Given the incessant hype surrounding the mobile game, which marries beloved characters like Pikachu with augmented reality and scavenger hunts, ad agencies are scrambling to figure out how their marketing clients can glom onto the buzzy game.
“Pokémon Go” made its debut a week ago and immediately soared to the top of the app store rankings in the U.S. The game has sent scores of explorers on the hunt for “pocket monsters” by combining location-tracking technology with augmented reality.
Users see monsters on a digital map and look through their smartphone’s camera to catch them, so it appears they are doing so in the real world. Players are flocking to the landmark locations that act as PokéStops (where players can collect items) and gyms (where they can do battle against other trainers).
Already some local businesses lucky enough to be near a key location have latched on to the game, which allows users to make in-game purchases. The New York Post reported on one New York pizzeria manager who dropped a “lure” in the game for $10 to attract trainers to its proximity—and business spiked 75%. A Brooklyn bar noted that the Pokémon inside were for paying customers only, Bloomberg reported.
Jeff Pray, senior vice president at Starcom, said he has already reached out to Niantic, the game’s developer, to inquire about weaving some of his clients into “Pokémon Go,” and he is thinking about other ways that advertisers might attach their products to the craze.
After a weekend of news stories and chatter that vaulted the mobile game into the mainstream, a client on Monday asked if the company needed to start formulating its own augmented-reality strategy, Mr. Pray said. And he’s expecting that’s just the start of the inquiries.
Similarly, Brandon Berger, Ogilvy Worldwide’s chief digital officer, said he has begun briefing his creative teams, hoping to spark ideas on how brands might capitalize on “Pokémon Go” in anticipation of questions from clients.
Niantic Chief Executive John Hanke told the Financial Times that “sponsored locations,” where companies would pay to become locations in the virtual world in order to drive foot traffic, will be coming to the game. Niantic didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Advertisers would not have to work directly with “Pokémon Go” in the near term. “Why couldn’t brands participate at a gym location?” Mr. Berger asked. “If you’re a beverage brand or a retailer or even a real gym, why don’t you find gyms and put your brand right around that, put experiences around that?”
For example, a brand could pay for Wi-Fi at a popular Pokémon location. Or hand out samples. Or put up real world signs or video screens touting their message, Mr. Berger theorized. “It doesn’t have to be digital in the purest sense. Maybe you can drive people to the nearest [fast-food] restaurant? Who knows. Either way, somebody’s gonna crack how to do this and I’m hoping we’re one of them.”
“ McDonald’s is a client. That’s a slam dunk with something like this,” said Scott Judy, vice president of user experience and creative services at digital marketing agency Isobar. Once the game allows for it, “you could make those into Pokéstops and gyms—anywhere where you would want to draw people into your location or event.”
Mr. Judy said that he expects other augmented-reality games to emerge with similar functions but involving different franchises that people love. “This has widespread appeal when you wrap Pokémon around it, but it could easily be ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” he said.
Dario Raciti, U.S. director of Zero Code, the gaming and virtual reality division of OMD, cautioned that many marketers are still wrapping their heads around the explosion in popularity of “Pokémon Go.” And he noted that one of the worst things the creators of the app could do would be to overload the game with ads, turning every Pokémon adventure into a walk through the virtual version of a billboard-filled Times Square.
Still, many ad executives see Pokémon as an eye-opening moment for many marketers when it comes to mobile and location-driven experiences. Lee Maicon, chief strategy officer of digital agency 360i, said that increased adoption of video app Snapchat helped pave the way for consumers’ comfort with “Pokémon Go.”
“Snapchat sort of taught us to look at the world through a particular lens and then add filters on top of it. This app is taking a little from Waze and a little from Snapchat,” he said, referring to the traffic navigation app.
Mr. Maicon said that more brands will be interested in experimenting with augmented reality given the success of the game. “It broadens the palette for the types of experiences we can create for the brands with whom we work,” he said.
Niantic, which was spun off from Google, developed the game with Tokyo-based Pokémon Co., which is 32% owned by Nintendo. Nintendo also owns a stake in Niantic and much of the Pokémon franchise’s intellectual property.
The app is free to download and makes money by offering in-app purchases like Poké Balls, which help players catch more Pokémon in the game.
The industry is eager to see how the advertising philosophy for “Pokémon Go” unfolds, given the company’s unique origins. Nintendo has only recently started branching out from its historical resistance to treating its games like media properties, while rival gaming publishers have eagerly woven advertising messages into their games and user interfaces.
Meanwhile, Google, where Niantic was originally incubated, has famously built a massive digital advertising business and has little history of being cautious regarding leveraging consumer data for ad targeting purposes.
But, as Mr. Raciti noted, the Pokémon reputation is still Nintendo’s to protect.
“I’m sure there are brands that want jump in,” he said. “In the past, Nintendo has not really been open to advertisers on their platforms in the U.S. It will be interesting to see how long of a leash has Nintendo given Niantic…But it’s all speculation at this point.”
Mr. Raciti had one bit of strong advice for marketers: Don’t try and make your own AR game.
“That’s something we rarely recommend to a client,” he said. “It’s so expensive and risky. Brands are better served as being part of existing franchises.”