The Pokémon GO app has taken over large sections of Ottawa, most notably Confederation Park. Photo: Alexa-Eliza Carter, Edits: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Pokémon GO is changing how we socialize and do business in the nation’s capital.

On July 17, the app Pokémon GO was released in Canada and in just a short time it has garnered staggering success.

Throughout the summer Pokémon GO has made over $268 million and has been downloaded over 100 million times. Part of this success comes from the 90s nostalgia at play, but a lot of these staggering numbers can be credited to the augmented reality component of the game that encourages people to get outdoors, visit public spaces and historical sites, and find digital pocket monsters.

The popularity of the augmented reality game has even taken hold of the nation’s capital.

Notable tourist locations like Confederation Park have been taken over by virtual Pokémon trainers. Long OC Transpo bus routes have suddenly become bearable now that oodles of virtual PokéStops are sprinkled along the way. Prominent local celebrities have been getting in on the social phenomenon, including Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson and mayor Jim Watson.

Even the University of Ottawa is a pillar of Pokémon GO achievement, since 19-year-old finance student Jack Lau made headlines after becoming one of the first people in Ottawa to catch all 142 Pokémon available in North America.

Of course, with such a fast rise in popularity, Pokémon GO has experienced an equally swift backlash. People like Ottawa Citizen columnist Floralove Katz assert that this game deters people from “communica(tion) with others” and “represent(s) a colossal, collective waste of time”.

Admittedly, it is hard to see this game as anything more than just a video game app. However, the app is undeniably prompting a shift in the video game industry and businesses hinging on its social popularity.

Still, one has to wonder if Pokémon GO will be just another trending topic over social media or if it will have a potentially long-term impact?

Social catalyst for business

To understand how Pokémon GO is affecting businesses, we must first realize the magnitude of how it affects social behaviour.

Enter Pokémon GO, a mobile app that is easily accessible to the masses, only requiring a recent smartphone and with no additional cost. This game can easily persuade you to travel all over Ottawa, seeing places you would have otherwise perhaps not taken the time to go.

This is the case for University of Ottawa student Angela Wen who has visited a lot of places in Ottawa over the summer like Dick Bell Park in Nepean, Mooney’s Bay, The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Trans Canada Trail along the Ottawa River, and John Ceprano Rock Sculptures.

“I ended up going to all these different places because different Pokémon spawn in different locations in Ottawa,” said Wen.

For U of O marketing assistant professor Michael Mulvey, he downloaded the app on his phone as a way to bond with his kids. So far, it has proven to be a way for him to interact with them and talk strategy.

“It’s a very group interactive game, much more than I appreciated initially,” said Mulvey.

While some young people are taking advantage of this social aspect through Pokémon GO-themed pub crawls, the game may also prove to rival popular dating apps like Tinder.

Algonquin student Patrick Toutain discovered this when he met his girlfriend through playing Pokémon GO.

“I’ve tried Plenty of Fish, I’ve tried Tinder, OKCupid, nothing—no luck whatsoever. And then right away with Pokémon GO I met someone,” said Toutain in an interview with CBC News.

His girlfriend, Chelsea Lemire, said that her and Toutain’s mutual love of this Japanese media franchise was all they really needed to start a connection.

“A lot of us grew up with it, so to meet somebody else that kind of had the same childhood growing up with it, you instantly connect.”

Business marketing goldmine

It didn’t take long before business owners figured out that Pokémon GO’s ability to bring large groups of people together could be used for more than just fostering “good times” in the park.

Using the lure functionality of the app local businesses aim to garner a huge influx of customers. This is a short-term marketing strategy, because the store is not investing a lot of money or time to market this trend—it is fairly commitment free.

In order to take part in this marketing trend, Ottawa museums have used lure parties to attract more visitors. On July 29, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum had a lure party by placing a PokéStop at their main entrance.

On Aug. 6, there was free admission and lures at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum to attract more people to visit.

Carleton University student Mona Ahmad said her family has decided to adopt the popular social trend for the annual Palestinian Festival, which runs from Aug. 26 to 28 at city hall.

“(It) will bring people together to witness the Palestinian culture. Our goal is to share our culture with the community,” said Ahmad.

In Ottawa, a mix of private stores and chain stores along Bank Street combined their efforts with their first lure party on July 30, where many businesses made a point to reach out to the Pokémon GO players.

According to Bank Street B.I.A. marketing manager Julia Weber, approximately 500 people participating in the Pokémon GO lure party. She attributes this success to the increase of the Pokémon GO marketing, since it was “giving people an extra incentive to visit the area and explore new stores.”

In an email to the Fulcrum, Comic Book Shoppe owner Rob Spittal recounts that he dressed up in a “Charmander onesie, setting the lures from Lisgar to the Queensway” because they “have 25 PokéStops, and 2 Gyms, in the stretch of the BIA, which is Wellington to Catherine.”

Both Weber and Spittal confirmed that there will be an upcoming second lure party held in September.

While Spittal has recently noticed a decline in the amount of people playing Pokémon GO on the street, he said that the technology has opened up a whole new world of marketing opportunities, especially with established pop culture properties.

According to Mulvey these businesses cannot sustainably rely on the appeal of Pokémon alone to make money, and will need to be “more creative, agile, and adaptive (as) they’re constrained for time … (with) limited resources.”

While large franchise and chain stores like the Hudson’s Bay have used the Pokémon GO game in their promotional marketing advertisements over the summer, some are in it for the long term.

In July, Time, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal all confirmed a new partnership between the app’s developer Niantic and McDonald’s, though specific details have yet to be released. This could have long-term benefits because of the global scale—but how long can trending topics stay profitable?

Conversely, short-term marketing strategies that follow trending topics of store clientele may be the key to drawing in the most customers, even for a short period of time until the next wave hits.

In Mulvey’s mind, “The Bank Street BIA is less committed. Ride the wave, have some fun. It’s part of the community (so) you want to keep it dynamic and fresh.”

This may be where small, privately owned businesses may have the upper hand on large corporations, since the big boys require more planning and financial investment to make national or global marketing changes.

That being said, large corporate partnerships with global presence could monopolize this trend, overshadowing the small privately owned stores.

Poké wrap-up

Of course, all of this discussion leads us back to the initial question: is Pokémon GO just a popular smartphone game or will it have a lasting impact on how we interact and do business going forward?

U of O international entrepreneurship and marketing professor David Crick says that “The impact on businesses (large and small) will be to operationalise their business models to ride on the crest of the wave and generate profits while it remains popular.”

While the impact is great in such a short period of time, Mulvey asks, “How will they extend it?”

Pokémon GO may just be a cute video game app, but over a short period of time it has already translated into enhancing social connections, building business clientele, and helping out privately owned, local businesses as a short-term marketing strategy.

Both Crick and Mulvey agree that Pokémon GO will have an influential lifespan, but how long that lifespan is has yet to be seen.

Next week, thousands of new students at the U of O will be the first to potentially incorporate Pokémon GO as part of their freshman experiences.

How will the group dynamics shift on 101 Week? Will campus businesses implement short-term marketing strategies like lure parties? Will this increase attendance and participation at Frosh events?

Only time will tell. But in the interim, “Get up, Get out, and Explore!”

The stats

(500 Pokémon GO players were surveyed by Slant Marketing)

  • Most Pokémon GO players are playing weekday evenings and weekend afternoons.
  • The average age of players is 29.
  • 82 per cent of players have visited a business while playing, and 84 per cent of those who visited were women.
  • More than half of those people visited a business for the first time because they were playing Pokémon GO.
  • Lures set up at a business accounted for 68 per cent of the Pokémon GO player visits.
  • Local businesses were visited 56 per cent over national chain stores.