Pokémon Go Goes Viral With No Big Marketing Blitz

Game Could Be Opportunity for Retailers to Sponsor 'Pokéstops'

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A scene from the trailer for Pokémon Go -- now being enacted on sidewalks around the country.
A scene from the trailer for Pokémon Go -- now being enacted on sidewalks around the country. Credit: Pokémon

Social feeds over the weekend were inundated with millions of posts about the new mobile game Pokémon Go. The number of players outstripped servers' capabilities. Everyone from Wiz Khalifa to the New York City transit system had something to say about it.

But the companies behind it, Niantic Labs in partnership with Nintendo and Pokémon Company, have apparently done relatively little marketing to achieve their instant breakthrough.

Pokémon Go, one of the largest mobile games yet to incorporate augmented reality, asks players to catch 150-plus Pokémon characters, battle other players and collect items at real-world locations that have been made into "Pokéstops." It's free to download, though many people who want to progress will end up paying for in-app purchases, much as they do in games such as Candy Crush.

That was enough for it to become the top-grossing app on iOS within a day of its U.S. release last Wednesday, according to App Annie, the app analytics firm. It achieved the same on Google Play by July 10.

It helps, of course, that millions of Americans know Pokémon from its original form on Nintendo's Game Boy in the 1990s and subsequent iterations as TV shows, card games, toys and comic books.

In social media, Niantic tweeted that the game was available in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. After that, it retweeted a couple mentions of the game from other accounts, but not much else.

The Pokémon feed itself has been updating fairly regularly, but Nintendo of America hasn't done much more than retweet one of Pokémon's announcements.

It isn't clear whether the game has been promoted with app-installation ads, the usual way for developers to encourage sampling. App Annie, which monitors app-install ads, hasn't seen significant activity there yet for Pokémon Go, said Fabien Pierre-Nicolas, VP-marketing communications.

And unlike games such as Mobile Strike, Pokémon Go hasn't had a single TV commercial, according to iSpot.tv, which monitors more than 100 networks around the clock.

Beyond a familiar brand name, Pokémon Go seems to have won its out-of-nowhere success on the wings of core fans' anticipation and massive, unsolicited word of mouth on social media.

Interest for the game has been building for months, particularly since Pokémon Co. released a trailer teasing it in September 2015, according to Mr. Pierre-Nicolas.

At the E3 video game conference last month, Nintendo released details including the price of a wearable shown in the trailer that alerts people when a Pokémon is nearby even if they're not actively playing the game on their phones. (The $34.99 wearable, Pokémon Go Plus, may be sold out already, as Nintendo's website said that it is "temporarily unavailable.")

Niantic and The Pokémon Company International, which oversees the Pokémon brand in the West, handle development and day-to-day operations of the game. Nintendo is manufacturing Pokémon Go Plus and is also an investor.

Asked whether Pokémon Co. has bought any advertising for the game, whether it plans to step up marketing and whether it will offer any in-game sponsorship opportunities for brands, Pokemon representatives declined to comment. Niantic did not respond to requests for comment.

Particularly with the game's Pokéstops, however, retailers could especially benefit from in-game sponsorship opportunities. Niantic's first game, Ingress, also used mapping technology and a type of augmented reality to merge with the real world. It offered businesses the opportunity to sponsor locations inside the game.

Niantic told the New York Times this afternoon that sponsored locations for Pokémon Go would be announced at some point down the road.

Mr. Pierre-Nicolas said that despite the lack of a traditional marketing blitz, the game has brought in an estimated $1 million in daily net revenue, after developers' 30% cut to Apple and Google. That's while it's only been officially available in three countries. Assuming that the game fixes its servers as it rolls out to more countries, that figure could translate into more than $1 billion per year, he said.

Offering more features to make the game last longer will likely generate added interest, he added.

Niantic began inside Google, released Ingress on beta in 2012 and was spun off in 2015.

Pokémon advertised in this year's Super Bowl with an ad that was created by agency Omelet in Los Angeles. The shop also created the most recent trailer, released last week when the game became available.

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