Pokémon is back! Only, of course, it never went away. And after 20 years, we wanted to talk with some of the people responsible for ensuring it maintains its most recent wave of momentum so that no newly newscaster or casual observer can claim the monster-catching brand has ever faded away.
The franchise, which is a massive force in gaming and entertainment, is amid a second phenomenon. Pokémon Go is the top-grossing game on iOS and Android. The Google Maps-powered app has players catching virtual pocket monsters in physical space through the use of GPS. While that game continues to dominate the world, we wanted to take a wider look at the property, which generates $2.1 billion each year, with The Pokémon Company consumer marketing director J.C. Smith.
After a long stint with Nintendo, Smith joined The Pokémon Company in 2007. He’s in charge of ensuring the communication between the company responsible for the messaging around Pikachu and friends is reaching and pleasing its fans. That culminated earlier in 2016 with an ad for the Pokémon brand that ran during the Super Bowl, and that’s where my interview with Smith beings.
GamesBeat: Tell me what got you to the Super Bowl.
J.C. Smith: We’ll dive in with the 20th anniversary. For us, 2016 was the 20th anniversary of when the video games first came out in Japan. We were talking through how we wanted to approach — I think it was 2014. Basically, what we sat down and said is, we want to celebrate 20 years of our fans, all the things that people have experienced together. And really, how can we do that?
We came back with some ideas and one of them was, if we want to talk to everyone that’s been touched by this game, and by the Pokémon brand, let’s do a Super Bowl ad. The response wasn’t even hemming and hawing. It was a yes. Yeah, that sounds awesome, let’s do that. We were incredibly lucky to be able to do an ad that — maybe one of the few ads that was just about a brand. Not about a product that was for sale. For us it was really fun to be able to just celebrate the fandom, celebrate trainers and the nature of the Pokémon universe. For us it was a lot of fun to work on.
GamesBeat: What’s it like to have a brand like that, where you can have this crew of people who all hear the idea of an expensive Super Bowl commercial and everyone says, yeah, that’s a great idea? And then it goes ahead and gets a record-setting number of views on YouTube for that year’s Super Bowl commercials. It’s not selling a product, it’s just talking about this general thing. What’s it like to have that sort of power behind your ideas when you go forward with something like a big commercial?
J.C. Smith: You know, it’s such a luxury, to be honest with you. For 20 years, the creators have been taking care of making sure the games are always high quality, that the experiences people have are fun, that there’s communication, that there’s a lot of dialogue with the fan base. They provide a lot of access. They’re very down to earth about the fact that it’s the fans that are helping drive this forward. They take a lot of care making sure the game respects that. They make my job easy in that way.
I don’t have to say, hey, listen, you know about this Pokémon thing? They know that. Fans know that. They love it. They’ve stuck with us, and in many ways, shapes, and forms. You’re aware of the video games. You’re aware of the TCG. You’re aware of the animation. But it’s one of those things that doesn’t always smack you in the face unless you have a kid who’s obsessed with it or you’ve been playing for 20 years. It’s always there, it’s always strong. It just made that — it wasn’t surprising that the Super Bowl ad was popular. Especially in something like YouTube, where our fans live and breathe. That’s where they watch things. It’s pretty fun for us as a brand to be able to do something fun to celebrate with them.
GamesBeat: If people are always aware that it’s cool, if they know it before you even have to go out and tell them with a Super Bowl commercial, where are the challenges? Where do you find yourselves saying, this is a message we need to get out about Pokémon?
J.C. Smith: A lot of people are aware of the brand. There’s a — obviously people see Pikachu, they say, oh, yeah, I know that character. But I think the general consumer is like, yeah, what is that?
People that grew up with it, the 30-somethings and 40-somethings and 20-somethings, it’s been a part of their lives forever. There’s a level of — there’s a generational divide in some ways. It’s a lot older than you might think. But it’s one of those things where we’re constantly looking at how we can get our fans to understand. It’s not, we target this group or that group. It’s our fans. How do we stay true to that?
For us it’s really, what’s the best way to present this to our fans so they all hear about it? One thing we tackled starting in 2013 was that games used to come out at different times, months apart. The marketing would happen in Japan. Everyone would find out about it in Japan and play it in Japan. Then all the fans here would have heard about it. It’s fun still, but what we decided, what the creators said was, we want the games to come out at the same time worldwide.
That sounds easy, but that’s a lot of languages that need to tell the story the right way. That’s a lot of work on the marketing side to make sure the fans are learning about new characters, new features, new fun things they’ll be able to experience in this video game, at the same time. We want them all to be celebrating this at the same moment in time. Things like that that we do, we didn’t need to do it, but we thought it would be cool. We thought it would be a fun way for the fans to unify around Pokémon instead of unifying around the country that learned about Pokémon. No country is more important than the other when it comes to their fandom.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like it’s working, that people are learning about this as just Pokémon fans? Not North Americans reading Japanese news or South Americans waiting for a translation?
J.C. Smith: Yeah, definitely. It’s working very well. We’re able to post simultaneously on multiple different Facebook pages. We’re setting up press releases around the world, day and date. It’s all synced up. It’s presented in a unified fashion.
The same characters, same content. It’s really been fun to see. It’s not something a lot of people see because they’re seeing their region. But we get to see everything that goes into making it worldwide.
One of the coolest expressions of that universality is our world championships. We’ve had them for years, it’s just they continue to grow, expand, and excite people. We have 35 countries coming to play in the world championships every August, in a couple of weeks. This year we have to be in San Francisco. I gather you’re in Denver. But for us, it’s always been there. It’s just nice that we can celebrate all these things as a group and see the crowds from Japan talking to people from the US, talking to people from Spain and France. They’re all bonding over their favorite Pokémon, game strategy, it’s just showing to us that this continues to work.
GamesBeat: A lot of times I hear on the nightly news someone saying that hey remember the first wave of Pokémon in the 1990s, and now suddenly it’s back. As someone in games it feels like Pokémon’s always been around, is that something you want to close the gap on? Because no one ever says that Disney’s back.
J.C. Smith: Yeah, I think it’s pretty funny. You said it in a very unique way. No one ever says Disney’s back. Disney’s had 50 years to build on this, or maybe even more, 60 probably. For us it’s — we have 20 years of people knowing that. We haven’t covered an entire generation, from birth to death, with Pokémon being a part of their lives. That’s something that for us — it’s something to strive for, making sure people know it’s ubiquitous, it’s there. For us, Pokémon is the second-best-selling game franchise of all time. The TCG has 21.5 billion cards out there. There’s a ton of stuff happening that’s been going on for 20 years. We know this stuff. We just don’t always get to talk about it, or always feel like we need to talk about it. This is an opportunity for us to do that a little more.
GamesBeat: Are there any plans to expand the World Championships?
J.C. Smith: Actually, we have an event series worldwide that leads up to worlds. We have national championships, continental championships in Europe, Japan has their own set. There are players coming from all around the world to our world championships. They have to play all year long to qualify.
We’ve always had this infrastructure. We want to continue that. We want worlds to be an exclusive event, for lack of a better word, for the best players in the world. That’s one of the reasons we’ve added streaming and had streaming be so prevalent. We have four streams this year. There’s a stream to watch all the Pokémon video game competitions. There’s a stream for the Pokémon TCG competition. There’s a stream for the Pokken Tournament for Wii U competition. And then one gathers them all and takes on the highlights at any given moment.
We want people to be able to watch this. It’s not necessarily an event where we structure it so everyone should come, but it’s something that we always have great crowds for, very enthusiastic crowds to enjoy the Pokémon-ness of that moment.
GamesBeat: Any thoughts about a Pokémon conference, something equivalent to a Minecraft conference?
J.C. Smith: We’re open to all kinds of things. We want to touch as many people as possible. Events are somewhat limited by geography. The number of people that can get there. We like to do a lot more online, celebrate things on the internet, so that people around the world can experience that. Part of the reason for the international rollout of information is based in that. We don’t want to have small events, small considering that the world can’t all come to it. We try to focus first on how we get our message out most broadly to our fan base.
GamesBeat: About Pokémon Go. It seems to me like one of the reasons it’s so successful is because it’s so great at touching on all the things that make Pokémon special. Is this sort of a validation of all those things that make Pokémon special?
J.C. Smith: We’ve always felt validated. This is just another point of evidence. That’s one of the reasons the project even came into existence. The Pokémon Company, as a group, we’re able to look around and say, what would be a cool way to experience Pokémon? How can we expose people to the characters and the exploration that’s part of the game, to the collecting, trading, battling, the communication that’s necessary?
All those things are part of our everyday activity. For us, when Niantic came to speak with our president, Mr. Ishihara, after being introduced via the Google Maps activity, it was a discussion, but it was pretty clear that exploration and capturing Pokémon in a real-world setting, all that stuff just made sense. It was one of those times where the brand strength and DNA matched up with the technology and gameplay style that Niantic had been working on for years.
GamesBeat: Speaking about the partnership with Niantic, what’s that relationship like, in terms of marketing? Do you let them handle most of that communication, or do you try to step in and say, this is how we like to communicate these things about our characters?
J.C. Smith: Our main role is the brand expression. It’s how the Pokémon are treated. There’s all sorts of Pokémon brand rules, right? 20 years comes with a lot of: these characters should be this way and that way. We spend time with them on that, helping navigate those paths. That’s our focus. They’re managing the game marketing specifically. Obviously we talk to them a lot. It’s not a vacuum. They’re in San Francisco, we’re in Seattle. It’s an easy conversation to have on a regular basis. It’s really focused on the Pokémon, for us. This is what our fans like. There’s a little bit of a community discussion, when talking about Pokémon. That’s how we’ve drawn the line.
GamesBeat: Has the success of Pokémon Go given you new ideas about how to take the franchise forward?
J.C. Smith: I don’t know about that. Certainly it emboldens us to — when we see a good idea, we take a shot, right? And see what happens. It’s not like this is a super risky venture in any way.
But it just proves to us that you can find multiple ways to express the Pokémon world. We’ve always had that, but now let’s look for more. The TCG, the TCG online, the movies, the live action movie that was announced a couple weeks ago amidst all this. There’s a live action Detective Pikachu movie being made with Legendary Pictures. It’s a lot of opportunity. We have a strong brand. It’s continuing to look for the right way to do it. We’ve been doing that for 20 years. As technology continues to change, we continue to evolve.
GamesBeat: About Detective Pikachu, what was it like getting that deal together? From the outside it seems like a whirlwind — like it happened because of Pokémon Go. But were there more long-term discussions that the public missed out on?
J.C. Smith: Yeah, the unfortunate thing about the timing was it did seem like that was the reason. Obviously Hollywood doesn’t work like that. Deals don’t work like that. It’s been in discussion for a long time. For us, I’m glad we were able to announce it. We got a lot of great coverage about it. But it was one of those where there was so much Go news — normally this would be a much bigger piece of the news cycle, but in the end, we’re excited that we’re able to do this. People will learn a lot more soon.
GamesBeat: About taking chances with the brand — when you take those risks, will it always stick to the things that make Pokémon special?
J.C. Smith: Yeah, that’s my job. That’s our creators’ job. That’s everyone’s thought process at this company. Just make sense for the brand.
It’s really a — we have a brand-first mentality. It’s not about the dollars. It’s about, how fun is this? Is this a quality experience? Are people having fun with this? What would make them have more fun with this? That type of mentality, which is really nice, to be honest with you. We get to talk about product features and things that excite people all the time.
For us, anything we do in the future would be with that same filter on. Does this make sense? It’s never, are we working with this partner because it seems like we could make a lot of money? It’s going to be a “yeah, but.” Does it make sense for the characters to be living like that or in that type of world? Does it make sense for the communication aspect or the collect-battle-trade aspects of the game?
GamesBeat: It definitely seems like it’s your job, like you said, to make sure that the Pokémon brand is treated well. Do they owners, Nintendo, Creatures, and Game Freak — let you do that?
J.C. Smith: Yeah. Let us do that? Yes! But we’re definitely in conversation with them all the time. That’s what the relationship is based on. Understanding their philosophy in the game features, why they wanted to make it work this way. How they want people to feel when this is happening. We have to bring that across in the marketing. For us it’s a lot of conversation, but that’s what we’re built for, to have those conversations.
GamesBeat: Finally, when you were in early conversations with Niantic about Pokémon Go, I’m sure you took that to the three partners and said, hey, here’s this idea. It seemed like Nintendo and the other partners all wanted to get involved from the beginning? Is that correct?
J.C. Smith: The conversation started with Mr. Ishihara, our president and CEO of the Pokémon Company in Japan. He’s also the president of Creatures, which is one of the three companies that owns the Pokémon Company. He’s the one who introduced Game Freak, the developer of the core series of video games, to Nintendo originally, to say these guys have a cool game concept, check it out. He is the bridge. He’s the guy that brings the parties in. So yeah, there were plenty of conversations amongst that group. It was a no-brainer, that this group of people would be involved in making that happen. We’re involved in all things Pokémon.