Game changer: Monopoly gets a refresh, one piece at a time

posted by on 2013.01.18, under Brand Strategy

[This post was originally published on Interbrand's blog.]

Hasbro announced plans to update its beloved, 77-year old board game, Monopoly. Literally changing the game piece by piece, Hasbro will replace just one of its iconic, pewter game tokens before the end of this year. The familiar wheelbarrow, shoe, dog, racecar, top hat, iron, thimble, and battleship are each at risk of “going to jail,” to be replaced by a robot, diamond ring, helicopter, cat or guitar.

This change may seem trivial to many, yet some diehard fans of the game are up in arms, arguing against any change at all. Of course, Hasbro must have expected—perhaps hoped for—exactly such a reaction.

Other iconic brands like Gap and Tropicana have learned the hard way that refreshing a cherished cultural symbol is sure to spark debate, even when a corporation owns that symbol. Gap infamously redesigned their own logo in 2010, only to switch back a week later after consumers and the design community reacted vehemently. Tropicana saw sales plunge after a redesign to its packaging that did away with the popular straw-in-an-orange image.

While the Monopoly change involves neither a logo nor packaging, similar principles apply in terms of how to handle such a shift.

So far, Hasbro has done a lot right:

Making a small change first. Hasbro could have changed more than one piece at a time, as they’ve done in the past (it was “game over” for the lantern, purse, and rocking horse in the early 1950s). By putting a toe in the water, they may be testing the possibility of future, more far-reaching changes.

Involving the consumer. By using Facebook and Twitter (#tokenvote) to let fans vote on which pieces stay and which pieces go, Hasbro not only builds buzz around the change but also gives players a sense of ownership over the game and the new piece.

Having a little fun with it. From the interactive voting experience on Facebook to playful descriptions of the new piece candidates—the cat was “once worshipped in many parts of the world; still worshipped on the internet”—Hasbro is reminding us that, after all, it’s just a game.

Still, some will surely frame this as little more than a PR stunt, a reaction that Hasbro might have mitigated by reminding consumers that the game pieces have already changed several times or by telling a richer story about why the piece must change, or what the tokens represent to begin with. Others will continue to denounce any change as sacrilegious.

If we accept this change as a legitimate effort to update the game (who owns a flatiron these days, anyway?), it could be a careful step in the right direction. The skillful management of the tension between preserving authenticity and ensuring continued relevance helps great brands stand apart.

Monopoly has a long, proud history. While this latest move is a bit of a roll of the dice, we applaud their execution and for now—in the spirit of the game—we’ll happily play along.

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    Rob Meyerson is a brand strategist currently working in San Francisco.

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