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A NEW DAY
We have reached watershed in the cultural mainstream. One gets the notion that something odd is afoot as cars are witnessed pulling over repeatedly down long stretches of urban thoroughfare. Each day scores of pedestrians—male and female, young and old, from all walks of life—can be seen roving public areas, staring into the glowing displays of their smart phones in search of something new. They gather along the sidewalk, often smiling, greeting, and speaking among strangers before moving on to the next stop.
The driving force behind this sudden shift in social activity, as you must have heard by now, is Pokémon GO—an augmented reality app for mobile smart devices. Since its July 5, 2016 U.S. release, the game has caused a frenzy across America’s urban landscapes, and it’s not just for kids anymore! The app has had observable impacts on cultural, political, and economic trends since its introduction. There have been reports of robberies, injuries, traffic incidents, and massive player stampedes from Central Park to Santa Monica. Democratic Presidential Nominee, Hillary Clinton, even scheduled a campaign rally to be held at a Pokémon Gym, placing ‘lures’ at nearby PokéStops to draw public attention. The game, which is free to play, has topped download charts for both the Apple and Google stores, becoming the most downloaded mobile game ever in the U.S. Nintendo, which holds a 32% stake in The Pokémon Company, has seen its stock nearly double over the past two weeks. GameStop stores with virtual PokéStops and Pokémon Gyms at their locations have also seen a 100% increase in sales. T-Mobile has offered to ‘Unleash Pokémon GO’ by exempting data charges while playing the app as part of its T-Mobile Tuesdays (#GetThanked) campaign. Moreover, this has all occurred before the release of Pokémon GO in its home of origin, Japan.
Having endured the 18 years since its U.S. introduction on Nintendo Game Boy and its subsequent skyrocket to household recognition with the 1997 debut of its anime series—(ポケットモンスタ) Poketto Monsutá, meaning Pocket Monsters, Romanized and abbreviated as ‘Pokémon’, has survived to fight another day in the cutthroat arena of youth entertainment. As titans of the sector, ranging from Power Rangers to Ninja Turtles, have rollercoastered their way through the decades with brand revivals of variable success, none has matched their own initial triumph, let alone tapped into the modern market with the viral sensationalism that we have now witnessed with the coming of Pokémon GO. Other product manias, such as Tickle Me Elmo, Mine Craft, and Air Jordan sneakers, have garnered dedicated followings in their own right, yet even these have not reached the level of fervor stirring around the digital menageries of Pokémon. Perhaps the phenomenon of Pokémon GO is most readily likened unto the 1975 case of the Pet Rock. Though such a comparison would be valid, the present state of things appears much more complicated than a basic market fad. One might do better to relate the 90s craze over the Tamagotchi to the Pet Rock. Indeed, there are strong similarities between Pokémon and these other cases, and there are many ingredients of the common fad in Pokémon’s active mix. But a different story is told by the midnight crowds found lingering in Culver City and the Santa Monica Pier on otherwise uneventful weeknights—basking in the glory of endless Pokémon lures placed on a dozen PokéStops within arm’s length of one another.
WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
Why all the fuss? Pokémon’s storylines and artwork are relatively simplistic compared to some of the more breathtaking Anime we’ve seen exported from Japan in the past two decades. Some of the creature concepts and naming conventions can seem uninspired as well. To further complicate matters, all of this success has come on the back of what could otherwise be considered an abysmal failure for a mobile application launch. The game has thrived despite having an ordinarily fatal rating of less than 3.5 stars on the Google Play Store as a result of it being plagued by technical bugs that cause constant disruptions requiring players to restart, frequent server crashes, and reputedly questionable controllability of gameplay. So what has led so many to jump on the bandwagon of Pokémon fanaticism? How did we get here? And what happens next?
Many are scratching their heads at this extraordinary phenomenon. But there is a science to the madness, and the goal of this analysis is to shed some light on the subject for brand managers and consumers alike.
1. The release of Pokémon GO was largely secretive, causing it to gain enthusiasm through the element of surprise.
We’ve seen the ability of established pop culture brands like Beyoncé and Drake to save marketing costs and gain greater enthusiasm for their releases through the element of surprise. Pokémon is a well-established legacy brand in the gaming community with a multi-generational following, capable of shutting down Rockefeller Plaza in New York City on a brisk autumn night. Much like its musical counterparts, Pokémon GO gained momentum from the secrecy surrounding its drop date; making it an instant topic of conversation once the downloading began.
2. Pokémon GO is highly novel in its use of Augmented Reality.
VR & AR are two extremely hot spaces in the tech world currently making rapid strides toward diffusion to the critical mass. Pokémon’s ability to capitalize on this trend in a relevant way, for free, in the mobile sector, has made all the difference in the magnitude of its explosion.
3. Pokémon GO appeals to consumers of every stripe.
The Pokémon franchise is all-inclusive. It is targeted unisexually with young male gamers at the center of its nucleus alongside young female consumers attracted to the cuteness of characters like Pikachu and Jigglypuff. In the most inner orbit, many older cohorts of these segments experience nostalgia with the Pokémon Go game, having grown up engaging with the Pokémon brand. Outside of this, an ocean of new fans has been co-opted simply due to the level of attention the game has received. Finally, in the outermost orbit, the high degree of physical interaction the game requires has streamlined an onslaught of late adopters in a relatively short time frame, as even middle-aged and senior pedestrians exercising, walking their dogs, or just taking a stroll can be spied stopping to collect loot at their local PokéStop while heading down the street.
4. The game promotes exercise and outdoor activity.
Playing Pokémon GO is a marked break from traditional gaming because it obliges players to exit their dwellings in order to play. Rather than running amuck across a virtual city a la Grande Theft Auto or The Amazing Spiderman, Pokémon utilizes a smart phone’s GPS, requiring trainers to physically move to different locations if they want to move in the game. Furthermore, the game encourages exercise by including bonuses in the form of eggs that require low speed travel to incubate, warding off the use of cars to obtain their benefits.
5. Pokémon GO exploits the benefits of several entertainment categories.
Pokémon GO has achieved an optimal balance between the two wildly popular realms of gaming and sports entertainment. The sheer volume of Pokémon, the level of engagement available with each species of creature, and the logical structure of the game place the franchise in a class of its own. Like a sports league, there is room for every fan to have their favorites. The game’s roster offers the collecting and hording aspect commonly associated with sports trading cards. Trading cards have historically been a premier part of the Pokémon merchandise catalog, with the same virtual competition component of other successful card based anime brands like ‘Yu-Gi-Oh!’ The physical aspect of the game gives players an active experience similar to participation in a sporting event, while the large number of participants makes the gameplay comparable to a Multiplayer Massive Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) such as League of Legends, World of Warcraft or The SIMS. The greatest advantage of Pokémon GO is that it retains the benefits of both these entertainment categories with a successful brand that is primed for mainstream consumption beyond the restrictions of either the gaming or sports communities.
6. The game is designed to increase its own level of exposure.
Pokémon GO is a textbook example of brand activation. It has initiated a self-perpetuating cycle of reinforcement for itself and the Pokémon brand. After Beta testing the game with instructions, Pokémon GO was released with limited tutorial resources built in, leaving players to either search the internet for advice or—as was intended by the game makers—converse with other gamers. The more people speak about it, the more the game comes to bear on the public conscience. Also, it is important to note that the game is unique in that it is a highly conspicuous experience because people can see trainers playing from substantial distances. Seeing people play all over also weighs on the public conscience. Even with hit interactive group apps like Words With Friends or Candy Crush Saga it is not necessarily apparent from close proximity, let alone down the street, that someone is playing one of those games. Pokémon GO players are identifiable as they pace sidewalks and parks, and often even in closed and tented vehicles, merely from their erratic stop-and-go driving patterns. The readily apparent popularity of the game combined with the manipulation of supplies of prized Pokémon and the resulting public reactions have lead to an excess of media attention, which has in turn expanded awareness and enthusiasm for the game. Add to this mix the increased sale of merchandise, and the cycle goes on with no end in sight. The monetization of the game’s virtual landscape through sponsored Stops and Gyms is an obvious route to riches. Retailers have recently begun to capitalize on the game’s success independently, while adding more flame to the Pokémon fire.
7. Pokémon GO is a shared social experience.
Not since Facebook blazed onto the scene, fresh on the heels of an ailing MySpace, have we seen this level of activity generated around a consumer software product. Yet Facebook was about the functional value it offered rather than the cultural impact it signified as a brand. Although the defeat of its predecessor was largely a culturally driven phenomenon, Facebook’s major selling point had more to do with its use benefits in establishing social connections, and its symbolic distinctions from MySpace per se, rather than the type of brand affinity that we witness with product manias. Pokémon GO is a social application in nature, but it is very distinct from Facebook or similar social platforms because its social aspect is based on short-term real world interactions, rather than sustained virtual interactions.
In a society bursting at the seams from the effects of systemic injustice, sharp divisions in political ideology, and severe challenges to economic stability, Pokémon GO taps into what is perhaps our most basic of human instincts—the need to be connected and experience togetherness. Trainers greet one another on the streets with respectful nods, and smiles. They congregate around Stops and introduce themselves as they discuss their game performance. They go to urban centers with excessive PokéStops and flood them with lures, drawing non-stop crowds into the wee hours of the night. In these spaces there is a general sense of euphoria in the air among the crowd, as literally thousands of players experience the overstimulating joy of catching weeks worth of rare Pokémon in one fell swoop. They appear to relish the act of being included in the massive momentum of this cultural tsunami.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Speculators have all wondered, “How long will it last?” As with all manias and rapidly rising cultural phenomena, Pokémon GO must inevitably peak and level off. However, there is much in store for its future as it will undergo evolutions in rules and play, as is common with mobile applications. The Pokémon franchise faces no shortage of material with which to expand this product. Theories have already run wild on the Internet about the introduction of several powerful characters not included in the current version, the introduction of trading, and other changes to the game. Only time will tell if the game and brand are able to sustain their success once the plateau is reached. Regardless of that outcome, the fact remains that Pokémon GO has owned the summer of 2016, left its mark, and in so doing has reinvented the way brands must think about activation. All we can do now is watch, learn, and try to “catch ‘em all”.