Opinion

Why marketing needs more Pokémon

 Pokémon GOIn this guest article, Mark Yeow argues that the successful launch of Pokémon GO has lessons for marketers who put brand and technology before story.

It took a 20-year- old franchise to make augmented reality mainstream. The launch of Pokémon GO this month has seen Nintendo’s share price skyrocket, prompted public-safety concerns, and may even give some job-starved graduates a chance to be the best there ever was.

It’s also single-handedly brought augmented reality into the spotlight after years on the fringes – and offers a powerful lesson in how marketers need to approach both brands and technology.

If you’ve been doing like Snorlax and missed it, Pokémon GO brings the venerable Japanese video game to smartphones, with a new twist: you find, catch, and battle Pokémon by going outside into the real world. It’s not the first augmented reality game by a long shot, nor is it the most sophisticated or visually stunning. But it’s definitely the first that everyone’s either heard of or started playing.

The reason for this is simple. People don’t adopt technologies, or brands. They adopt stories.

I find it difficult to fully encapsulate the cultural legacy of the Pokémon franchise. In primary school, my classmates would smuggle their Gameboy Advances in their backpacks, then whip them out at the first peal of the morning-tea bell. At home-time and on Saturday mornings, we’d rush to our TV sets to catch the latest adventures of Ash, Pikachu, and friends. If anything, Pokémon GO’s genius is in its timing: that generation of misty-eyed youngsters are now the ones whose wealth and attention drive today’s global digital economy.

Pokémon captured the imagination of an entire generation not because of the game’s technology or the anime’s novelty, but because it satisfied two fundamental narrative criteria. It created a believable world, one which was filled with detail and depth that an audience member could literally wander around in for hours or days without running out of new material. But at the same time, it recounted a hero’s journey, a relatively simple story about a boy and his companion growing up and overcoming obstacles together that any child – and many adults – could identify with.

Creating worlds and journeys are intrinsic to what we as marketers should be doing, but we all too often get distracted by the window-dressing: channel definition, audience segmentation, lead generation. In the case of augmented reality, most marketers and developers have typically focused on the “wow factor” of the technology, without giving audience members a reason to care. Until Pokémon GO’s arrival, nothing – not even the utility of such apps – has been able to convince smartphone users to rewrite how they use their devices and embrace augmented reality.

The same goes for the brands we seek to promote and build up. There is a marked difference between “content” and “storytelling”. Brands which embrace content marketing often do themselves a huge disservice by ignoring the latter, churning out articles and media which substitute compelling narratives for sheer volume.

The use of the right channels and technologies is still extremely important: the Pokémon franchise itself has shown that through its adroit use of the right media at the right time, from console games to augmented reality by way of anime, card games, and out-of-home activations. But none of that can truly engage audiences – and drive the leads, conversions, and sales that make or break brands – without a story that people will react to, talk about, and follow with single-minded zeal for weeks or months.

So how can marketers catch more of that Pokémon spirit in their campaigns? Focus on the story, not the technology or brand. Build up a world that has the depth and credibility of a Pokédex, whether it’s populated with elemental monsters or real characters from your organisation and customers. Identify the underlying journey that will resonate with both your audience’s hearts and minds – rags to riches, adversity to victory, innocence to experience – and make that the core of your brand’s messaging, strategy, and content.

Mark Yeow

Mark Yeow

This approach to marketing is rarer than Oddish because it puts the story before the sale – and that’s something most executives (and indeed marketers) have trouble accepting. But counterintuitive as it may seem, the latest chapter of the Pokémon saga – and its estimated US$1.6m of in-game sales per day – show that this order of priorities can, and does, produce long-lasting business successes. The more brands clamour for consumers’ attention, the more marketers will need a universal story to put a (team) rocket in their results.

Mark “Meowth” Yeow is the MD of Horse Can Listen, a content and digital marketing consultancy.

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