Why Pokémon GO is fertile ground for marketers and brands

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Gen Yers may have swapped playgrounds for office spaces and Gameboys for smartphones, but since the launch of Pokémon GO, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d fallen into a timewarp back to the mid-’90s.

The game – which uses GPS to transform landmarks in a player’s locale into gyms and Pokéstops, and AR to fuse physical and virtual worlds together – has been downloaded more than 15 million times, and is being played across 26 countries, with players spending an average of 33 minutes in the app each day.

It’s making $1.6m (£1.2m) daily from in-app purchases in the US alone and Nintendo’s share prices have skyrocketed more than 50%.

It’s not all about fun, either; players claim it’s doing wonders for their well-being. No wonder, given that 94% of people who take part in outdoor exercise say it benefits their mental health. It’s a feat Pokémon has long been attempting; maximising the time players spend outdoors, without hurting profits in the process.

The game’s success is no doubt grounded in the shared social experience it’s created

The ’96 version of the game involved a rudimentary social aspect for those who were prepared to spend their pennies on a link cable. In 2009, Pokémon Gold and Silver players were able to transfer their pets to a Pokéwalker (a pedometer-cum-Tamagotchi), which would train up pets with every step players took.

In 2016, the brand has thrown all subtlety out the window, instead, simply forcing people to step outside.

'Fertile ground' for marketing  

It’s fertile ground for marketers and brands – even if official in-game advertising has yet to launch. While T-Mobile has made the game exempt from all data charges for its customers, as well as giving 250 people $100 of Pokécoins, numerous brands have been using Twitter to shout about the fact their branches double as Pokéstops.

Hillary Clinton even held a voter registration event at a Pokéstop as a way to open a dialogue with younger voters.

So why has it taken so long? This kind of technology has been in circulation for years. In 2010, a Japanese app named iButterfly offered users the chance to catch virtual butterflies in the real world that would give them discounts at real stores, while Ingress – an AR game created by former Alphabet company Niantic Labs, which also worked on the tech behind Pokémon GO – has enjoyed a burgeoning fan base since 2013.

Shared social experiences

The game’s success is no doubt grounded in the shared social experience it’s created. In their quest to catch ‘em all, players have caught partners cheating, discovered dead bodies and quit their jobs to become Pokémon GO pros  – all of which make excellent headlines to accompany the windfall of listicles and memes that are filling up newsfeeds internet wide.

Meanwhile, hearts have been warmed by children’s hospitals using the game to get sick kids out of bed, and players walking rescue dogs while they head to their nearest gym.

Internet culture feeds off enormous swathes of people partaking in the same in-joke; after all, a meme isn’t a meme until a specific piece of media is altered and copied and shared repeatedly.

And for Pokémon GO, the ‘in-joke’ is only strengthened by the familiarity of the interface – whether it’s overlaid across street art in London, park benches in New York or neon signs in Tokyo.

“It allows people from diverse backgrounds to feel a sense of camaraderie and empathy in shared life experiences,” says youth expert Andrea Graham Richeson.

Nostaligic hits

For Gen Yers in particular, it hits the perfect sweet spot between old and new. With 88% of this group saying they enjoy watching films and shows that came out when they were kids, a fondness for the Pokémon franchise is a no-brainer.

Grounding the unfamiliarity of AR – studies suggest Americans fear new technologies more than death – in the power of nostalgia is enough to make it palatable, while the newness of AR freshens up an old brand enough to legitimise more than a small-scale run of limited edition products.

Just in January, Nintendo launched limited edition 2DS consoles that hark back to the original 1996 titles; today, people are heading out to catch ‘em all as if it really were ’96 again.

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