Pokémon Go shows marketers it's OK to lose control

If marketing communications wants to lead in AR, it has to throw out the playbook and throw it out quick.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

For years, marketing comms has boasted about its ability to control the narrative.

True AR, such as Pokémon Go, can’t make that guarantee.

That kind of AR is about constructing a world, setting players free in that world, and releasing control.

In a Q&A with Adweek reporter Marty Swant at New York’s Mixed Reality Marketing Summit last week, John Zuur Platten, the former creative director for Niantic’s Pokémon Go, shared stories about players meeting in real-life and forming rabid cultures around that game and Ingress, another Niantic title – much of it unplanned.

The story isn’t the game, Platten said. It’s the players themselves.

"I approach the story in these games, these experiences as a two-way conversation," Platten said. "I know where I want the story to go, where the character arcs are headed, and what the key narrative moments will be. But when that story gets released into the world, your player base is going to start interacting with that in ways you don’t expect."

For example, Niantic released a character named Clue for Ingress, the game that Pokémon Go based its engine on. During that time, Platten and his team shot a video for Clue in an apartment overlooking a factory in Burbank, California.

Feeling the setting was missing something, Platten gathered some books at random from his garage and scattered them across the apartment. The video turned out well and they released it.

Unfortunately, Ingress players, or agents as they’re called in-game, thought the books were sending a secret message. Eventually, fan theories flooded the Internet. But the lengths to which agents went to "crack the code" inspired Platten and his team.

"We’re idiots if we don’t figure out how to pay this off," he concluded.

So, they went back and "built in answers" to give them a satisfying experience. The agents found answers to a puzzle that didn’t even exist.

"Hey, we figured it out," Platten recalled them saying.

He explained that’s how you make someone a "star."

"It’s not about shining a light on yourself," said Platten. "It’s about shining the light on them. That’s where you win."

This reminded me of Reese’s #Cupfusion campaign. When a leaked image of Reese’s as-then unreleased Reese’s pieces peanut butter cup went viral, the Hershey’s company played with people’s expectations and purposefully confused them. Reese’s embraced the wildly unpredictable space of social media and came out a winner.

It showed that marketing pros can go off-script. But too often, this is not the case.

The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein wrote a story quoting numerous business editors who believe PR departments are needlessly defaulting to "no comment." Despite what many PR pros may say on-record, they, too, are guilty of this practice when journalists contact them. It suffocates even positive coverage.

Good AR, like any good videogame, lets players wander a bit in the experience. Bad AR makes people feel like they are trapped on a railroad car.

In much the same way, bad PR is tightfisted, shameless spin that fights journalists, requests hyperlinks, demands changes in style and changes in headlines, badgers people about their tweets – everything that drives the media insane.

For many of the summit’s attendees, it felt as though AR was realizing its full potential. But while there may be no shortage in passion, others, including Platten, were acutely aware that one problem is unchanged: Marketing comms is about storytelling; AR is not.

No matter what platform it takes place on – TV, social, print, gaming – storytelling is built on narrative and drama. It has a beginning, middle, and end. AR doesn’t have to end at all.

As Platten told the audience: "If you work in the gaming space, the concrete is never dry. It’s always wet. You kind of have to accept that."

In AR, whatever story you wanted to tell may not be the story the player takes away. You just hope to engage them completely. The message is almost incidental.

How many marketing comms pros would be willing to tell their clients that?

AR and VR exists on a spectrum of course. Bridging that gulf between storytelling and XR is where marketing comms pros will find their niche.

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