CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - PLAYSTATION 2. The games console brand is lightening up its moody image, Mark Sweney says

In a watershed moment in the brand's advertising strategy, PlayStation is dropping its unmistakeable dark, edgy creative for a lighter, more humorous approach. The games console maker has hit a glass ceiling within the niche gaming market. Now, it needs to push the message to a wider, non-gaming audience.

"We have got to the level of more than four million sales of the PlayStation 2 and, in terms of growth, are a year ahead of where the original PlayStation was," Darren Carter, the UK marketing director at Sony PlayStation, claims.

"This means we are getting to a wider audience quicker and now, as the market leader, we want to grow console gaming overall."

Computer gaming used to be seen as the domain of geeks in bedrooms who need to get out more. "The Third Place" advertising, which launched the PlayStation 2, connected with that key demographic to win them over to the new console.

"We used to define the PlayStation brand idea as powerful experiences - what you get from games - and, as a brand, represent gamers and challenge non-gamers to respect that," Neil Hourston, the head of planning at PlayStation's advertising agency, TBWA\London, says.

Gaming is now on the brink of being accepted into the mainstream: it is the new cool. Consoles are home-entertainment systems in their own right, with the capacity to play CDs and DVDs, record TV shows and go online. The gaming industry is twice the size of the home-video market and 1.5 times the size of cinema, according to the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association.

But its phenomenal growth means PlayStation has outgrown its niche advertising strategy.

"Non-gamers aren't listening and perhaps gamers are getting a bit bored and not as excited as they used to. When we launched PlayStation, it was in a niche, now it is a mass-market leisure pursuit," Hourston says. "The challenge now is to make the brand less exclusive but not in the way of, say, Coca-Cola. The brand and its advertising has to remain fresh and original."

But haven't we heard the echoes of the new strapline - "fun, anyone?" - somewhere before? In, say, the "Playmore" strapline of the rival games console Microsoft's Xbox.

"There are parallels with the positioning of 'Playmore'," Derek Robson, the global business director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Xbox's former advertising agency, says. "We tried to create a more inclusive positioning to get more people in the market because PlayStation had done the dark and alienating theme and done it well. The question is: can PlayStation pull off such a big strategy shift without alienating the core users who bought into the darker advertising?"

According to Carter, the answer is yes. While we won't be seeing "The Third Place" strapline and tone of advertising on television anymore, it will still be used strategically to keep the core fan base in the fold. "This new strategy doesn't mean that 'The Third Place' has gone. It will still be used for our hardcore audience - for things such as the show we sponsor on Xfm and events," he says.

The launch of the ads will make for a few sleepless nights for TBWA and PlayStation managers as they wait to see how they are received. A strategic error in the UK would be a major setback. According to the research company Screen Digest, the UK is the largest market in Europe and the third largest in the world for hardware and software.

Sony PlayStation is a powerhouse with 74 per cent of global marketshare.

Robson argues that it is this immense brand strength that puts it in such a strong position for making the successful transition to advertising that hits a wider audience. "It is a massive shift but if any brand can pull it off it is PlayStation," he says.

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