I’m writing this article because 1) I’m VERY educated on Pokémon. I’ve been at it for 20 years, so I know almost too much; and 2) I’m very hesitant about marketing that involves things that I’m into. It’s far too simple to push away the audience you’re trying to pull in, and I’m hoping that with the insight I can provide, we can ensure this is less likely to occur. So, let’s get started.
(Game intro screen for Pokémon Red/Blue)
What it is and why it matters
You likely know what “Pokémon Go” is by now, but in case you don’t: it is a map-based augmented reality game for mobile devices that combines familiar locations with familiar characters, creating a gaming and cultural experience unlike any other. Pokémon Go builds off of another game created by the same studio (“Ingress,” by Niantic Labs) which focuses on team rivalries and landmark or point ownership; a more advanced version of king of the hill. Pokémon Go adds in more layers and game mechanics that cater to the Pokémon series and what its audience has come to expect—specifically finding, catching, and hatching Pokémon.
On the Google Play store, Pokémon Go currently has a listing for 50 to 100 million installs, and as of this article, the game has only been out for just over two weeks. Although exact numbers are not available, on Apple’s App Store Pokémon Go saw 7.2 million downloads, according to SensorTower Estimates. All this to say—the game is very popular, and continues to grow. Involving yourself and your brand with the current craze can and should be a golden ticket to hitting a large and dedicated target market, but it’s important to note that there’s a fine line between catering and pandering, especially when it comes to an audience as passionate as this one.
Why is it performing so well?
In order to make an educated move on something so popular, it’s important to understand why it is so popular. There are factors that can be pointed out that, in my opinion, have absolutely helped with the game’s success. Those include:
Without a doubt, the No.1 contributor to the game’s success is pre-existing cultural relevance. Pokémon has been a household brand since the late 90s, and both current and old fans of the franchise were likely among the first to download and spread the gospel of Pokémon Go. And why wouldn’t they? A game including exploration and Pokémon hatching, catching, and battling gets them as close to living a real Pokémon adventure as possible.
The game makes use of geo-location and map overviews to turn your city into a virtual Poké-playground, encouraging players to get out and walk around their neighborhoods. However, as emphasized in the trailer, possibly the most appealing factor is the augmentation that allows you to “see” Pokémon in the real world through your device’s camera by placing Pokémon directly in front of you. These images are ones you’ve most likely seen shared on social networks, with Pikachu hanging out on your dinner table or work desk. This interactive experience is especially exciting for long-time Pokémon fans, and certainly helps with the game’s popularity.
Another factor that’s helped the game is how accessible it is. Being available on mobile devices, both Apple and Android, means an immediate potential fan base of millions. The game is also one of the series’ few efforts to not exist solely on Nintendo consoles. It is free-to-play, though of course comes with optional micro-transactions to assist players in need or want of items, providing the game’s revenue source, sponsorships aside.
- The last item to consider in the game’s sudden and strong rise to popularity is what I’ve dubbed as its gravitational pull. Coupling a popular franchise with an accessible device means visibility. You’ve probably seen this firsthand: someone on their phone, holding it out in front of them and continually swiping up, and you just know what they’re doing. Catching Pokémon. Or maybe you’ve seen a herd of players gathered in a single spot, all playing the game together and chatting. It’s difficult not to stare at. And that’s what has pulled in so many players that I consider post-first wave. Parents, coworkers, non-nerdy friends, police officers, politicians, journalists—they have all started to play a game that’s making national news in a variety of ways, including being used to address and cope with social anxiety and depression, obesity, and physical therapy.
How to market Pokémon Go
There have already been a number of businesses, primarily small businesses and local shops, that have taken note of the game’s popularity, offering perks to players who come in and show their affiliation to a certain in-game team, or some other determining factor. Others may benefit from their business or location being a “PokéStop,” an in-game location used to retrieve items and summon Pokémon by using “lures.” Simply being near these landmarks has already had quite an impact on some businesses.
One of the best ways to align your brand with the game is to buy in-game real estate. McDonald’s, for instance, has a partnership with the game, allowing it to mark its Japan locations as "Gyms" (where players can battle to be king of the hill). Although not available to all businesses just yet, Niantic Labs has mentioned rolling out the ability to request to be a sponsored location, and, like Japan’s McDonald’s, turning them into PokéStops or even Gyms. At Comic-Con, founder and CEO John Hanke announced that other interactions with PokéStops would eventually be available as well, meaning more possibilities for brands to create unique experiences.
Businesses and brands need to think outside of the box to make a lasting impression on this niche audience, taking into consideration what they would best resonate with and not forcing an out of touch advertisement into their gaming experience.
Take the Arby’s Facebook page for example. In February 2016, Arby’s social media team began creating simple posts making references to pop culture, and specifically gaming and nerd culture. By looking through the comments on the posts, you can spot a number of users saying, “Now I’m getting Arby’s,” or, “Your social team deserves a raise.” It’s this sort of interaction with dedicated audiences that creates brand loyalty. And if gamers are anything, it’s dedicated. But they are also merciless.
By simply trying to ride the wave of Pokémon Go’s popularity without any informed strategy, you can easily conjure up the bad side of said passionate players. The gaming community may be a great place to reach like-minded people with similar interests, but be careful not to invoke the backlash of its hostile tendencies. Perhaps more so than other audiences, it is crucial to understand what unique experiences gamers value, and how to cater to them specifically.
However, all in all, the promising opportunities outweigh the potential pitfalls. Done properly and in a timely fashion, a marketing effort tying in Pokémon Go could not only open up your business to a whole new audience, it could open up your marketing strategy to new technologies and creative options.
Here are some things to keep in mind to create unique meaningful marketing efforts with Pokémon Go:
The game makes use of three teams in constant (mostly friendly) competition. Team loyalty is strong in this game and if you can incorporate ways to celebrate team alliance, your campaign could go far. It’s also important to note that if your campaign picks sides, you could be isolating members of the other teams. One creative effort I’ve seen is the use of tip jars and labelling each as a different team. An accompanying sign reads, “Which team tips the best?” This friendly competition directly benefits the business owner while allowing players to contribute directly to their team’s participation.
Parks and rec
John Hanke himself noted that the game’s primary function and intent was to get people outside, walking around, and finding interesting nooks of their neighborhood that they wouldn’t otherwise interact with. Pokémon trainer avatars are decked out in fitness gear, and the game tracks kilometers walked in order to hatch Pokémon from eggs. Endeavors in this department could tie into fitness and health, or even into local services, the arts, or parks (many parks, landmarks, murals, and statues are PokéStops in-game).
Pokémon is a franchise that just celebrated 20 years of longevity. The stories, characters, and rosters have continued to grow since day one. There are so many aspects of the game (type effectiveness, evolution, teamwork, to name a few) that can be utilized to create meaningful experiences that leave positive, lasting impressions on a new demographic, ready and eager to spend money on something they love.