintendo has positioned themselves as “the other console,” serving as a complement to whatever existing system (Xbox, Playstation, PC) you might already have. Not every household can afford a ’boutique’ item like a second gaming console, and those that can also likely have the money to afford a Mercedes.
  • Compared to television advertising, in-game advertising can have a very long lifespan. Consider the GLA in Mario Kart 8: The car was released to the karting public in August 2014, and not only has it been a part of a game whose online community is still thriving today, but (assuming the DLC gets included in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe) the brand will make the jump to the Switch and spend another few years in rotation! Conventional ads rarely have that sort of longevity. (It’s also worth noting that Nintendo games tend to have longer lifecycles than yearly-refreshing franchises like Madden.
  • Finally, consider the following quote:

“Many people grew up with Mario during the last 30 years, so there are quite a lot of 30- and 40-somethings around for which Super Mario Maker hails back to their childhood days and gives them a large dose of nostalgia.” —Caroline Pilz, head of product placement and fashion sponsoring for Mercedes, as told to Fortune

On the surface, this is just another quote confirming our first point about player age. I posit, however, that what Mercedes really wants is some of that Nintendo nostalgia.

Nintendo has an extremely passionate fanbase that is emotionally vested in the success of the company. Much of this has to do with the fact that video games, and specifically Nintendo, were huge parts of their childhood. I think Mercedes is hoping for a little of this Nintendo magic to rub off on their brand, in hopes that young gamers who encounter and enjoy their in-game products now might be more inclined to buy and support Mercedes-Benz products in the future. It’s a bit of a moonshot if you ask me, but this form of product placement strikes me as cheaper to produce than traditional advertising, so maybe a few dollars invested in some very long-term brand-building is worth the cost.

However, there’s one big problem with Mercedes’ plan to woo Nintendo fans:

Pilz says the presence in racing games is a good way for Mercedes-Benz to make a young, car-enthusiastic audience familiar with its products. —Fortune, Dec. 15 2015

…Except that it’s not clear that such a “young, car-enthusiastic audience” really exists. Millennials are a lot more ambivalent about driving and car ownership than prior generations, and according to the LA Times:

Contrary to the perception that young people are indulgent, many millennials seem to avoid buying flashy cars they really can’t afford and look instead at more practical considerations, perhaps as a concession to the load of college debt many have racked up. —Melissa Etehad and Rob Nikolewski, Dec. 23 2016

Mercedes, for as hip and cool as it would like to be, is an expensive luxury car brand, and newly-minted college grads carrying around mountains of student debt will be considering price and practicality if/when they purchase a car. They aren’t going to care if you showed up in their favorite video game twenty years ago.

We haven’t seen much from the Mercedes/Nintendo partnership since the Mario Maker course, and it’s unclear whether that is because the partnership expired or because Mercedes, like Nintendo, abandoned the Wii U and is waiting to see what opportunities arise for the Switch. If I were advising Mercedes, however, I’d tell them to spend their advertising budget elsewhere, because the potential payoff for being in Nintendo games seems too small to justify the cost.