Brand Lessons from Pokemon GO: Separating Hype from Helpful


You’re probably thinking, oh great. Another article about Pokemon GO.

The augmented reality game has exploded onto the scene and just about everyone is talking about how it’s going to be revolutionary for businesses.

But what’s hype and what’s actually helpful?

HYPE: Augmented Reality is the “Next Big Thing”

With the widespread adoption of Pokemon GO it’s easy to see why everyone is psyched about the potential of Augmented Reality (AR).  

But keep in mind, Pokemon GO isn’t the first AR game. It’s just the first one to see mainstream adoption. And it’s been successful mainly because it takes how people would like to interact with the brand and makes it possible.  

Millennials grew up watching Ash Ketchum hunt wild Pokemon on TV. They spent their childhood “catching” Pokemon by winning card games against their friends.

They dreamed of becoming the next great Pokemon Master.

Fast forward to present day, and Pokemon GO makes it possible for them to realize that dream. The game is a natural extension of how people interact with the brand.

And yes, there’s little doubt that AR being a new, insanely cool, technology contributed to Pokemon GO’s success.  

But that doesn’t mean you should jump on the AR bandwagon just yet.

There are without a doubt some cool AR opportunities for companies.  Fashion brands like House of Holland have used it recently to let consumers purchase items right off the runway by scanning the item with their smartphone camera.

And that’s pretty cool.

But more importantly, it’s relevant. Being able to scan something and purchase it is a natural extension of how people shop. It just makes it more convenient.  

And that’s really the lesson for utilizing AR.  Implementing it needs to be a strategic decision. One that’s based on an understanding of how your consumers interact with your brand.

HYPE: Pokemon GO Exemplifies the Power of Gamification

First of all, Pokemon GO isn’t gamification.  It’s a game.

By definition, gamification is the application of game mechanics to non-game contexts. Pokemon GO isn’t a non-game context. It’s a game. Therefore, it’s not gamification.

You may be thinking, yea okay. That’s just semantics. Who cares?

But it’s an important distinction.  

Gamification and games, while similar, are designed with different goals in mind.

Games exist to entertain players.

And that’s kind of it.

Gamification on the other hand exists to motivate people to complete actions that they wouldn’t otherwise. For it to work there has to be proper motivation.

Putting aside the fact that Pokemon GO works because, well, it’s a game, the app is popular because people want to catch Pokemon.  

Yes there are some other elements that make it addictive. There’s an element of surprise: “Will I finally catch a Charmander or will I have walked 5km just to hatch yet another Pidgey?” And it appeals to our desire to collect. But if we don’t want the things we are collecting, the best game mechanics in the world aren’t going to matter.

Without that motivation, no one will engage. It’s just not worth it.

Translating that to branded gamification can be difficult. Most brands don’t have the inherent motivation of catching a Pikachu and fulfilling a secret lifelong dream of becoming a real life Ash up their sleeve.

But nevertheless, they can build similar kinds of intrinsic motivation into their gamification initiatives.

The important point being similar, not the same.

Please don’t build a game where people walk around looking for wild hamburgers.

Great gamification initiatives understand what consumers want or need. They offer fun, addictive solutions. They take the strategic parts of why Pokemon GO worked and translate them for their target audience and brand.

HELPFUL: The Nostalgia Factor

As a Millennial myself, I’m not going to deny we are a nostalgic bunch.

As just about every other article has mentioned, Nostalgia played a substantial role in Pokemon GO’s success. Millions of millennials downloaded the app, and it’s fair to assume they did that primarily because the Pokemon brand is familiar.  Even if they weren’t Pokemon fans growing up, many have downloaded and played the game.

It’s obvious that nostalgia is a marketable item.  As a co worker pointed out, “we’re finally old enough to have our fading youthful memories pandered to.”

But brands using nostalgia to pander to Millennials need to be careful.  Nostalgic as we may be, millennials are also sticklers for authenticity.

For example, using Eminem as your brand spokesperson might make sense. Millennials grew up listening to his music. It’s the right era.

What wouldn’t make sense? If your company sold car insurance.

The reaction from Millennials would likely be some form of the following:

Why is Eminem rapping about car insurance? This is obvious pandering. Let’s openly mock it on Twitter.

Nostalgia marketing has to make sense. There has to be an alignment between your brand and whatever nostalgic content you use. It has to feel authentic.

And that authenticity is really where Pokemon GO succeeded.

The game skyrocketed augmented reality into the mainstream. Something that not even Google had been able to accomplish (cough, Google Glass). And it managed that by marrying the technology with a beloved and nostalgic story in a way that felt authentic.

The Bottom Line

There’s no discounting the success of Pokemon GO.  But it’s important to remember that not everything is transferable to your own marketing initiatives:  

Augmented reality only works if it matches consumer behaviour.

Gamification fails if the motivation for engagement isn’t there.

Nostalgia is only successful if it feels authentic.

The biggest takeaway from Pokemon GO boils down to this: Strategic planning and a deep understanding of your target audience is key if you want to catch ‘em all.

Don’t groan.

You knew that pun was coming.