Death by Brand Fusion

Image source: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

Last week, M.G. Siegler wrote a fantastic, punchy article on why Apple should acquire Nintendo. He has written about this before, however the argument has come up again due to Apple’s recent announcement of Apple’s new gaming subscription service, Apple Arcade. Let’s face it: he has a great point and perhaps if Apple had bought Netflix, it would not be trying to enter a highly competitive streaming market with Apple TV+ and original content. Therefore, buying Nintendo is a perfectly sensible suggestion and it would bolster Apple’s gaming efforts at exactly the right time.

Apple has long been accused of not getting games, particularly in the face of longstanding PC and console manufacturers and their respective ecosystems and devotees. Apparently, gaming just ‘isn’t in Apple’s DNA’. With Apple Arcade, the company is showing signs that it perhaps does get gaming and is willing to commission developers to produce high-quality content.

Siegler puts Apple’s general attitude towards gaming and its more recent success in the mobile space well in this section:

In the past, Apple has treated the gaming business quite casually, even though it has seemingly been right there for the taking, given the popularity of the format on iOS devices. Now they’re diving in. And yet they still don’t have such expertise in-house. You know who could get them smart, quick? In that way, it wouldn’t be too dissimilar from the acquisition of Beats to get Jimmy Iovine and team in the mix.

It was the reference to Beats that caught my eye in Siegler’s article. When Apple bought Beats, it surprised many devout Apple fans, largely because of the perceived cultural mismatch of the two companies. Sure, Apple has apparently always had ‘music in its DNA’, but Beats was a company and service that was generally obsessed with bass and made less-than-premium headphones. Although both companies shared a passion for music, how could Apple have bought a firm that made such brightly coloured plastic products?

Over time, people came to understand that the acquisition was more about the absorption of personalities like Iovine and Dre and the fusion of streaming technology and smarts into Apple’s product offerings, as iTunes and digital music purchases die a slow death. Apple used the Beats brand as it needed.

Interestingly, as a consequence of this purchase, the Beats brand has been suppressed somewhat, although not yet entirely killed. Since 2015, we have no longer heard the name Beats Music, instead we hear Apple Music. Yet Beats headphones and other audio products persist for the moment, in order to retain the coolness and cachet that the brand has held among consumers. Apple realised a number of years ago, as Spotify was on the rise, that the days of white earbuds in the iTunes era had waned. Apple needed outside help to re-inject brand coolness into its music offerings.

With the success of AirPods since then, Apple has shown that the white earbuds can indeed make a comeback and that it does not really need the Beats brand on the hardware side either. AirPods are now absolutely everywhere. Over time, I believe that Beats will die and the brand will vanish. In the near future, we may perhaps even see very much the same Beats products simply redesigned or recoloured to fit the more accepted Apple aesthetic.

Looping back to gaming, I agree with Siegler that it would have enormous benefits for both companies, taking Nintendo stories and characters to a stratospheric level on mobile devices and cementing Apple’s position in the gaming market. Who knows? Apple could even try in the console again. How about the Apple Pippin II?

On the other hand, considering the way that Beats has been integrated, I think that this poses a very interesting question for how the Nintendo brand would be handled over time. Let’s be clear: Nintendo is a massive and truly beloved brand that has more history, IP and relatability across demographics than Beats ever did as its own company. Nintendo is a cultural icon in its own right.

Still, it is not Apple—not everyone is into gaming but everyone is into smartphones.

For those who love Nintendo and would be keen to see its hypothetical acquisition by Apple, thereby integrating it into a broader subscription offering such as Apple Arcade, there must be the willingness to accept that one day, Nintendo would probably die.

Some may argue that Nintendo is such a strong brand that Apple would have to keep it around. At first, that would certainly be the case. Apple would take advantage of the Nintendo brand and associate its service with their popular games and characters. Nintendo fans would be happy to see their favourite characters flourish and Apple fans would be pleased to see even more cool stuff available to play on their devices.

How would this death occur? It’s fairly simple. Years into the future, assuming that such an acquisition and combined service were successful, Apple may gradually reduce the emphasis on its Nintendo brand and perhaps even remove the logo or any reference to the name from its marketing materials and the App Store.

Steadily, those gamers who knew characters such as Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda as Nintendo characters would lose that strong association (or more bluntly, die) and a new generation would come to know them as Apple game characters. In addition, new characters may even take their place. This is what we’re gradually seeing with the Disney purchase of Star Wars, with investment in new films, TV series and games. Sure, Darth Vader isn’t going anywhere, but he may no longer be the centre of the Star Wars universe for future generations. These are not just transactions, they are cultural shifts.

What was once a beneficial brand fusion for both Apple and Nintendo would become a brand and gaming market victory for Apple. In the end, this would not really matter and is the very nature of acquisitions. If Apple had indeed bought Netflix years ago, as I suggested in the first paragraph, you might have seen the creation of something like the name fusion of ‘Apple Netflix’, but over time, that would have become something more like ‘Apple Flix’ or even the new moniker of ‘Apple TV+’. In the early days of the iPod, did Apple release Apple SoundJam to respect the lesser-known MP3 software or did it rebrand it as Apple iTunes?

Those who wish for such an acquisition but also hold such strong brand relationship and sentimentality with that which is acquired should perhaps be careful of what they wish for. Change is inevitable and whilst consumers tend to view corporations as static entities with tangible offerings, corporations are really just stories—intersubjective realities that transform themselves over time, both in response to consumer demand and without even realising it. Apple was once Apple Computer and entirely dependent on the Macintosh. That company is now more successful that it ever has been… and yet now almost unrecognisable. Nothing is forever.