How Nintendo Labo and organic hot dogs teach the same lesson

It happened again last week. My tweenaged son went to his room, closed the door, and didn’t come out. One hour went by, then two. I leaned into the stairwell like an inept spy: It was Fortnite again, the blockbuster video game that has colonized the minds of gamers everywhere. I knew it was Fortnite, because I could hear him shout-talking at warp speed, as though narrating the live play-by-play of “Avengers: Infinity War” from inside the movie theatre over the din of Dolby-enhanced explosions.  

These Fortnite situations never end well for us. There are raised voices, angry words, lectures at various levels of ineffectiveness.

In fact, we had actively avoided these situations for nearly a decade. We never owned a game console until this year.

So, when I saw the Nintendo Labo —  Nintendo’s brilliant accessory kit that turns the Nintendo Switch console into a DIY project —  I recognized the strategy immediately: they’re reframing video gaming from a parental nightmare to a parental win.

And then I thought: organic hot dogs did the same thing.

OK —  don’t stop reading. It may seem ridiculous to link Nintendo, Fortnite, and organic hot dogs. But there’s a $775 million dollar reason that they should hang out.

Know What Problem You’re Solving

To maximize the potential of any product, it starts with answering two deceptively difficult questions: First, what problem(s) are you solving and for whom? And then, based on that problem, who else is solving it (i.e., the competitive frame of reference)? These are fundamental steps in the design thinking process.

The problem you choose to tackle is incredibly important. If you pick a big, intense problem to solve, then you’ll have a shot at category disruption. Add social and environmental tension to the problem, and you’ll create more than just financial value.

That’s exactly what Nintendo has in common with Applegate Farms, the brand of natural and organic processed meats that Hormel Foods bought for $775 million. They attacked a similar, intense problem with a lot of tension. Namely: good parenting is hard.

Or, more specifically for Applegate Farms: Your kids love processed meat like hot dogs, but the meat is surrounded by suspicion, inscrutable ingredients, and questionable environmental impact. How can parents have an enjoyable family meal, free of “I won’t eat it”-tantrums, but food that they can also feel good about serving? In other words, parents just need a win.

And, more specifically for Nintendo: Your kids love video games, but the games are addictive and take time away from other imaginative and educational activities with the family. How can imagination, learning, and family-time be as much fun as video games? Another parental win.

Who else is solving those problems today? Nintendo’s answer is fascinating and leads directly to Nintendo Labo’s blockbuster potential. Hint: The answer is not Fortnite. In fact, every gaming company faces exactly the same existential problem: kids love them; parents increasingly hate them.

No, rather than competing with video games, Nintendo is actually competing with hands-on, imaginative activities, like building a fort with cardboard boxes or playing with Legos.

From there, it’s easy to see how Nintendo Labo emerged as an idea — and potentially a very big one, at that. In fact, the frame of reference is so large that I wouldn’t be surprised to see an entire pipeline of innovations like Nintendo Labo.

The Takeaway: Your Objective Really, Really Matters

So what can leaders of start-ups, established brands, and social enterprises learn from Applegate Farms and Nintendo?

How you frame the problem — in other words, your strategic objective — will profoundly impact the ideas that you generate. Want a big, disruptive idea that can change the world? Tackle a gnarly, widely-felt problem that’s full of social and environmental tension.