Mark Ritson: The real lesson of Pokémon Go is that today’s marketers will jump on any bandwagon

Like Cabbage Patch Kids, the Rubik’s Cube and the Tamagotchi, Pokémon Go is a fad destined to burn out quickly, but that doesn’t stop clueless marketers abandoning their brand positioning in favour of luring any teenage boy with a smartphone.


I tried to resist as long as humanly possible. But the gravitational pull of Pokémon Go has pulled me into its digital tractor beam and forced me to join the throng of marketers enthralled by every facet of its augmented reality.

Like millions of other marketers, I now openly acknowledge that there have been two eras in the history of marketing – BPG and APG. All the old rules about having a strategy, doing research and thinking about stuff are clearly redundant because they were invented before Niantic and Nintendo managed to geo-locate small fictional creatures onto my smartphone.

READ MORE: Why Pokémon Go is a game changer for augmented reality and marketers

For starters, the language of marketing must change. Words such as storytelling, social, inbound, disruption, content and millennials clearly represent the vocabulary for marketing success. But it’s becoming clear that without the addition of Pokémon Go this lexicon is growing dangerously ‘traditional’ – and there is nothing worse than that.

Whereas in the past it might have been advisable for a marketer to tweet about ‘How to disrupt social storytelling and target millennials with your inbound digital content’, in the new APG era it’s imperative to upgrade this to ‘How to disrupt social storytelling with Pokémon Go when targeting millennials with your inbound content marketing’. It is a subtle shift, but essential if you want to prosper in the brave new APG era ahead.

Just in case you think I am taking the piss a little too much let me share some of my favourite implications of Pokémon Go from marketing experts/ninjas over the past week. Pokémon Go has been variously associated with the “beginning of a shift in the way we advertise”, “taking customer relationships to a level like we’ve never seen before”, and “solving one of marketing’s biggest conundrums”.

Pokemon Go
(From left to right) – How you catch Pokémon in the real world, how the in-game world looks, a squad of Pokémon

If you think the experts are embarrassing, how about the brands that have apparently tossed their marketing strategies out of the window in a fevered tactical chase to associate themselves with Pokémon Go and its crazed following. My favourite example last week was Mercedes. The German automotive manufacturer has invested in so-called ‘lure modules’ near ‘PokéStops’ to attract monsters and therefore people playing the game to their showrooms. Mercedes-Benz dealers across Germany have apparently been issued with a “detailed manual” to explain how Pokémon Go can be used to drive traffic to their showrooms.

I’m not sure whom Mercedes is meant to be targeting in Germany but I’m pretty sure it’s not sleep deprived pre-pubescent boys staring inanely into their smartphones. And even if that is their target customer I would be looking for a better time to try and sell them a car than when they are wandering, zombie-like, round the back of your dealership looking for Pikachu among the recycling bins. I’m also betting that if I challenged Mercedes’ current marketing department to tell me what their positioning is, they are more likely to tell me it’s “next to the big green Bulbasaur over there” than give me a proper, strategic answer.

Ever since the world was young we have had sudden fads that create a global sensation. The hula hoop, Rubik’s Cube, Cabbage Patch Kids, Tamagotchi – pick your fad based on your birth year. What makes the current Pokémon Go phenomenon so different is the way it has exploded out of the world of consumer fascination and into the world of marketing and business. We all went a bit mental about Cabbage Patch Kids back in the eighties but some bearded muppet from the Marketing Society did not turn up on the six o’clock news and start telling Angela Rippon how they were changing the face of modern advertising.

The real lesson marketers can learn from Pokémon Go has nothing to do with the game, and everything to do with the wobbly, ephemeral state of marketing these days. We blindly accept that there are 400 million players of Pokémon Go without checking for two seconds and concluding that this number is clearly nonsensical. We glibly assume that Nintendo will make “$12bn” from the new game before anyone realises that, as they did not actually create the game, they will make only a fraction of that sum from it. We watch brands confuse attracting any customer with a pulse and a smartphone with proper targeting in which strategy drives tactics.

Perhaps worst of all, we assume that today’s Pokémon Go player will be playing tomorrow. If we have learned anything from the fads of the past it is that Lucy grows tired of her hoop and Paul pulls the stickers off his Rubik’s Cube and starts using it as a football. Fads burn bright and then fade fast – how about that as the big lesson for marketers to learn from Pokémon Go? Or is my content too disruptive for you?

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There are 20 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Have you noticed that the lessons marketers are told to learn from Pokemon Go are EXACTLY THE SAME as the lessons they were supposed to learn from every other fad in the last 10 years? Authenticity this, millennial that.

    Pokemon Go changes nothing. It just gives the brigade a new excuse to regurgitate the same old buzzwords.

  2. You nailed this one! Excellent take on the matter!

  3. Jamie Sharp 27 Jul 2016

    sarcastic and awesome all in one Mr Ritson

  4. Martin 28 Jul 2016

    Agree with most of the points made but it isn’t just sleep deprived pre-pubescent boys playing the game, it can and seems to (in some smaller cases) work for other target audiences too.

  5. Ville Porttila 28 Jul 2016

    It has also worked well for McDonalds in Japan (according to the company, at least). I can’t see a problem when used in this way to increase footfall in low-value transaction stores. Not sure what Mercedes are playing at, though

  6. Will the next hot thing be Pokemon Went?

  7. Chris Khushi Sharp 28 Jul 2016

    Sorry, but this is a stupid article.
    Logic: “If we think about Pokemon Go only in terms of the actual gameplay leading to short-sighted tactics while basing the audience demographic on assumption, then we can conclude that marketers are stupid and short-sighted and are targeting the wrong audience.”
    What about the concept of geo-caching digital items that can be collected on a smartphone? What about the mass availability of augmented reality on the move? Could this lead to new kinds of AR advertising? Coupon distribution? Are these things a fad or is the $bns sunk into VR and AR headsets only grow the phenomenon?
    If you don’t consider the strategic application of the technology as well as the potential for in-game marketing then you are self-limiting your own strategic options, all while simultaneously bashing everyone who is considering these applications as being “un-strategic”.
    You sound like those marketers who said that social media was a fad 10 years ago.

    • CNNdawg 29 Jul 2016

      FIRST: That would be like criticizing him for saying that he thinks of Pokemon Go only in terms of actual gameplay … but ignoring the fact that it … hmmm … has bright colors. You make a huge leap in your conclusion.
      His commentary isn’t about the AR technology, but about the legions of lemming marketers who aren’t (at all) differentiating themselves by excitedly announcing a PokeStop at their place of business (one can imagine the precious hours spent by “marketers” brilliantly coming with a plan for “gaming” Pokemon Go for their benefit … there is absolutely no meat in any of the blah, blah, blah “marketing” attempts I’ve seen.

      SECOND: Even though I imagine those in the AR business are now scrambling to find ways to create AR experiences that they can sell to the hordes of lemming marketers (your examples above), there will still be no beef in most of the efforts. Yea, the lemming that gets there first will have a moment of glory, but it will soon be squished to death by the rest of the horde. AR/VR is just another vehicle. And, once the thrill of the technology wears off, then Pokemon Go is pretty darn boring and so will many of the campaigns built around the AR/VR revolution.

      Let’s revisit this in a couple months.

  8. adastra32 28 Jul 2016

    If it isn’t already there, I’m waiting to hear about the first PG-caused serious injury (or worse) – have your brand associated with the Big D…hmmm.

  9. Knowing its Professor Ritson, I was going to read this enthusiastically anyway but after reading “in favor of luring any teenage boy with a smartphone”, I just started sharing it first.

  10. volpino 29 Jul 2016

    Nearsightedness and confirmation bias at its finest. This article, not one of the most powerful activation tools ever assembled (by a major brand – the concept is nothing new).

  11. Why are you ignoring the fact that PG is leveraging its pre-existing brand and established fan base? Isn’t that the major lesson to learn?

    This article comes across as ill-informed, and a little bit “get offa my lawn!” I’d suggest you read any of the dozens of articles on the major video game sites about the mass appeal of PG before you make any more (insulting) claims about the demographics involved.

    • There is perhaps a marketing lesson in Nintendo’s FAILURE to exploit their much loved characters in the mobile era. They licensed the Pokemon IP to this start up and are hardly making anything from it.

      Nintendo is the strongest video game brand in the world yet they’ve completely failed to transition to mobile gaming. And that’s why Nintendo is now worth 1/3 of its 2007 peak.

      The problem this article deals with is marketers’ response to Pokemon Go as if it is some amazing new transformational force that will shake marketing to its core. In reality its the same thing we’ve seen many times before. Perhaps it has some short term tactical value. Perhaps it’s the first example of a new promotional approach based on geolocation and AR. But even if it is, that’s a small tactical change that will leave 95% of marketing exactly the same.

  12. CNNdawg 29 Jul 2016

    Good gawd. I needed that. I bow humbly in your direction with deep appreciation.

  13. Lauren Peel 29 Jul 2016

    I get the point of this article, but I don’t think it’s fair to say pokemon is only played by teenage boys, without getting any analytics on the audience.

    From what I see out and about, there are a lot of teenagers, but also millennials who have grown up with the brand (such as myself) who have a good disposable income and are happy to spend on leisure/retail/entertainment, as are the friends I play with. Additionally I see older people playing, people who enjoy trying new things and want to spend their energy and money on leisure.

    If it’s just teenagers then this article is spot on, but for some brands, Pokemon Go could be a fantastic draw for them, as it gives “stale” brands the opportunity to engage with new customers in a way that appeals to them.

  14. Shanghai61 1 Aug 2016

    Mr Ritson has found the Snark.

  15. “Is my content too disruptive for you?”

    Not at all. It was rather, highly interesting. Thank you for sharing your insights. 🙂 While jumping on some fads is not bad – if it’s not in line with your business goals, what’s the point? I read that cafes and restaurants are faring well with this trend. But I’m not sure about car dealers. Uber, maybe. But they’re not dealers nor manufacturers, so…

  16. Martin Ballantine 4 Aug 2016

    Great piece. PG just reminds of me of another fast disappeared global phenomenon – the Ice Bucket Challenge. Marketers were DESPERATE to ‘hijack’ this and create their own IBC…just need to realise their brands are (mostly) not that important. They’re certainly not people’s ‘friends’. Mercedes using PG is one of the most jaw-droppingly dumb examples of deluded, jump-on-any-bandwagon marketing I’ve heard heard about. PS. I’m always suspicious of people with names like ‘UppercutEd’ – grow a pair and use your real name. Cheers!

  17. Al King 8 Aug 2016

    “….but some bearded muppet from the Marketing Society did not turn up on the six o’clock news and start telling Angela Rippon how they were changing the face of modern advertising.” Perfect.

  18. Ville Porttila 10 Oct 2016

    Good job Pokemon Go wasn’t a month-long fad then

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