What Marketers Can Learn From Pokémon Go’s Success

Ellen Evers, assistant professor of marketing at Berkeley-Haas, is an avid Pokémon Go player.

Evers also studies consumer behavior, which makes her a perfect person to ask about Pokémon Go’s marketing strategy—and what it will take for Pokémon Go to stay on top. (John Hanke, MBA 96 and CEO of Niantic Labs, is the driving force behind Pokémon Go.)

Here’s our interview with Evers.

Pamela Tom: What’s the attraction to Pokémon Go?

Ellen Evers: Pokémon Go is especially popular with millennials. This age group is the most willing to spend money on free-to-play games. The game’s popularity with 20-35 year olds is largely due to the nostalgia factor. The original Pokémon game (Nintendo Gameboy), the TV show, and the collectible card game all came out in the late ’90s and were hugely popular. Most of us growing up in the ’90s watched the show, played at least one of those games, and have really good memories of it. The current game allows us to revisit our childhood and relive those memories. For those of us who have children, there is another benefit: we can play this game with our kids and connect with them over a shared love of the game—like a modern version of going fishing with dad.

PT: You’ve studied consumer behavior toward collecting. How does collecting play into the success?

EE: Having an organized set of things to collect with clear structure and goals is inherently motivating, and as long as you feel you are making reasonable progress, it feels very rewarding. That’s what Pokémon Go offers to capture gamers’ attention and loyalty.

There’s another factor to Pokémon Go’s popularity: the game makes reality feel a bit magical. Whereas other games are clearly in a different space from reality—computer games happen on the computer and board games happen at a table—Pokémon Go takes reality and superimposes this entire augmented world on it. Whereas going to the supermarket would normally be a boring and predictable chore, now all of a sudden you can run into a virtual creature in aisle three. It makes the mundane parts of our lives a bit more fun.

PT: The game seems like a marketer’s dream, reaching a broad variety of consumers. How can Pokémon Go help other companies improve their marketing strategies?

EE: Other companies can learn how to leverage the immense appeal of nostalgia and collecting when developing new products. Pokémon Go also offers opportunities for other companies to reach consumers through the app, especially since the user base has a decent disposable income.

For example, lunch places and bars can spend a little bit of money on placing a lure via the app — an item that attracts Pokémon in the game and which costs about one dollar per 30 minutes — in front of their place to attract more players to their establishments. Or, they can offer a 10% discount to whoever is currently in charge of the Pokegym, places where players can fight other players. The strongest person “owns”  the gym until a stronger player comes along and takes over.

These cheap and easy strategies indicate that the restaurant is welcoming to players, and add some extra fun and competition to the game, attracting additional customers.

PT: Pokémon Go is so popular. How does it remain on top from a marketing perspective?

EE: Pokémon Go faces a few challenges in the future. The current game is fun but extremely limited in terms of what a player can actually do. Essentially players are repeating the same tasks over and over. Those tasks can quickly stop being fun, turning the game into a chore, what gamers call “the grind.” This monotony has caused the downfall of many other mobile gaming hypes up to this point——Farmville, Candy Crush, etc.

It’s therefore important that Pokémon adds not only more content soon but also different content. This could be adding certain quests (tasks people do in a certain time limit for additional rewards); adding some narrative or storyline; or adding a social component (fight your friends).

While collecting and completing collections is inherently pleasurable, this is only true to a certain degree. One reason why collections are so motivating is that there is some frustration with missing a few things in your collection. Resolving this frustration feels good. Making it too difficult to complete a subset of Pokémon, or even making it impossible leads to frustration, and can cause active players to disengage.

PT: Any other obstacles?

EE: At the moment gamers are happy to spend some money on Pokémon Go, and will put in effort and spend money to try and catch all the Pokémon. Pokémon Go may forge successful partnerships with other companies as long as gamers feel like they don’t need to spend money at this partnering company just to be able to enjoy the game. While partnerships can work, Pokémon Go has to be careful that gamers do not feel like the game is trying to trick, force, or manipulate them into spending money on things they don’t want from these partners.