Pokémon Go's phenomenal global success arrived at the perfect time.
The game launched amid the 20th anniversary of the franchise. The Pokémon Company had banked on it being a major 12 months for the IP, and was using it as a chance to reconnect with lapsed fans. It had prepared a whole range of new merchandise designed to appeal to those nostalgic for the classic games. It had a number of initiatives around the TV show and the cards, too, all of which would climax in a brand new, full Pokémon game for 3DS.
It was a simple and sensible strategy: bring back lapsed fans, and then deliver a hit new Pokémon game.
What they couldn't have banked on was the enormous popularity of Pokémon Go, which didn't just reconnect with classic fans, but delivered new ones in their millions and millions. Suddenly, all the efforts The Pokémon Company had undergone to reconnect with older players had the double benefit of being an entry point to this new fanbase.
"Pokémon Go didn't just reconnect with classic fans, but delivered new ones in their millions and millions"
The fact that Pokémon Go focused on the original creatures from the very first games meant that the retro merchandise range suddenly looked fresh. There was no scrabbling around, desperately trying to capitalise on a surprise smash hit. The Pokémon Company had everything already prepared; it just needed to turn up the manufacturing dials.
So there was a slice of luck involved, but since then The Pokémon Company has embarked on a multi-layered brand strategy, connecting all the facets of its franchise together, and upgrading casual players into more dedicated ones. It's a tactic the firm has spent the last three years developing, and it continued that vision with last night's press conference.
The strategy is actually evident in everything The Pokémon Company has released. Take this month's Detective Pikachu movie, the very existence of which is something of a surprise; a major Hollywood production based on a game that took two years to arrive from Japan, and was released on the ageing and rapidly declining 3DS platform. Yet it was an original take on the series, a chance to do a movie that could appeal to non-fans, while still remaining wedded to the core world of the games.
The movie coincided with the usual merchandise campaign, but in addition The Pokémon Company developed special Trading Card sets. It even gave away a free mini-pack of cards to those that went to the 3D screenings. On top of that, Pokémon from the movie -- including the titular character -- appeared in Pokémon Go. Nothing The Pokémon Company does is in isolation.
"Connecting the disparate parts of the franchise in significant ways has been The Pokémon Company's MO since its inception"
Of course, those of us with long memories will know this isn't anything new. Connecting the disparate parts of the franchise in significant ways has been The Pokémon Company's MO since its inception. When the anime series became a hit the firm commissioned Pokémon Yellow, an updated version of the core video game featuring characters and iconography from the TV series. As the Trading Card Game became more popular, the firm developed a Game Boy Color title (bringing this element into the canon of the actual game series), and also gave away cards to those that went to see the first animated movies.
Pokémon the video game franchise, Pokémon the Trading Card Game, and Pokémon the TV series were in constant contact throughout those early years.
So this is nothing unique. Yet the new challenge The Pokémon Company encountered after the success of Pokémon Go was how complicated its fan base had become. To be broad, there are effectively three groups of Pokémon fans: there are those who played the games in the late '90s and never left; there are those who played the games in the late 1990s, drifted away, and reconnected with Pokémon Go; and then there is an entirely new group that hadn't played a Pokémon game before 2016.
Connecting the tapping and flicking world of Pokémon Go with the more strategic and narrative driven nature of the core series would require something more significant than the visual tweaks used by Pokémon Yellow back in the '90s. So the company developed Pokémon Let's Go Eevee and Let's Go Pikachu. In isolation, these two games felt a bit odd; both refreshing because they changed the series' core gameplay, but also dated because they were actually a remake of the original 1996 games.
"Pokémon is an interconnected world of apps, films, anime, games, toys and trading cards, each one benefiting from the others"
But these titles weren't created in isolation. They were an explicit effort to upgrade Pokémon Go players to the console series via more accessible motion controlled gameplay. Meanwhile, the return to the original world made the game easier to develop, and appealed to those original players. The hope is that players of Let's Go can now make the step up to the more complex mainline RPG series.
The Let's Go games have sold a combined 10.6 million units, which is a strong audience. But whether it has been successful in upgrading players won't be known until Sword and Shield -- the next main Pokémon games -- arrive later this year.
Announcing Let's Go could easily have gone very wrong. A casual, entry-level Pokémon game isn't what the core players of the console series were looking for. To counteract some of that negativity, The Pokémon Company simultaneously announced that Sword and Shield (at the time untitled) were in the works. It turned out to be a smart move, because although there was some discontent from the fandom, it wasn't nearly as severe as it could have been. Again, it was careful brand management, keeping each of its audiences in mind with every announcement.
Last night, Pokémon once again announced a number of new projects. There was a new Detective Pikachu game, which comes just as work begins on the movie sequel. There were Pokémon Home and Pokémon Sleep, two new smartphone apps that once again connect with existing and future Pokémon games. And then Pokémon Masters, a new battling game designed for a casual audience, which hopes to attract more new users into the franchise.
These announcements are all further examples of The Pokémon Company's strategy of developing its audience from casual to core, and connecting all its products together. Nintendo has often talked about its desire to introduce people to its brands via the smartphone, and then 'upgrade' them to its main console line. Yet The Pokémon Company is actually doing it.
Pokémon is a brand that transcends generations, and is an interconnected world of apps, films, anime, video games, toys and trading cards, each one benefiting from the others. It's a masterclass in brand strategy and management, and something even the biggest entertainment companies can learn from.