Twenty years later, Pokémon is still a massive brand.
Since its introduction in Japan in 1996, the series that’s encouraged kids around the world to “catch ‘em all” has gone on to sell 275 million video games worldwide, ship 21.5 billion Pokémon Trading Card Game cards to 74 countries, and inspire an 18-season animated series. In 2015, it’s estimated that Pokémon brought in over $2 billion in licensed merchandise,, ranking as the 29th largest global licensor. And 2016 is a big year for the brand: Pokémon is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and will also be launching two new titles: Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon.
Even with a brand that big, marketing is still important. J.C. Smith is the Consumer Marketing Director for The Pokémon Company International, a subsidiary of The Pokémon Company in Japan. The Pokémon Company International manages the property outside of Asia, and Smith has been working at Pokémon for seven years, following seven years at Nintendo prior to that.
Unlike other video game series, which may have to struggle to get name and brand awareness, at this point Pokémon is already established, even for people who may be unfamiliar with video games. Despite the brand’s sustained popularity, Smith still faces some interesting challenges keeping the world up to date on Pokémon.
“Our job is really to make sure people understand what’s cool about the games coming up,” Smith said. “I don’t have to explain to most reporters what Pokémon is. I explain what’s new with Pokémon.”
The company has to manage a brand that has been around for 20 years. This means keeping both adults who have grown up and aged with the property, and the brand’s younger audience, happy at the same time. That balance is one of the biggest challenges for the team, Smith admitted. They have to consider things like appropriately marketing to kids—not gathering details or being predatory—while also still keeping long-term fans happy.
“We’re perceived as a kid’s brand, despite the reality of being a broad-appealing brand that 30 and 40-year-olds are playing,” Smith said. “So that’s something we have to keep in mind.”
And while Smith doesn’t see that perception of Pokémon as a bad thing, he does think that the games are even appealing to people who may not have played them early on.
“[Pokémon is] easy to get into, and tough to master,” Smith said. “I think that’s something that’s a very important point. You can play Pokémon any way you want and that’s the piece that I think is lost on people who don’t look into it.”
After 20 years and countless games and spin-offs, Smith still sees the brand’s strength coming down to the series’ foundation and roots: collecting, battling, and trading. It appeals to different demographics: some people like to like to try to catch them all, others want to breed Pokémon for hours then take them into competitive battles, and more casual players simply want to “beat” each new game and then move on with their lives until the next one is out. It has a little bit of something for everyone.
By focusing on specific aspects of the games prior to release, the team also doesn’t have to worry about using different language that may appeal to younger or older demographics. Smith mentioned how different aspects of the series cater to different age groups, and the team doesn’t have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to capture different age markets.
“It’s doesn’t require a ton of rebranding…because a 30 year old still wants to enjoy the world of Pokémon in a lot of the same ways they did when they were a kid,” Smith said. “We’re very grateful for that, to be honest…It’s not like it’s easy work here, there’s a lot to do. But the fact that we have a quality product, an established community that’s doing things because of their passion for the brand—that’s something that brands want badly.”
A DOUBLE-EDGED AEGISLASH
The community’s passion for the brand can cut both ways, and not every announcement that the company makes is met with total praise.
“The biggest negative we get from a lot of our announcements is, 'You didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear about X game,’” Smith said. “And that’s just a great place to be. Our fans are just in a different spot. They have love for the brand in a variety of different ways and we try to nurture that.”
And of course, like many other vocal video game fan bases, Pokemon also had to deal with fan expectations for where the series should go. No matter how positive a community may be, there are always going to be people who are vocal about the future of the series.
“We obviously hear about [common fan requests like] the [Pokémon] Snaps, we hear about the core RPG on consoles,” Smith said. “Everyone has an idea of what they want [upcoming mobile game] Pokémon Go to be…but in the end [developer] GameFreak and our president of The Pokémon Company in Japan have a nice vision for Pokémon that keeps us grounded, not doing just whatever, it’s what we think is the next step for the brand.”
Sometimes that can be a matter of managing fan expectations, especially when it comes to new announcements. If they’re not specific enough fan speculation can go wild. “Give them a week to [speculate about an announcement], there’s going to be a lot more theories,” Smith said. “Give them two days to do that, there’s going to be fewer.”
Instead, the team tries to be as clear as possible with announcements. “But in the end, that’s the bed we have to lie in,” Smith said. “People just have a robust imagination. There’s a lot of brilliant people out there, a lot of really vocal, brilliant people out there that have the next idea for Pokémon.”
The nature of Pokémon universe also makes it easy for the team to maintain the positivity in the fan base. “If it were an ultra violent, competitive environment in a bad way, then we might have a different audience,” Smith said. "But I think our community mirrors the game community, the game battles, the trainers that venture through the games—they are working together, they are not adversarial in a nasty way. It’s a training-to-get-better way.”
Smith mentioned the Pokémon World Championships, which are held every August and include representation from 35 different countries, as an example of how the community works and is consistently positive. “The community around the world has the same vibe,” Smith said.
The developers at GameFreak, the same company that made the original games 20 years ago, attend the Championships as well to interact with fans. “When it comes to development, GameFreak is very tuned into the community, but they also have their own vision,” Smith said. “They’re not just jumping when the community says jump, but they respect [their] opinions.”
With Pokemon celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, there’s been a lot of nurturing of both the brand and community. The anniversary also meant that the marketing team could do something they don’t get to do that often: plan early and talk more freely with partners about their plans. Unlike dealing with the games, whose releases are often shrouded in secrecy and information slowly released, it wasn’t a secret that Pokémon would be turning 20 this year.
“It wasn’t game related, it wasn’t going to spoil the experience if someone learned that we were celebrating a numerical reality, which is 20 years have passed since the games came out,” Smith said. “It was nice because we could jump earlier. We could talk to the partners earlier.”
This meant that the team could start planning everything earlier. Work on the 20th Anniversary actually started two years ago, and led to things like the Pokémon Super Bowl ad. For a brand that isn’t one to “throw money around easily,” a Super Bowl ad is quite an investment.
In the discussions around the anniversary, the team looked at what was important, and realized it wasn’t looking at what the company had done in terms of sales, but it was more about the community of people around the brand, and they “couldn’t think of a better way, at least domestically, to express that than a Super Bowl ad.”
The 20th anniversary also coincides with new releases coming this year, as well. Pokémon Sun and Moon are due to be released at some point this year, and it seems fans can expect a similar approach, at least in terms of marketing.
“For us, it’s really about…let’s stay the course, this is what’s cool about Pokémon,” Smith said. “People have responded for 20 years, why change that?”
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