Last week, Nick Johnson became one of the first people in the world to catch all the Pokémon around the world while playing the insanely popular mobile game Pokémon Go. But despite the whirlwind of media, hype, and excitement around the game since it launched on July 6th, it is just one aspect of a brand that has been cultivating obsessive fans for two decades.
This year began with The Pokémon Company marking its 20-year anniversary with a Super Bowl ad, continues this summer with the juggernaut that is Pokémon Go, as well as a new deal for a live action movie, and will roll into November with the massive launch of two new video games, Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon. And for the brand's marketing director JC Smith, while the success of Pokémon Go is more than welcome, it's just a reflection of Pokémon's ongoing creative legacy.
"One of the things I love most about The Pokémon Company and the creators involved in the Pokémon world, is that their focus is first on the world itself, the characters in it, the stories being told by it, and the fun to be had within it," says Smith. "And next they look at, how can we best express that? In what format? Is it a technology we need? A communication form? There are all kinds of ways they can approach it. So for us, it's just been fun to celebrate the fact they've been doing it for 20 years."
That existing Pokémon world, it's many characters, as well as a built-in, extremely passionate fanbase was a recipe for success. "When the conversation started in Japan about this cool technology that Niantic was bringing to the table, it just made sense," says Smith. "Their game was about exploring, our game is about exploring. The element of collecting Pokémon was so natural. It all just made sense. When you combine a brand with that history and story with technology that allows that to take a new form, expose new people to the brand and engage existing fans, everyone's going to benefit."
It's because of that strong brand foundation that the phenomenon of Pokémon Go wasn't really a surprise.
"To some degree, you can never predict how successful a game will be. You know there will be some success based on the history we've had with all our other properties. But we knew this was going to be popular, it was just too easy for people to pick up and play."
Smith says the brand was well-prepared for the new game's success, since it's always tried to work with solid partners across all its media, from collector trading cards to cartoons on Hulu, Netflix, and iTunes. "In the end, managing the brand for us is about having all these things treated, and prepared for any uptick, let alone one like this," he says. "I think we were well-positioned to immediately feel its benefits. Is it changing anything? I don't know that it is, but it's certainly something that's been affecting our day to day. But, the same focus on what's a great expression of the brand is what we're all about, and this is just one that is particularly popular, and we're really excited to see how it continues."
Pokémon has so many different touch points—whether it's the cards, toys, cartoons, or chasing a Drowzee down the street—that when it comes to brand longevity, Smith says any marketing success comes down to respecting the fans in every way.
"It's the care the creators take in making a quality experience, that the games are worth the money you're spending on them, that the cards you're collecting have a premium feel and treatment, that shows a level of respect for the current fans and future fans, and they see that," says Smith. "So for us, it's all about nurturing that fanbase, we have a great group of people that have been playing for 20 years. Some play one part of the brand, some play another part, some play all of it, we want to give them ways to enjoy that in the easiest way possible."