Pokemon Go: A Lesson In Nostalgia Marketing

In case you've been living under a rock (and aren't 14 years old, or a parent to a 14-year-old) the Pokemon franchise is back with a vengeance, and it's latest game installment, Pokemon Go, is much bigger than even its publisher, Nintendo, thought it would be.

Following its July 6 launch, the game's unexpected success has led to overloaded servers, which has subsequently led to technical issues like sign-up problems and mid-game crashes.

While failures like these are typically a death sentence for consumer leisure games, the rapidly growing number of Pokemon Go users have showed no sign of slowing. The game overtook Twitter in terms of daily active users on Android.

With the overwhelming popularity of this game, marketers are left wondering what the hell is going on. More specifically: how (and why) did this brand pivot from old and stale to retro and cool? The simple answer is nostalgia: a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

Nostalgia is a psychological response to one of two things:

  1. Specific stimuli like scent, music, old pictures, etc.

  2. Loneliness

It's one thing to appeal to someone’s sentimentality, but you may be wondering why marketers and brands would want to prey on someone's loneliness. Turns out, leveraging a customer's lack of social interaction is quite an easy feat, since we're the most connected we've ever been, but have never felt more alone.

Nostalgia is a positive defense mechanism to help us deal with loneliness by reminding us of better times. It counteracts boredom and anxiety while also prompting us to feel more open to social connection and generosity.

People of many different cultures experience nostalgia, some as young as 7-years-old –– it takes us back to a time where we connected with something in a real way, and lets us stay there for a little while in our own imagination. It's a bittersweet emotion, as we eventually snap out of our thoughts, and come back to our current reality.

Social media staples like #TBT (Throwback Thursday) and #FBF (Flashback Friday) trend on a weekly basis, and applications like TimeHop are a daily aggregate of a user's previous activity, which elicits happy memories about good times with friends and family. Even Snapchat has recently added a memories function to its capabilities!

As our world becomes more chaotic, nostalgia becomes more prevalent, extending far beyond our social channels. 90's products (like the first pack of Pokemon cards released in 1996) sell for antique-like prices on eBay, and the fashion industry regularly recycles trends from 20+ years ago.

So how did Nintendo pull off the greatest brand comeback of the year?

Sometimes, nostalgic marketing isn't intentional… it's social. As soon as Pokemon Go launched, the game immediately encouraged people to get together in person, thus capitalizing on players' yearning for social connectedness, especially when experiencing nostalgia.

Encouraging players to interact both within the app and in real life has facilitated some really interesting friendships in the most unlikely of places, and combats the notion that video games are for people who sit inside in front of their TVs all day.

Nintendo also successfully mixed classic and modern –– they brought back old, familiar characters, created the first-ever augmented virtual reality game, and made it free for mass appeal.

Pokemon was once considered niche and dated, but with its 20th anniversary coming up in October, Pokemon is now "vintage," and Nintendo couldn't have timed this more perfectly.