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Evolving and changing the product offering to cater for different markets, changes in product perception, and even the commercial angle isn’t something to be afraid of. Taking risks is a lot easier when you’re smaller, but even when you have an audience, taking risks, making changes, and responding to market expectations and supposedly irrelevant factors (with humility) can help build a long-term brand.

Just look at Pokemon.

At the time of writing, Pokemon is the world’s biggest media franchise, worth upwards of $90bn – three times the size of Harry Potter, and more than four times the size of 007 (James Bond), for comparison.

When you look back at the history of Pokemon as a franchise, you begin to find some of the most remarkable product marketing pivots (and risks) that have helped the brand become what it is today. Some of these pivots and risks worked, others haven’t – but all of them have been learned from to create a very profitable product model.

It’s important to remember that Nintendo had developed a number of franchises before Pokemon was released in 1996, they had already gone through a plethora of platform/hardware developments, and created franchises such as Donkey Kong, Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, partnered with Disney to produce Mickey Mouse titles, and even ventured into the world of sports with a variety of tennis, baseball, and soccer games across their various platforms.

All this meant that by 1996, Nintendo had established an international base of fans and strong marketing distribution networks. 

This helped ease the introduction of Pokemon into the mainstream, but that alone isn’t the key to Pokemon’s international market success.

They did this through a combination of product and marketing evolution; making changes (some small, some large) to its products and marketing messaging. Most notably, they changed a lot of now synonymous elements early on in their marketing, and made product-led decisions based on market data that then influenced future products.

The first of these, the tagline.

Before ‘Gotta catch ’em all became the synonymous tag line of the franchise, Nintendo marketed Pokemon internationally heavily with the Pokemon are coming.

First mentioned properly in the 1998 edition of the Nintendo magazine, the real introduction came in the May 1998 edition covering the games, trading cards and anime due to be released that fall.

They then turned this tagline into a song that became part of the anime series, and then became the slogan of the entire franchise.

The second change they made in the early days to their marketing (that then also influenced the anime), was a change in brand figurehead.

The 90s was an interesting time, with increased affordability and accessibility to more and more sources of entertainment both television companies, animation studios, and game developers were in a race to not only be seen, but to be innovative and stand out in a crowded marketplace.

This is where Pikachu came into the mix, as a solution.

For me, Pikachu is the cumulation of marketing strategy, market research, persona analysis, development, and combining multiple mediums to create a holistic brand.

I know that might sound like an odd statement, but there’s a lot of strategy that went into Nintendo making the global mascot of the franchise a yellow mouse, when the franchise also contained dragons, dinosaurs, turtles with cannons, flaming horses, and sentient coconut trees.

Pikachu wasn’t the original mascot choice. The original mascot choice was Clefairy.

Clefairy is a bipedal, pink Pokemon with a chubby, vaguely star-shaped body.

Pink is a very popular colour in Japan due to its ties with cherry blossoms, springtime, and to playfulness and youthfulness. 

However, outside of Japan pink is considered a feminine colour and Nintendo thought that it would alienate boys who might want to play the game, so they needed to find a new mascot.

They had already developed and planned the games for global release, and versions had already been out for some time in Japan.  This left them with two options, choose from the existing Pokedex (the existing roster of creatures), or create a new Pokemon altogether. 

They went with the former and chose from the existing (and original) 151 Pokemon.

This is where, in my opinion, some of the best marketing decision makings that has ever happened, happened.

An obvious choice would have been to go with one of the starter Pokemon, but game mechanics meant you could only pick one (unless you traded for the others with someone else with another game). 

This again could cause alienation amongst the audience.

It also had to be something accessible, and as with any mascot there needs to be an affinity, something gamers would be able to have from early on in their game journeys. 

This ruled out the legendary Pokemon, or final stage evolutions (as they require levelling up which takes time and game progression).

So looking at the games, and the game mechanics that had been built – it needed to be something a gamer could potentially get in the first half an hour – and in early game Red, Blue and Green – your choices were:

  • Pidgey – a relatively weak and useless bird
  • Rattata – a purple/blue rat
  • Caterpie – a caterpillar
  • Weedle – a caterpillar-like bug
  • Mankey – a pig/monkey round thing
  • Nidoran – a poisonous, rodent-like quadruped
  • Pikachu – a yellow, electric mouse

Out of all the options, Pikachu does sound the most exciting, and likely to get parental buy-in as it’s not promoting something poisonous, and also not everyone likes bugs.

Pikachu also benefited from the fact it was yellow.

In the 90s, we had The Simpsons and Spongebob Squarepants. 

Outside of this there were very few yellow cartoon characters and any backpacks, t-shirts, toys being bright yellow would stand out and be noticed as a brand icon. 

Yellow is also a gender neutral colour, and Pikachu itself is capable of powerful attacks, so as well as looking cute, it has wider market appeal.

The decision was then made that Pikachu would be one of the lead protagonists in the anime, which went down a success with Pikachu still a lead protagonist 25 years later. They then set about releasing Pokemon Yellow (which to the Western world was the special edition version of Red and Blue), in which the gamer could follow in the anime’s footsteps with a Pikachu starter, and had an altered game mechanics/storyline to match the anime.

As the franchise has developed, they’ve also become more aware of the wider world and real-life influences on the gameplay.

The first step they made was around animal cruelty. In the first games, also known as generation one, a lot of opponent Pokemon trainers had whips. In the anime they also featured a side-character actively using a whip on a Pokemon.

Realising this wasn’t in line with real-world attitudes towards how you treat animals and wanting to discourage the message that whipping creatures was ok, they moved away from featuring whips on trainers.

In more recent games, they’ve had Pokemon change and reflect their differing environments, for example, a coral-based creature released in 1999/2000 had a regional version released in 2019 they had it go from bright pink and bubbly to colourless and drab, as a visual nod to climate change and the effect on coral reefs.

The Pokemon Company also took the real world, and incorporated it even further into their product and marketing strategies.

The early Pokemon generations had their geography-based on real-life regions in Japan, whilst in later games, they left Japan and began to build regions (and content) based on other countries around the world.

Game Generation

Game Region

Real-Life Counterpart

1

Kanto

Kanto, Japan

2

Johto

Kansai, Japan

3

Hoenn

Kyūshū, Japan

4

Sinnoh

Hokkaido, Japan

5

Unova

New York & Manhattan Island

6

Kalos

France

7

Alola

Hawaii

8

Galar

Great Britain

As well as basing regions off of different real-life areas, with each new generation of games comes a new roster of Pokemon (as well as a number of returning creatures), and they worked in the lore, traditions, and customs of the real-life regions into these creatures.

A good example of this is generation 8, Galar, which is based on Great Britain. 

In the Galarian list of Pokemon there are:

  • Yamper – A small electric dog based on a Corgi, which is synonymous with the British Queen.
  • Sinistea & Polteageist – Ghost Pokemon that have inhabited a tea-cup and teapot respectively, and we all know Britain = Tea.
  • Perrserker – A cat-like Pokemon based on the Viking notion of the Berserker warrior, which highlights the prominence of Vikings in British history as they helped to shape modern day England.
  • Inteleon – A bipedal lizard with a spy theme, paying homage to fictional British spy, James Bond.

Similarly with Generation 7 (the Alola region), as this was based on Hawaii, Alolan Pokemon also took on Hawaiian traits:

  • Alolan Persian – A variant of an existing Pokemon, Persian is a proud, elegant cat, and in Hawaiian culture having a round face is a sign of beauty, so the Alolan variant takes on this physical trait.
  • Alolan Exeggutor – The previously mentioned sentient coconut tree, being based on a coconut palm tree changed from being a stumpy 2-metre tall tree, to a tall 10.9-metre palm tree in it’s Alolan (Hawaiian) variation.

These are not just great examples of changing messaging with the times, but throughout you can see the themes of acquisition and retention in their target audiences.

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