Pokemon Go: A Crazy, Over-the-Top Tech Fad That Might Actually Help Your Business

If You Haven't Thought About Your Strategy, You're Already Too Late

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Credit: Kelsey Dake

The world is in upheaval. China and the Philippines are squabbling over a patch of ocean. The European Union is about to be rent asunder by Brexit. Even as the country struggles with the sort of racial tension not seen since 1968, the U.S. must hold its nose and pick a trust-fund charlatan or a Wall Street-funded lie-bot as its next leader.

So the most important question for those of you reading this is: What's your Pokémon Go strategy?

It's a question that can't be ignored. If you haven't thought about it, you're already too late. Your company is obviously doomed, a dinosaur wheezing its last breath on a scorched salt flat, lying there among the corpses of those that failed to work out a Meerkat or Yo strategy.

But because you'd look like a clueless old fart at this point if you asked, "What's Pokémon Go?" I'll do you a solid and explain. According to Wikipedia -- I'm assuming if you've somehow avoided all of the news coverage, online research isn't your strong suit -- Pokémon Go "is a free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game developed by Niantic and published by The Pokémon Company as part of the Pokémon franchise." According to the Pokémon website, Pokémon Go "allows you to find and catch more than a hundred species of Pokémon as you explore your surroundings."

Pokémon, for the uninitiated, are digital critters. The franchise started as a game for the Nintendo Game Boy and, like a lot of vermin, the population grew quickly out of control. It spread into cards, animated cartoons, movies, comic books, merchandise and creepy adult-size costumes.

The basic gist is, you capture Pokémon and force them to do battle with one another. In other words, it combines the core elements of slave trading and cock fighting. I'll allow you to jump to your own conclusions about what that says about millennials.

But the millennial hook is one of the brilliant things about Pokémon Go. Whether by design or by luck, the timing couldn't have been better. Take a character and game that was a favorite for millennial children and relaunch it with all the bells and whistles of their favorite tech -- mobile, social, augmented reality and virtual reality—just when they're feeling the first powerful waves of nostalgia and when the older cohort now have children upon whom they can force their childhood obsessions. Genius!

I realize that I sound, once again, like Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair. "You just don't get it, Old Man Wheaton."

Actually, I do.

I have not played Pokémon Go, but it's not because I'm opposed to it. I do have concerns about privacy, about the amount of data players have to hand over to access the game. But that's not the real reason I'm not playing. From what I've seen of the game, it looks amazing. I'm afraid I'd be addicted to it, that I'd be wandering New York right now, using my phone to hunt down Pokémon in the streets, rather than imparting my vast wisdom to the marketing community.

And the good news for marketers -- some of them -- is that Pokémon Go seems to hold legitimate opportunities.

Even before the game is opened up to sponsorship or ad opportunities, retailers and restaurants are figuring out ways to cash in. With bands of Poké-hunters cruising the streets, perhaps venturing into new neighborhoods, working up a thirst and the subsequent need to pee, businesses situated near Pokémon or PokéStops (areas where players can retrieve new items) can land new foot traffic.

The cafe at ad agency Huge's Atlanta office is doing just that by placing "lures" at nearby PokéStops and offering a card for free food to those who show a captured Pokémon. A simpler, if less imaginative route, for those businesses lucky enough to discover Pokémon on the premises, is to slap up a sign saying that Pokémon, like restrooms, are for paying customers only.

But that's small potatoes compared with what may be on the horizon. John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, said last week that sponsored locations are in the offing. He told the Financial Times that companies can "pay us to be locations within the virtual game board."

That's one of the best marketing ideas since the guy in the van switched from candy to puppies.

OK, so maybe there's a slight creep factor. And there are other concerns. There are those pesky privacy issues. You might not want to be associated with Pokémon Go if there's a data breach. You also might not want to associate your business with the game if people start dying, either by stumbling into traffic or driving cars into trees or getting mugged in back alleys. And if too many marketers rush into the space, it might foul up the ecosystem. No one likes an invasive species. (But I imagine that aspect could be gamified.)

Even if Pokémon Go turns out to be a short-term fad, it seems like something that can drive concrete business results for certain marketers. A single quarter of increased foot traffic can be a pretty big deal for local businesses. Better yet, it doesn't take massive investment, specialized marketing teams or giant leaps of technological faith to implement.

Specialty agencies have been built based on the VC-fueled fever dreams coming out of SXSW or CES. You've been told time and time again that x, y or z is the next big thing by the trade press and digital prophets, only to see it whither and die from lack of actual consumer interest. And some of us like to make fun of companies that rush headlong into every next sure thing.

But when you see multiple generations jumping on a product and that product is getting more news coverage than Donald Trump, it's probably worth a look.

Ken Wheaton is the editor of Advertising Age and the author of three novels.

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