Marketing Pokemon Go, Pokemon Go(ne): Marketing Lessons to Learn from Pokemon Go

When Pokemon Go first released in Singapore four months ago, the locals were pretty wild with the craze. Once-shy Singaporeans swiftly befriended anyone who exclaimed ‘ah, dratini, over here!

It was indeed a crazy Pokemon period – from Pokeball sushi/cakes to giant Snorlax plushies to Dating Go! (yes, a Pokemon Go-inspired dating event), Pokemon Go had undoubtedly created massive hype among Singaporeans. Globally, at the height of its popularity, the app saw around 45 million daily active users worldwide.

Am I surprised by how Pokemon Go was so warmly received by users worldwide? Not really. And here’s why:

#1 People like what they’re familiar with.

From a branding perspective, Pokemon is more of a childhood friend than a game. Growing up with Pokemon throughout the years – through watching anime on Kids Central, dabbling in trading cards or playing Pokemon on a Nintendo Gameboy – means going further ahead in a consumer-brand relationship between an individual and the entire Pokemon franchise. The release of Pokemon Go was just another addition to this tight ecosystem that Pokemon had earlier established, and supporters of this Pokemon franchise would be more than happy to indulge once again in this positive brand relationship they have had with Pokemon over the years.

Marketing Tip 1: People like what they are familiar with. By creating a new game with familiar elements, Niantic essentially reduced the risk of initial trial. People are less averse to trying a new product when they know something about it. Moreover, through building upon the favourable and familiar associations of Pokemon as a feel-good game, more people were willing to give this new game a try.
Would Pokemon Go be as successful if it wasn’t built on the established franchise of Pokemon? Maybe not.

#2 Freemium models work because there is an element of choice.

The best way to get customers to buy your product is a simple two step process. Firstly, prove that your product works. Then, prove that your customers can’t live without it.
I’m not sure if it were just my imagination, but I could have sworn that my Pokemon kept escaping when I was dangerously low on Pokeballs (read: I had to sit by Vivocity for five minutes each time, waiting for my Pokestops to refresh in order to collect more Pokeballs). Amidst the throngs of enthusiastic trainers throwing out names of rare Pokemons that were spawning in the vicinity, it was this sense of helplessness in my predicament that urged me to purchase more Pokeballs with real money, just to join the fun.

Marketing Tip 2: Freemium models work because there is an element of choice. If possible, don’t lock in your customers with a paid version immediately; instead, show them what they can’t achieve if they make a conscious choice to stick to a free version. Simultaneously, display the glowing possibilities awaiting them with a paid version.

#3 Never underestimate the power of FOMO (fear of missing out).

When Pokemon Go first launched, I wasn’t one of the overly enthusiastic fans who downloaded it immediately and dashed out of my godforsaken derelict residential area to catch Pokemon. I only started playing because I heard one too many conversations revolving around Pokemon. Suddenly, nothing else came up over dinner except who caught what where. In a bid to reconnect with my friends who had sunk in way too deep, I had to speak their language – and that meant having to play the games they did. Side note: Pokemon Go was released around the time that Singapore universities were having their matriculation, and my juniors planned a Pokemon-hunting bonding activity to get to know the new freshmen. In such a situation, each individual would want to feel accepted as part of a larger group, and would cave in to Pokemon Go in the fear of missing out (on the game, and on the relationships built while playing the game).

Marketing Tip 3: Never underestimate the power of the network effect and FOMO. Also, speak the same language as your market. Just as how I had to speak my friends’ language to connect with them, marketers should also understand their customer persona and appeal to them on a personal level.

#4 Customers value experiences, especially the magical ones.

The pull of augmented reality is in the blurring of boundaries between the real world and the fantasy world. It is compelling and intriguing, because the combining of two separate worlds means that reality exists in the fantasy world, and vice versa. Knowing that augmented reality is about merging the virtual world with the real world, games with AR elements thus disrupt the real world activities, as there is no longer any compartmentalisation between games and reality. Augmented reality introduces users to a new world where fantasy comes true. Who wouldn’t be amused by a Magikarp swimming in his steamboat, or a Squirtle sitting on her stovetop? In an article by Ana Javornik, she aptly describes the attraction of augmented reality:

“Marketers should remember that AR is not about creating a completely new reality; it’s about enhancing what already exists. When the virtual is well fitted with the physical and interacts with it, that’s when AR magic happens.”

Marketing Tip 4: Customers value experiences – especially the magical ones. Augmented reality enhances the consumer’s experience with the brand, and allows for greater engagement. Marketers must strive to surprise customers with new experiences so as to achieve top-of-mind awareness and a closer customer-brand relationship.

#5 Social and gamifcation go well together.

Most people are motivated by challenges and competitions, and games with mini challenges help users maintain interest in the game. Badge-collecting and egg-hatching in Pokemon Go pushes individuals to spend more time in the game so as to fulfil more goals. The badge-collecting process is rarely seen as onerous, as badges are ‘refreshed’ to harder goals every time an immediate goal is reached. For example, the badge first gets you to collect 20 water-type Pokemon. After achieving that, the badge refreshes to a new goal of 50 water Pokemon catches. By breaking up the goals into smaller milestones, the game makes achieving goals seem more feasible, and motivates more gaming in the long run.

Pokemon Go’s in-app gamification seeks to do two things: to challenge others and to challenge one’s self. Fighting at gyms not only gives one’s character prestige (motivation for self benefit), but also helps knock points off an opponent team’s prestige level (motivation for group benefit). This two-tiered motivation further enhances the desire of individuals to play Pokemon Go, as their play can be justified by personal and societal in-game success, for both individualists and collectivists.

Marketing Tip 5: Social and gamification go very well together. If a game includes social elements, gamification should be added in as it leads to deeper engagement and more social experiences. Gamification adds a touch of reality (real-life competition) in a fantasy game where avatars may lack the human touch.

So these compelling features and tactics attributed to the rise of the Pokemon Go craze in Singapore. However, global figures have shown that Pokemon Go was in rapid decline by mid-September, with daily downloads decreasing from 27 million to a mere 700,000. The weekly active user base has also fallen about 62% from 40 million users at its peak to less than 15 million by late October. What marketing lessons can we learn from the decline in Pokemon Go? Here are some of them:

#1 Repetition will not work in the long run.

What’s new in Pokemon Go other than catching Pokemon, fighting battles and hatching eggs? Will the new Halloween update of double candies sustain the user base over a long period? Some blame the millennials, also known as the ‘the attention deficit generation’, for their increasingly shorter attention spans that make the game too routine and boring. However, millennials are also getting smarter and more discerning. Repetition cannot satisfy them – they choose what holds their attention, and will not hesitate to dismiss a product or service if it is not worth their time.

As an avid player of The Sims franchise, this makes for a good comparison. In The Sims, I can play multiple characters and explore different careers, opportunities and places in the game. Expansion packs, patches and updates don’t just follow seasonal themes like Halloween; these expansion packs also allow a Sim to explore new interactions with places and activities that were not possible in the base game. In The Sims, even in a cycle of repetition, there is personalisation and customisation – and this makes experiences more fulfilling.

Marketing Tip 6: Repetition will not work in the long run. Marketers must create fulfilling, new experiences that are worth the millennials’ time, through personalisation or relatable themes.

#2 Reward your customers.

For a virtual game, Pokemon Go requires a lot of effort on a user’s part – walking to hatch eggs, constantly charging the ever-draining phone battery and testing one’s patience while waiting for Pokemon to spawn. There has not been enough built-in rewards to make some users feel the game is worth playing. Granted, Pokemon Go still appeals to a group of die-hard fans, but many once-interested players have since dropped off the radar.

Marketing Tip 7: Reward your customer! Customers must feel acknowledged and valued, and brands must give them an incentive to stick with them. In an increasingly connected world, our customers have the freedom of choice – and if marketers don’t reward loyal customers, the latter will take their leave.

#3 Your customers are never wrong.

As elaborated above, it is necessary for brands to continue innovating and introducing new features or products to the customers so as to retain their interest in a brand. Pokemon Go was not savvy to introduce new features; conversely, it removed the Pokemon tracking feature that allowed a user to view nearby Pokemon, so as to better catch specific Pokemon, rather than wander aimlessly trying to find them. Niantic was adamant to remove this features for all users, and actually sent ‘cease and desist’ orders to third parties who tried to reintroduce this now-essential feature of the game. By completely removing the Pokemon tracking feature, Niantic ultimately made users rely on luck to find Pokemon, stripping the users of what was most important in games – control and autonomy.

As brands, listening to the target market is imperative. When users have to take matters into their own hands and find methods to improve their own experience, it sends a signal to brands to improve the overall gameplay. Not only did Niantic ignore that, it also went in the opposite direction to make the experience harder for its loyal customers. Ultimately, the perception of a brand lies in the eyes of the consumers, and not the brand itself – therefore, brands must learn to prioritize the things that consumers value about them, and improve the experience on those fronts first.

Marketing Tip 8: The customers are never wrong. After narrowing in on a specific target market, marketers must align the priorities of the brand with its customers. This will ensure a brand’s long-lasting relationship with its target customers.

Pokemon Go’s second generation release is primed as the most anticipated update to Pokemon Go. Will this release bring the throngs of Pokemon trainers back? Or are they gone for good? Only time will tell.
Do you have something to say? Let me know as well!

Update March 2017: I wrote a second article on the top five branding lessons I learnt from Pokemon Go after its major update in February 2017. I discuss brand loyalty, customer empowerment and brand authority. Read the original article on LinkedIn here.

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