APG Creative Strategy Awards - Xbox 'Halo 3 - believe' by McCann Erickson

LONDON - How McCann Erickson extended the appeal of Xbox game Halo beyond a loyal hardcore fan base in order to make Halo 3 the biggest entertainment launch of all time

Xbox 'Halo 3 - believe' by McCann Erickson
Xbox 'Halo 3 - believe' by McCann Erickson


Halo 3’s ‘Believe’ is  a tale of  planning working to ensure media and creative combined across numerous channels to tell an epic story.

This epic story has helped bring the franchise to a new audience, in doing so making Halo 3 the biggest entertainment launch of all time.

As a body of work this campaign shows us that the proliferation of media channels is not a challenge for integration, but an opportunity to tell a story across a bigger marketing communications canvas.

This paper tells how we had to extend the appeal Halo beyond a loyal hard core fan base in order to make Halo 3 the biggest entertainment launch of all time.

It tells the story of a campaign that broke industry conventions by reimagining the competitive landscape it was operating in. It tells the story of a great creative idea extending itself beyond traditional media channels. 

And thankfully this paper shows us the impact a great campaign can have on the sales of a product.  Halo 3 broke all entertainment industry records with opening day sales of £84m, more than 110% that of Spiderman 3, the former record holder.

Campaign Background

Halo is a highly acclaimed videogame franchise from Bungie Studios and Microsoft Game Studios.  It portrays the efforts of the human race to resist destruction at the hands of alien forces.

The series was launched in 2002 with Halo: Combat Evolved, a first person ‘shoot em  up’ from the perspective of super soldier Master Chief.  2004 saw the launch of Halo 2, which became the most played game on Xbox LIVE, Xbox’s online gaming property. 

The game has gathered a hard core following of fans over the years, known affectionately as the Halo Nation. 

The existence of the established loyal fans meant we could guarantee Halo 3 would sell well, but this case study will demonstrate how we creative strategy to lift the game out of its hard core silo and into mainstream popular culture.

Campaign Objectives

The Halo Nation are one of this franchises biggest strengths but provided us with a classic marketing challenge, a need to extend the game’s appeal beyond our loyal core audience.

We had a clear business objective of selling 1.5 million copies of Halo 3 across EMEA in the first year after launch.

Our calculations showed us that the Halo Nation would account for only 75% of target sales, leaving us with 375,000 copies of the game still to sell.  Our first objective was of the utmost importance:

1. Attract an audience beyond the Halo Nation for Halo 3

We were launching at a busy time in the market place, with lots of console game launches trying to compete with Halo 3. 

In this context we needed to elevate Halo above our traditional video game competition and reframe our competitive set.

Our aim was to position Halo 3 as a landmark entertainment industry launch, competing against the Spidermen and Caribbean Pirate’s of this world, not Mario and Lara Croft. 

This thinking led to our second objective:

2. Make Halo 3 the biggest entertainment opening day of all-time, exceeding the previous global record set by Spiderman 3 with £76.5m: make Halo 3 a true cultural phenomenon

Towards a Strategic Platform

Xbox needed to reach the people who didn’t like Halo, or didn’t care about Halo, or had never heard of Halo.

And get them to buy a copy. If we were going to do this, the conventions of the category were irrelevant - loud explosions, pounding music, gameplay footage, guns, blood and gore would merely reinforce the perceptions people had of Halo.

We needed to rewrite the rules of a video game campaign and show more of the characteristics of the movies we wished to compete against.


1. We sought to embrace the Halo Nation’s love of all things Halo, & understand why they had such passion for this franchise.

2. We interrogated this passion to see if it could be spread to a wider audience, once we were to start talking about Halo in a different way.

What we learned:

Speaking to Halo fans they told us that Master Chief was a heroic figure, and the story of this hero was the main reason they wanted to play this game. 

He has been the star of each instalment and is Halo’s equivalent of Peter Parker or Harry Potter...a central figure the audience can rally around. 

But...In campaign's for the previous Halo games the action and special effects have been key selling points. Master Chief was portrayed as a lead character in a video game, but Halo fans portrayed him as the hero of a story.

So we decided:

This campaign needed to focus on our ‘movie lead’. Master Chief represents the very tenets of a hero – bravery, sacrifice, duty, and selflessness.

These themes are consistent with the qualities of real heroes, and classic storytelling throughout history – they are universal and timeless themes that speak to all of us.

Instead of telling people about the action they were going to experience, like most video games, we needed to emotionally engage them is this potentially epic story that they could come and play a part in themselves.

A Strategic Platform

Master Chief the Hero

This thought is based on a clear product truth, and enabled us to flip all of our audiences’ perceptions of Halo, turning it from a ‘shoot em up’ into an epic story for the ages.

In our culture we have always looked for Heroes, from Gladiators to football players...our ambition was simply , for Master Chief to follow in their footsteps.

Our creative task then, was to make people believe in Master Chief as a hero, and believe it in a way that was respectful and reverential to the history of heroes, imaginary or real, famous or unsung, within the world that we inhabit.

That task was solved creatively by creating a heroic idea that used every possible channel to add depth to our story, in doing so blurring the boundaries of the Halo universe and our own – and commemorating Master Chief’s feats, achievements & heroics from the year 2552 AD: today, all across Europe, for real.

The Creative Approach – The Museum of Humanity

A virtual space and concept devoted to the memory of the hero Master Chief. Heroes have their stories told from generation to generation, creating the museum allowed us to bring Master Chief’s story to life. 

Our whole campaign built from this central thought through several phases in the campaign life cycle.

Beyond Integration

Phase 1 - Believe for the Halo Nation 

Although we wanted to move beyond the Halo Nation eventually, feeding their hunger for all things Halo was necessary to build momentum and create a Buzz in the pre launch phase. 

So we aired a teaser spot a year before launch.

It ran only once on TV in the 5 key EMEA markets, with internet promotion preceding the spot making it an appointment to view, and was simulcast live on xbox.com across the region in parallel to TV airing.

Our target consumers engaged immediately with Starry Starry Night, and on the day of the simulcast EMEA traffic to xbox.com overtook that to playstation.com for the first time ever.

Phase 2

Bringing to life the Museum of Humanity meant being smart with media.  So, we established a set of principles that could be applied across all markets, regardless of size and budgets. 

These principles allowed us to bring the Museum of Humanity to life in over 20 EMEA markets in a consistently engaging way.

Cinema and TV for epic, emotional launch of the concept.

Internet as a home for further rich, engaging long format films and interactive content.

Experiential, in the streets, ambient work to allow consumers to engage with and spend time with Believe, and to truly embed it into popular culture.

All of the work came from the same core concept, but brought it to life in very different ways. Not only did the campaign embrace multiple touch points, it used these touch points to expand on the core concept, not simply repeat it.

This added depth to the campaign and made the core story all the richer.

So, what did we do?

The centrepiece of the campaign was  a TV ad that dramatically introduced the audience to the museum.

The ad features the John 117 monument, a hand crafted recreation of a historic battle in which Master Chief heroically led his troops to victory.  

Supporting this were more TV and viral films featuring war veteran testimonials, expanding on the Master Chief folk lore and developing the concept of the museum.

The story also unfolded on the street where statues were erected in honour of the hero Master Chief, murals were painted and street plaques were dotted around Europe commemorating fictional battleground sites.

In the UK a war photography exhibition was held in cinemas, showcasing the work of fictional war photographer Jake Courage. Fans stole many of the picture’s and some were even found for sale on e-bay.

Phase 3 – Awareness Build & Launch Hype

With the notion of Master Chief as hero now established, and a legion of consumers ready to Believe, the final phase before launch was focused on maximising buzz, noise & hype in market in the key launch window at retail.

A massive awareness push. Driving reach & frequency in a compressed time period. We thus moved out of long format AV media, and into outdoor, online and print, to roadblock the weeks in the run up to the title hitting shelves on September 26th.

Simultaneously, a huge PR & events push drove unprecedented (for a videogame) editorial column inches, throughout mainstream as well as specialist press, and ensured that the whole world was excited about the Halo 3 launch.

On the night of the 25th September (the day before launch,) we held celebrity film-style premiere parties, linked over Xbox LIVE & streaming on xbox.com.

The PR possibilities of this activity far outreached anything in the category to date or since – 500 key lifestyle & consumer technology journalists across EMEA generated over 400 million individual impressions in the region.

Heroic Results

Recalling the 2 objectives for the campaign:

1.    Attract an audience beyond the Halo Nation for Halo 3
2.    Create a true cultural phenomenon by breaking global first day revenues for all entertainment categories

We succeeded in both tasks.

Beyond the Halo Nation

From analysis of the Halo 2 player fanbase, we predicted that the Halo Nation would account for 1.2 million unit sales across EMEA in the first year after release.

The Halo Nation as hardcore fans would of course be expected to purchase almost immediately upon the title’s release – so close to that 1.2 million we were expecting to have purchased by Christmas.  The first hint of our success was when pre-orders for the game passed 1 million deposits across EMEA, before the game was even on shelves.

By Christmas, EMEA to-date sales were at 1.8 million – a full 20% ahead of the total year’s target.

Another 600,000 Halo Believers. We needed to attract 375,000 new Halo fans to achieve our targets – but we had added another 600,000 new members to it with our new portrayal of Master Chief as a hero to Believe in.

Cultural Phenomenon

The mission was to achieve the highest opening day sales ever recorded.

The competition were Spiderman 3 (film), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (book, just behind Spiderman 3 in total revenue figures).

Master Chief’s new army of Believers were however more than up to the task.

• Global opening day sales were recorded at £84m. This made it easily the largest 24 hours of revenue in entertainment history, at 110% of the old Spiderman 3 record.

• By the end of the first week, £150m had been collected in total – another record.

Xbox don’t use tracking research on console title advertising, so we don’t have traditional measures that show how impactful our campaign was. Luckily the viral success of our core activity provides us with evidence that the campaign was popular and engaging.

Starry Starry Night our pre launch campaign has been watched over 10 million times across sites such as YouTube. 

The Phase 2 testimonial viral films were viewed over 7 million times in their 1st 24 hours of release, whilst the Museum of Humanity centrepiece television spot has been viewed over 2 million times online.

The ‘Believe’ campaign catapulted Halo 3 from an ordinary video game into a worldwide cultural phenomenon due to its ability to build an emotional rapport with the audience. The innovative stream of interactive TV, Web and cinema advertisements was an inspired approach that successfully attracted an audience beyond the typical gamer.

Authors: Chris Gallery, Tom Rothenberg, Nick Cohen, Jake Courage