Pokemon Go Is Still Going, With New Content and Big Brand Partnerships

Niantic's CEO says he's been careful about integrating advertisers

It took less than eight weeks last summer for Pokemon Go to attract 500 million users (called “trainers,” in the game’s parlance), representing a scale that Facebook took six years to achieve. Despite such astonishing growth, many people wondered if the frenzy was simply a digital fad for the ages. But then researcher Sensor Network estimated this month that the augmented-reality game had already made $1 billion—in its first seven months. Some fad. Now the blogosphere is abuzz about 80 new monsters in Pokemon Go’s second version, which went live last week.

“Players in the Philippines, Germany, Korea, Japan and the United States are connected online and playing the game together,” explains John Hanke, CEO of Niantic Labs, which created Pokemon Go in partnership with the Pokemon Co. and Nintendo. “These folks get online to talk about the game, to trade hints and tips and critiques and share all of that on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.”

Hanke declines to reveal his app’s latest user numbers but says regular players add up to “a very large level,” and sharing the app saw more activity spikes toward the end of 2016.

Retailers have tried to capitalize on the foot traffic the mobile game has created around the world, creating special offers for trainers when hunting Pokemon characters around their places of business. At the moment, Starbucks and Sprint are running Pokemon campaigns around tens of thousands of U.S. locations. A Sprint spokesperson says that since the brand’s program began in December, “we’ve seen a substantial amount of interest from trainers at stores across the country.”

Heading into his keynote appearance at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 28, Hanke considers what the app’s rise means for marketers and the future of augmented reality.

Adweek: That explosive growth last year, what was that like internally?
John Hanke: It was sweet for us because we had been working on this stuff for quite a long time. Pokemon Go was kind of our premeditative effort to take [mobile AR] to a more mainstream audience. We knew that there were elements in the game that were addictive and that would really click with people in terms of getting out and playing with other people in real life. It was super amazing to see that happen in this unexpectedly frenetic way around the world.

"It’s a really innovative thing to merge the real and the virtual reward for visiting the physical store."

Pokemon, the Nintendo console game, was a mid-’90s thing. Why did that brand resonate with such a large audience again?
I’m older, I’m 50. I guess you could call it nostalgia. I have that feeling about certain TV shows that I grew up with. For this generation, for the millennials, they have that same kind of feeling toward the Pokemon brand. And by bringing it out in a way that made it accessible to them on their phones, because they’d outgrown the demographic of the Nintendo handheld, they could tap back into that sort of warm childhood memory but in a completely fresh way. …And it blends the stuff you do in your normal life like going to school, waiting for the bus, meeting your friends on the [train] somewhere, and it just adds in this gaming element.

Do you see Pokemon Go as a tipping point for mobile AR?
I think you would look at it as the birth. You’ll [now] see games that play with the concept of AR and location and mobile in new ways.

Retailers took to the location-based, sponsored “Pokestops” and other ads on the platform pretty quickly.
It’s something that we’ve been cultivating with Ingress [Pokemon Go’s older sibling and fellow Niantic game] for many years actually. So we had worked with a number of brands, more in Japan than in the United States, via Ingress. We had worked on things like SoftBank with their retail phone stores, with Lawson, which is a big convenience store chain in Japan.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 20, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.