Pokemon GO reveals 5 important marketing truths you can’t underestimate


Unless you’ve been living on another planet for the last several weeks, you’ve no doubt heard of the Pokemon GO craze that’s sweeping the globe. 50+ million downloads later, and people are still out walking the streets, through parks and even into closed spaces like stores and stations to throw a virtual PokeBall at virtual fictitious creatures.

It’s a powerful shift in the gaming world, and integrates many tech categories, including mobile, AR, GPS, and more.

But beyond the tech itself, what’s most interesting are the marketing implications. (What would a good fad be without in-app purchases, right?) And the Pokemon GO craze reveals some deep-seated marketing truths that should not be underestimated.

Never underestimate the power of brand bonds.
While Pokemon GO is a 2016 phenomenon, its roots go back more than 20 years, to the Pokemon game developed for the original GameBoy console by Nintendo. This collecting game centered around fictional creatures called Pokemon, and was a huge hit, eventually spinning off six generations of gaming updates and more than 700 “species” of Pokemon.

The original games captured the attention of young children and tweens prior to 2000 – the group we now fondly call millennials – and those children lived and breathed the games, the anime series and feature films. There’s a complete mythology that children became immersed in, memorized, and fantasized about as a result of all the media pushed out around the brand (not unlike some other franchises you may have heard of, like Star Wars or Harry Potter.) It’s no surprise, then, that when the brand resurfaces decades later with a new iteration, that the barriers to entry are virtually non-existent, and the familiar faces (who can resist a Pikachu?) bring back deeply embedded fond memories and feelings of a bygone youth.

Never underestimate the power of new technology
The tech involved with bringing Pokemon GO to market is pretty hefty, especially in its integration of several complex technologies into one robust platform. There’s a gaming component, of course – objectives, scoring, playing against others, battles in PokeGyms and reloads at PokeStops. There’s full mobile integration (iOS and Android compatible,) with GPS into a hyper-animated GoogleMaps application. And central to its appeal is the AR (augmented reality) built into the experience, that “hides” Pokemon into your normal environment when viewed through your device’s camera. Oh, and a wearable device for playing the game (line extension anyone?) is set to be released in September of 2016.

It should be noted that tech is at the heart of this whole thing, and that Niantic, the company who developed Pokemon GO, was at one time an internal Google startup that spun off (with $30 million in pledged investments) back in October of 2015, right around the time Google restructured as Alphabet.

Never underestimate the power of fads
It’s hard to resist the appeal of seeing scads of young people laughing, working together, laughing, running around the streets, laughing and having tons of fun. Did I mention laughing? Fads capture attention, typically of a specific group, and gain popularity due to their exciting or enticing nature. That is happening here on a grand – indeed a global – scale, and a great many participants have the Pokemon history to fall back on. To be noted, the Pokemon universe is rolling up new fans as a result of Pokemon GO’s popularity as well. Also of note is that fads typically don’t last – some turn into trends, and I suspect that we’ll see that in this case, because of the copycat phenomenon…see below.

Never underestimate the copycat syndrome
How many brands right now do you think are huddled in their war rooms, feverishly discussing the Pokemon GO craze and asking the inevitable question “how can OUR BRAND do something like this?” Naturally, when a craze sweeps the nation (and in this case, the developed world,) competitors and non-competitors alike recognize the opportunities and rush to develop their own versions to grab attention and attempt to capitalize on the appeal.

Once it becomes viable that there’s a WILLINGNESS on the part of millions of people to participate in a specific type of activity or behavior, brands rush in with their own versions. Expect to see at least a dozen new AR-oriented applications, games, and extensions within 6-18 months. Some may find traction (if they can bring their own appeal to the engagement,) but most will typically fail – either because the appeal will fall on deaf ears, or because the offering won’t be actually cool, or because it will become too overtly commercialized.

Never underestimate the power of community
One of the most critical elements of the Pokemon GO craze (and it was likely unintended,) is that it brings people together. You see groups of 2, 3, 4 or more people walking around with their phones and working together to find new Pokemon. They’re young, they’re laughing, and it looks like they’re having a great time. (Seriously, who wouldn’t want to be involved with that?)

This part of the phenomenon speaks to a deeper truth about consumers and brand adoption behaviors – we’re far more likely to adopt a brand if we think we can be affirmed or liked in some way as a result – especially by our peers. Pokemon GO has done that in a unique way: with the backdrop of a well-established brand familiarity, with the integration of emerging technologies and through the power and comfort of a large peer community.

So…if you’re one of those brands who are considering launching your own version of Pokemon GO, don’t underestimate these important elements. And more importantly, don’t OVERestimate the appeal of your brand to extend into this realm. If you’re gonna do it, do it right, and do it in context with what your consumers really want. After all, you gotta catch ‘em all!


Sprint and Verizon: balls to balls, toe to toe

Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s and Burger King. Mac and PC. Hertz and Avis. In the history of advertising, there have been some pretty great one-on-one battles waged for attention and preference in various categories.

In the recent battle for supremacy among wireless service providers, the conversation has seemed to focus on network performance. Verizon’s work with Ricky Gervais pokes fun at how the other networks’ “coverage maps” are a joke.

Then, things heated up when Verizon launched their “colorful balls” spot, which then garnered near-immediate responses from both T-Mobile and Sprint. (Almost simultaneously.)

In the latest skirmish among these two rivals, Sprint has fired the loudest shot against Verizon in a long time – employing Verizon’s long-time “can you hear me now” pitchman Paul Marcarelli.

Back in 2002, Verizon launched this campaign to make the case for their “go-everywhere” coverage, and in the process, made Marcarelli a household face and voice. (It was widely reported that for the nine years he was employed by Verizon – and their agency – he was both handsomely paid, and severely restricted from pitching ANY other brands.)

However, Verizon abandoned that campaign around 2012, and Marcarelli faded into the advertising shadows.

That is, until Sprint decided to bring him back this week.

Sure, this is a gut shot at Verizon, only because Marcarelli was SO recognizable as the “Verizon guy.” Plus, the script is written specifically around him – a fictitious character, I may remind you – first, and around network coverage second.

A couple of things are interesting about this spot, especially in the way it’s channeling the legendary “we’re #2” ethos. Sprint never says “we’re the best” or “we’re the fastest.” In fact, they say they’re about 1% smaller than Verizon, but that Verizon costs nearly twice as much. Pretty good claim if that means anything to you.

Here’s the important question we should be asking: Why isn’t any one of these brands (not just Sprint and Verizon, but T-Mobile and AT&T as well,) looking to differentiate on some other attribute? Is “network performance” really that important? (Some select research must say yes, otherwise we wouldn’t see billions spent against it.)

If you look back at the classic examples (like Coke and Pepsi or McDonald’s and Burger King,) the brand that came out on top was the one who changed the conversation. Coke and Pepsi beat each other’s brains in for years about “taste,” and then Pepsi took their biggest leap forward when they altered their position to “the choice of a new generation.” (Shifting the conversation away from taste and focusing it on WHO drinks.)

For the big wireless networks, they’re going to continue beating the snot out of each other on “wireless network performance” to the same ends…a ¼-point bump in quarterly performance here, a year-on-year nominal profit margin spike there.

When one of these brands finds a new “voice” and a new position, (hint: it has to really matter for consumers,) I think you’ll see the conversation in the advertising world really start to shift. One of these marketing teams ought to be working on finding that path. Sure, the other brands will follow (almost immediately,) but there will never be a substitute for being first…for zigging when the market zags, and for creating new connections with consumers.

Why would Amazon rush up to a #2 position in a category? (Hint: it’s the money.)


One of the basic tenets of marketing, (and what almost all of my students are sick of hearing about already,) is that brands need to strive for a leadership position. You may not always be able to achieve category leadership, but you can certainly attain positional leadership: quality, price, availability, etc. Heck, leadership is so important, the concept of loss leaders is a thing.

And while leadership is the coveted spot, there happens to be some pretty cushy seats in the #2 position as well. Just ask Avis, Burger King, and Pepsi how they’re doing. Avis is the quintessential case study here, having turned their #2 status into a promote-able benefit nearly 50 years ago, and successfully positioning themselves in their category. (It turned into some pretty great advertising from Doyle Dane Bernbach, too.) Sure, these companies have never beaten out their category leaders on the key metrics, (revenue, profits, number of locations, etc.) but they have consistently beaten out EVERY OTHER player in the space.

I’m most interested in this positioning battle model since hearing the news that Amazon is entering the video content space with a new platform called “Amazon Video Direct.” This platform will allow users to upload their own content, and will even have revenue-sharing models for those who upload premium content that other users may be willing to pay for. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s YouTube under a different name. [PS – if you think you can be a video star, this may be your big chance to get in on the ground floor.  Just sayin’.]

Amazon has made a history (and quite a good living, thank you) by exploring opportunities outside its core competency as an online retailer. While purchases of companies like Audible and Zappos make perfect sense as extensions, development of electronics devices (like Kindle and more recently, Echo,) cellular enablement services (like Amazon Wireless,) and original content (Amazon Studios) really didn’t. That those products may have performed fairly or even very well is beside the point.  T

Just as a sidebar, let’s think on that for a moment:  Amazon, an online retailer, delivers original programming content. Could you imagine if, 30 years ago, K-Mart (a one-time very successful retailer,) launched a dramatic series on television? Who would have ever taken that seriously? So yay for the tech revolution and skewed boundaries!

Video content is really far from what we might consider Amazon’s sweet spot. Sure, Amazon Studios may have a mild hit with “Transparent,” as a piece of original content, but they’re not going to catch Netflix any time soon. And that may be precisely the point.

Nor is Amazon Video Direct going to catch YouTube and its billion-user infrastructure any time soon. But with Amazon’s 130 million unique visitors per month (just let that sink in a moment,) they can rush right up to a cozy #2 spot in the category, maybe disrupt a few long-held market beliefs, and add a few more zeros to their bottom line and their $700 per share stock price.

State of Emergency: Rhode Island Stumbles and Falls. But What Happens Next is Even Worse.

Have you heard about the marketing disaster happening in Rhode Island? It’s pretty bad, and it’s only getting worse. Instead of just recounting the disaster, let’s look at what happened, step by step, and point out the mistakes.

I assure you, we won’t do this to point fingers or tease, but rather to make it a teaching moment to help avoid similar setbacks in the future. Just in case you’re a state about to rebrand, and aren’t sure if you’ve got all your ducks in a row.

What happened first.
Rhode Island was set to invest approximately $5 million in a rebranding campaign. Naturally, they wanted to anchor the new direction around a central identity and theme. So they hired Milton Glaser, legendary designer and creator of the iconic ILoveNY theme and logo.

If you’re going to rebrand your state, and try to attract tourism, shouldn’t the creative come from a firm IN YOUR STATE? (Sure, there’s an argument to be made for going outside the borders…objectivity and all. But still.) Especially when you’ve got some pretty good agencies in the state, and one of the nation’s most respected and sought-after design schools in RISD.

What happened next.
Okay, so the new NYC-designed logo comes out (it’s pretty ok, I guess) along with the new NYC-written tagline (which I also think is pretty okay) and appears as part of a RI-agency-produced brand video to launch the new positioning.

Here’s the new logo with the tagline added:


And here’s the video:

Not easy to know unless you’re from Rhode Island, but apparently, there’s a scene in this video that is NOT shot in Rhode Island, but rather in Iceland. Yes, you read that right: Iceland. Probably a slip-up on the part of the editor…looking to put something “cool” in the video, he or she grabs a placeholder piece of stock footage of a skateboarder on a seaside pier doing some cool tricks. Unfortunately, the stock footage is shot in Iceland.

Stuff like this happens all the time, and unless some troll hadn’t pointed it out, no one would have noticed. But when you think of the essence of the assignment (to show off Rhode Island so people might become interested enough to visit,) it is kind of a big deal. I feel terrible for that kid.

Then the social media backlash happens.
Naturally, there are people out there who relish the schadenfreude, and go to great lengths for likes and shares. And boy did they have fun with this one. Here’s a particularly witty twitter post poking fun at the gaffe.


Others had fun with the tagline and logo, and went out of their way to kick poor RI when it was down, right in the first hours of what was supposed to be its coming-out party. Ugh.

Then some really kooky stuff happens.
Amid the social media feeding frenzy, Betsy Wall, the CMO of the state (yeah, I didn’t know they had those either,) resigns amid the turmoil caused by the whole thing. This, despite having done her due diligence and run market research to uncover that the “cooler and warmer” tagline was the best (evidence-based) direction to take.

Then – are you sitting down? – the governor (yes, you read that right,) steps in and SCRAPS the tagline. For reals. And then (I’m serious, it gets worse,) is opening a studio and inviting the public to come and play with the logo to make it their own. The public. To play. With. The. Logo.

Sidebar: the state also recouped more than $120,000 from Havas (the PR agency) and IndieWhip (the agency that developed the video.)

MISTAKES # 3 through 1000:
Listen, I’m all in favor of crowdsourcing. But never, ever, EVER invite the public in to do the work of a professional. Madam Governor, you wouldn’t invite the public in to play around with your insides while you were having surgery, would you? No, because that’s the work of highly skilled, highly trained and highly experienced professionals. And so it is with the work of crafting identity, artwork and marketing messages.

In retrospect, we might assert that Rhode Island should have sucked it up and put its big-boy pants on and told the Twittersphere to piss off and deal with it. The tagline is kinda cool. The logo is meh, but it’s meh from Milton Glaser, so it’s better than most others might have developed on an off day.

And the truth is that a brand is more than simply its identity and its tagline. A brand is a cumulative sum of experiences and formed perceptions and continued delivery on a promise. It takes time and careful interaction to blossom, and it looks like Rhode Island simply ripped it out of the ground before it had a chance to grow into something tangible, and maybe even beautiful.

The Curious Case of Apple and the FBI


There’s a lot of talk going on right now in Silicon Valley about this case the FBI and Apple are grappling over: it’s an attempt to unlock the iPhone 5C of Syed Farook, the Pakistani-born terrorist who, along with his wife, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

At the heart of the case is a request by the FBI, now filed into a court order, to impose upon Apple Computer to help the FBI unlock this device. As you know, iPhones can be locked with a numeric code, and after numerous attempts to unlock the device with the WRONG code, the software has a built-in “erase all” function. This is built into iOS, and it’s a protective device. The FBI is specifically requesting Apple to write NEW software that will override the built-in protections of iOS, so that the FBI can try 10 or 20 million different passcodes without erasing the contents of the device.

The first issue, of course, is how the FBI can’t figure out how to get into this device. You could probably throw a rock in Silicon Valley and find a dozen entry-level hackers that could circumvent the passcode to get into the device. How does the FBI not have 10 of these people on staff already?

Sure, the nature of this attack was awful, and would get even your garden-variety patriot up in arms about getting to the bottom of the crime, and especially finding out if anyone else was involved. It makes perfect sense, from an investigational perspective, to see what information that phone has on it.

However, I’m not sure that’s Apple’s responsibility. And as the Tim Cook-penned response indicated, it does set a dangerous precedent about privacy and the reach of government. He wrote:

“Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.

We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.”

But more than all that lofty ideology, this seems like a pretty cut-and-dry case of “it’s not our problem.”

In some sense, I think the FBI is confusing Apple with other tech giants like Google or Facebook. These companies DO have oodles of information about their users – usernames, passwords, location history and much more. But this is not the business Apple is in. Not by a long shot. They make their money on selling devices.

And that’s where I think this discussion hinges. All Apple did was sell a device to a consumer. What that consumer subsequently did with it is his business. Now, if that device was used in a horrible crime, (and that’s not a fact, but rather only an angle being pursued,) it certainly makes sense to see what information is on there. But how that is Apple’s responsibility seems, at the very least, confusing – if not downright dangerous.

From a brand perspective – this is a high-stakes game for Apple. If they capitulate (or are forced to,) then the risk of floodgates opening becomes a likely outcome – expect every country around the world (especially high-iPhone-penetrated countries like China and India,) to issue similar orders to the company.  And then expect similar orders to flood the executive offices of every technology company, social media company, e-commerce company and so on.

If Apple holds firm here, they could come off looking like heroes of privacy and vicars for establishing the boundaries between technology and civics. But at what cost? Is there a public backlash against the brand for “not cooperating in the war on terror?” Or is there a sentiment for honoring our rights to privacy that Apple would have stood steadfast to uphold?

This is dicey, indeed. And if I’m a brand manager for Apple, I would be constructing about 17 different contingency plans. Let’s stay tuned.

Has WordPress Lost Control?


Think about this: the average American technology user is interacting with as many as 100 different apps per day or more. Weather, texting, stock quotes, sports scores, e-commerce, navigation and countless other productivity enablers. And a zillion or so games! While there is plenty of enviable tech along that continuum, (not to mention scores of teenage millionaire developers,) there is little to no consistency in tone, or in brand or in experience.

Each app you thumb around with is developed somewhere around the world by some team of coders who are sort of winging it until they get it just un-buggy enough to release (slightly more stringent if it’s an iOS app, but still…) And users of this experience – that’s you and me – are trained to just search for the next cool thingy to while away the hours on the train.

What’s been created with the smartphone revolution over the past eight years or so is a complex and hyperactive ecosystem of near-chaos to provide all of us with a vast environment of choice. We basically live in a technology supermarket where every aisle is stacked with packages of flashing lights and angry piggies. And at a buck 99 or so per experience, we are shopping until we drop. And why not? It’s fun, it’s personalized, and it can be controlled.

What many people don’t know is that most web experiences today are conceived and constructed in very much the same way. Take WordPress, for instance. The world’s most popular blogging platform got smart a few years ago and opened up their platform to outside developers to provide full website functionality – including social connectivity, video embedding, e-commerce, data aggregation and more. But WordPress doesn’t actually DO any of that. They simply provide the framework, and developers build site themes and other functionality on it.

When you land on a WordPress site, you’re being tended to by anywhere from 10 to 100 different independent software companies who have created snippets of functionality. (WordPress calls them plugins.) You’re not so much “on a website” as you are smack in the middle of a technology rodeo where each activity you perform or engage with is being served to you remotely while it runs wild in its side corral. Want to fill out a form? Plugin. Want to see a company’s latest Tweets? Plugin. Want to buy stuff? Plugin.

For the average consumer, it seems to be working. You never leave the site (at least as far as you know,) and you’re confident in that it’s relatively secure. (WordPress did get that part right.)

But when you’re an administrator on one of these sites, and your job is to keep the site updated and add content and make it interesting for consumers, you’ve got 99 problems, and the login ain’t one.

That’s because each component in the code circus is either buggy on some level, or it’s being updated with “new features” or the theme developer changes the core code (rendering ALL plugins that work with that theme near-useless,) or WordPress itself updates the framework software and shuts the whole system down for a week. And any time that happens, something goes wrong with your site. It’s tiring, really.

Sure, these problems do get remedied and add new features and functionalities, but the “getting there” part is bumpy. (Especially when people come to your site and pieces of it are missing, or the menu doesn’t show up, or they fill out a form and just get an eternal spinning wheel.)

The app world can continue expanding outward at whatever pace it sets for itself, because apps are self-contained, single function experiences. When the developer wants to change something in the code, the user gets a notice to “update” and everything works just fine.

But to try and app-ify the web experience, and in particular, the way content is managed from the administrator’s perspective the way WordPress has, is a management nightmare that’s becoming more and more evident as the system expands. You can’t control multi-function experiences in the same way you can manage a single-function app. The minute one developer changes a piece of their code, (say with a theme update,) he or she can throw hundreds of the plugins that are supposedly “compatible” with that theme out of whack, and in some cases, for an extended period of time.

For all intents and purposes, WordPress has lost control.  For an expansive ecosystem like that to work, there needs to be oversight, and it should be administered much more carefully to keep all these independent contractors in line and on time. And it should be the primary objective at WordPress headquarters. I hate to say it, but they should start acting more like Apple.  Even though some decry Apple’s “rule with an iron fist” mentality when it comes to how they handle third-party developers, the proof is in the pudding.  WordPress needs to set some stricter standards, put time restrictions and “windows” on updates, and manage the relationships between theme developers and plugin developers.  Because each time a WordPress site acts wonky, nobody says “oh, I’m sure it’s that Yoast SEO plugin.”  They simply think WordPress is kind of crappy, and nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s no surprise that companies like Wix and SquareSpace have popped up to start serving intermediaries and DIY-ers with newer, easier, less-out-of-control content management systems. (Not surprisingly, they have spurned the “open it up to developers” mentality, and are attempting to keep everything tightly under control.) And don’t forget about SilverStripe – the new, new content management platform that’s turning a lot of heads.

Right now, WordPress sits on top of the content management food chain.  But if they don’t watch out, they’ll soon be the old dinosaur in a market space that’s about to get hit by the proverbial meteor.

Rainbow-colored Research


So, were you one of the millions who “rainbowed” your profile pic on Facebook to show your support following the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage? I was, and quite happily. Then the Atlantic ran this story,  speculating that perhaps Facebook was conducting some far-reaching “experiment” on its users. It also speculates (in the subtext, of course,) that Facebook has likely done this before, and leads readers to surmise that the company may even be actively doing it for pay.

Facebook has never made any claims that it is NOT collecting your data, even on a random Wednesday. In their data policy, which you can find at  https://www.facebook.com/policy.php,  they clearly state – in a jillion different ways:

“we collect the content and other information you provide when you use our Services”


“we collect information about how you use our Services”


“we collect content and information that other people provide…about you”


“we collect information about the people and groups your are connected to”


“if you use our Services for purchases of financial transactions…we collect information about the purchase or transaction.”

Now, it’s likely that out of the billion or so users on Facebook, approximately 23 of us have probably read the privacy policy in its entirety. (Busted!) In a previous post on this blog,  I’ve asked about why consumers are so busted up about online tracking, when it makes our lives so much better, and more streamlined. As I said then, tailoring makes our lives better. Cookies make our lives (and our online experiences) better.

If we boil this down to its essence, we’d likely see that the average or typical social media participant is more than okay with the idea that their information and online activity are being tracked in an effort to achieve various ends, like a cooler/faster/more contextual social media experience, or more targeted advertising, or even for social studies. And although we don’t typically read the privacy policy, we’re probably pretty much okay with it, as long as you don’t snag my credit card and go buy $800 worth of frozen pizzas at Wal-Mart.

And so what if Facebook WAS conducting some big-data test with the pride-your-profile-pic exercise? Big woop.  It’s astounding that, in an age where we share more personal information than ever, that we’ve become so hyper-sensitized to that information maybe kinda sorta being “used” for some purposes other than my Grandma Susie seeing my latest motocross bike race. (It was kind of badass, by the way.)

Whether we like it or not, we’re slowly but surely crossing the threshold from web 2.0 to (the social web) to web 3.0 (the predictive web) as a result of all this data tracking that’s going on. It, too, will ultimately make our lives better in ways we probably can’t even imagine right now.

So let’s do a snap poll – provide a simple YES or NO answer in the comments section below (and of course, any comments you care to share are more than welcome):

Are you okay with social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter monitoring your online activity to make assumptions or test hypotheses, whether they be theoretical or commercial in nature?

I’ll start. YES!