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Interview: How Pokemon Keeps Marketing Year-Round

Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell talks to Pokémon marketing director J.C. Smith about how to keep consumers engaged, even when there are no new launches on the table.
[Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell talks to Pokemon marketing director J.C. Smith about how to keep consumers engaged, even when there are no new launches on the table.] Satoshi Tajiri's achievement in creating Pokemon was to focus on a fundamental human need, most particularly expressed by children, to collect things, hone skills and compete; to express their power in the world. The little personalities of each Pokemon delight and intrigue millions through games, TV, movies, toys, trading cards and more. In the 15 years since Pokemon appeared as a Game Boy curiosity, it has sold well north of 200 million games. Its most recent incarnation Pokemon Black and White for DS has shifted more than 11 million units. Multiply how much time people spend playing these games with how many they've sold, and it is, arguably, the world's biggest game franchise. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that the entire future success of Nintendo's 3DS -- which had an underwhelming launch -- relies upon a great Pokemon game appearing for that machine, sooner rather than later. So far, 643 Pokemon have "been revealed" to the world. J.C. Smith is director of consumer marketing for Nintendo's spin-off Pokemon Company and has been involved in the franchise for 11 years. He says he can name "about 90 percent of them on sight," which is an impressive feat. Equally impressive is keeping consumer interest in the franchise alive during the long periods between launches. Pokemon games (aka "generations") appear on Nintendo handhelds about very three years. The Pokemon Company's marketing strategy isn't just based around big ticket launches. It's based on aiding the community and keeping the fanbase engaged even when there are no new launches. These games do not fade and die post-launch. The nature of the handheld market and the franchise's appeal to children en masse keeps new consumers coming pretty much without fail. But there's also a lot of work going on between launches. One such is the Pokemon Video Game Championship Series, which takes place in six U.S cities and five cities in Europe over the summer, culminating in a World Championship in San Diego in mid-August. Qualifying rounds will attract about 3,000 attendees each, roughly a third of whom will compete, but the marketing magic takes place back in the players' neighborhoods, says Smith. "All these players are practicing and talking about what they are doing. They are playing either wi-fi battles online or they're playing against their buddies. They're playing nonstop so the number of people it touches overall because of this is pretty great." Elsewhere the company is preparing to launch its online trading game which it hopes will update the lucrative physical cards business and create a valuable new digital revenue stream. Pokemon's marketing is based on giving garrulous fansites something to focus on. "We just give them fodder. The community already talks. It's part of what's core to Pokemon. The fan sites out there help spread the word for us." He adds, "For us it's about giving our fans something fun to do in between game launches. That's my bread and butter. That's exactly how you should treat your fans. Giving them activities and things that they can continue to do while they're waiting for the next version of the game or the next world to be released." This is marketing as it ought to be; brands don't need to create messages when fans are doing the work for them. They just have to engage with the fans, something that many brands fail to do when the focus is off retail launches. It's another reason, above and beyond the genius of Satoshi Tajiri, why Pokemon is still going strong.

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