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Pokémon Go Explodes, While Brands Hope to ‘Catch ’em All’

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s unlikely you’ve been able to avoid the cultural phenomenon that is “Pokémon Go.” Even if you are under a rock, actually, you may have been swept up by the experience assuming a “Diglett” was lurking nearby (couldn’t help myself). To say the app has gone viral would be a massive understatement. In fact, in the seven days since the game was released in the US, Australia and New Zealand, Pokémon Go has exceeded Twitter’s 65 million American users, and “the game’s servers have repeatedly crashed under the strain of its popularity.”

For millennials (like myself, admittedly) that grew up with Pokémon cards and the original Gameboy video games, the nostalgic value of the app is clear. However, even for the most ardent fans of the fictional world, the resurrection of Pokémon and its parent company has come as a complete and utter shock. The market has responded in an almost comical way, with Nintendo’s valuation spiking over $9 billion since the release of the app! As consumers, we can discuss how fun and engaging the experience is, but what about the marketing and consumer implications?

Why has it gone viral?

Of course, it’s highly difficult for developers to predict apps, networks, or media that is going to go viral. In retrospect, however, there is value in understanding the characteristics that lead experiences to mass adoption, in the hopes of recreating them elsewhere. For Pokémon Go, we believe there are three qualities that have led to its unprecedented success:

  1. Nostalgia: We discussed this briefly, but the power of nostalgia can’t be underestimated. As time passes, our brains have a way of downplaying negative memories and enhancing positive ones. Millennials especially remember “easier” times as children, when Pokémon were en vogue and the world was a better place. For users, this app likely drums up other positive memories, making the experience of using it more enjoyable, and increasing its sharing potential. “Hey guys, remember we used to play Pokémon in school? Now we can again!” I don’t think anyone ever has uttered that statement, but you get the idea.
  2. Innovation: Pokémon Go is not only a new experience with an old game, it’s an incredible innovation in the world of augmented reality (AR). AR has been around for several years now, but nothing has captured this amount of adoption with average consumers, making this a “wow” experience worthy of discussion. People genuinely are impressed by the technology. In fact, as I sit in this coffee shop in Downtown Los Angeles writing this article, a man walked in looking for a Pokémon and began a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, explaining the game and the various features. You simply don’t see this organic interaction with other apps. The AR element means that people are physically walking around viewing the world through a literal lens, showcasing that they are playing the game and drawing the attention of others. If the same people are walking around using Facebook or playing Words with Friends, I would have no indication of it through their physicality.
  3. SoLoMo: This catchphrase was hot a few years back, short for “Social, Mobile, Local.” While Mashable challenged the strategy in 2013, in an article entitled “Why ‘SoLoMo’ Isn’t Going Anywhere” I can’t help but think of it when considering the success of Pokémon Go. The social sharing potential is evident, and the mobile-based experience plays into consumer behavior, as people already have their devices with them at all times and are able to participate in the game no matter where they go. Still, the “Location” piece of SoLoMo is most compelling, driven by AR. Pokémon Go takes any location and adds a new filter to it. People can be walking through a crowded city or in a countryside and can flip the script if they’d like to by turning on the app. What that says about our human ability to enjoy our natural surroundings is the topic of another post. But it is a spectacular change in location-based app experiences. Implicit in the app as well is that users get exercise by going on “workouts” and are driven to new locations they otherwise may not go to. Which brings us to…

What is the potential for marketers and brands?

While it appears that Nintendo has yet to fully understand the impact of the game on its own revenue stream, brands should already be thinking about the power of the app to engage consumers in new and interesting ways. Here are three potential ideas for how brands could eventually become a part of the Pokémon Go experience:

  1. Sponsored Content: As the app grows, there will likely be increased in-app purchases. Nintendo is even preparing hardware development, in the form of a handheld device called Pokémon Go Plus. Sponsors could potentially offset the cost of these upgrades to consumers, assuming they can develop brand experiences that are not intrusive. Or they could create in-app sponsored upgrades, such as AR Clif Bars for energy, or L.L. Bean Backpacks to store your gear and Poké balls.
  2. Brand-Owned Pokémon Gyms: Imagine this, you are walking down 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive (Or any main street in America and beyond), and see that a super valuable Pokémon is now available in the physical Coach store. In order to catch said Pokémon, you need to enter the store and check-in on Facebook, then the Pokémon will appear. Given the geo-locating capability of the app, this isn’t a far-fetched possibility. Organically, it is the least intrusive and most compelling opportunity for brands to get new foot traffic. Certainly, they will need to figure out ways to keep those customers there, and divert their attention off of the app and into the next part of the brand-owned experience. But I doubt many retailers would scoff at the idea of guaranteed traffic to landmark locations. For stores and locations not in prime real estate, this strategy could be even more successful, driving traffic where there otherwise wouldn’t be any available.
  3. Earned Content: Correlating to the above opportunity, as this app continues to drive valuable consumer-generated content, brands may organically become part of the experience. If a Pokemon is caught outside of a store, or in front of a particular hotel, brands could begin to pick up on the content being shared by location and pull that into their broader marketing strategy.

Given the engagement and active use of the app, there is no limit to its potential, for consumers and brands. The trick will be how Nintendo and its partners strategically roll out the feature-set and any advertising opportunities, to maximize engagement and avoid alienating the audience. Millennials that have been hooked by nostalgia also are now at an age where they have money to spend, so it’s only a matter of time before brands figure out how to reach them on the app.

What do you think? Are you playing?