Powerful stories are open stories

The end of brand maintenance

It’s tempting when your brand is trending to believe that the hard work is done. In point of fact, it may just be beginning. And there may be a number of twists and turns that need to be managed and countered if things are to get to a good place. The story of Pokémon Go so far is a fascinating case study.

I haven’t seen any stats on this, but there seems to be broad agreement among marketers that consumer attention spans have shrunk and will continue to do so. Global interest and outrage can be generated very quickly, but the fall-off can also be dramatic. Take the case of the Pokémon Go game, whose huge rise in 2016 was followed by a massive decline.

Game-changer or fad?

What the game achieved at the time was monumental. It changed how we think about augmented reality and it has certainly introduced new opportunities and new concerns about the reaping of data in exchange for fun.

But one of the problems Pokémon Go faced, this Fortune article suggested, was that while it succeeded at hitting nostalgia buttons and giving the brand a new twist, it failed, in playing, to make the transition from a hunting phenomenon to a true and durable game.

Here’s why that became an issue. While many in the tech world subscribe to the mantra of ‘ship and fix’, the fact remains that when you ship too early, you put the premise out into the world, but without enough substance. Initial interest is critical of course – but so is intrinsic interest. If brands are to continue to build, there must be something that keeps people coming back and being rewarded, financially, socially or experientially, for doing so.

For a short while the whole world went mad. This article talks about how the game completely changed the lives of a neighbourhood in Sydney when it was first released. But then it stopped and in theory things should have ended there. We should have written off the Pokémon Go brand as the brand that was. But … two years on, the game has undergone a significant recovery, hitting its highest level of popularity in May 2018. Key to making that happen has been the introduction of a continual stream of new features from one-on-one battles to Pokemon trading that together have helped encourage lapsed players to come back to the game.

Seeing past initial success

Building repeatability into your brand is vital. But even then, that repeatability must be able to morph so that there is enough familiarity for people to relax, but enough new aspects for them to stay interested. The Fortune article argues that Pokémon Go was the victim of rushing to market at the direct expense of ongoing engagement.

The road back to quiet dominance is well charted in this article in Wired, which offers some interesting insights on what happened after Pokémon Go lost nearly 20 million players in just four weeks in August-September 2016. While it may have lost profile, Pokemon Go never dropped out of the top 100 apps downloaded daily in both the Apple Store and the Google Play Store. That helped the brand continue to earn well. So far, it has taken in $1.8 billion in revenue.

Other learnings:

  • The key engagement for gaming it seems is less about having lots of players and more about finding and retaining heavy users who will spend a great deal of money to stay involved.
  • Many of those who began playing were not traditional gamers – so Pokemon Go built its initial fanbase from a previously untapped market. And interestingly, it didn’t take other people off other games, but rather saw more people spending more of their day playing the game by giving it extra time. In other words, it added involvement from nowhere rather than taking it from a competitor.
  • The nature of the game, its real-world context, made it feel more naturally social and so more sticky than other games where players are part of a virtual team.
  • The very nature of mobile play is that it allows people to do something that is specific to them and that they don’t have to share with others if they don’t want to. The temptation, according to the article, has been to continue to assess Pokemon Go on its public profile and conversation and that is probably not representative of how players feel or how committed they remain.

The wider lesson for all marketers is the need for careful balance. On the one hand, a brand prospers from being in market and generating interest and feedback. On the other hand, if the mechanisms are not in place to give buyers new things to try once they are familiar with the product, consumers will quickly move on and copiers will just as quickly move in. To me, this is a critical part of brand strategy that gets overlooked. So much focus these days is put on getting a brand to market or repositioning a brand in market. And we continue to judge success by mentions. Not enough emphasis is placed on infusing dimensions into a brand so that it can change and expand in direct response to market reactions in order to build on success that it has worked so hard to achieve. Not enough weight is given either to the impact that a community can have when they quietly continue to build a brand – unnoticed by the rest of the world – because they have powerful reasons to stay and to commit.

Brands must be iterative because consumers are iterative.

Some time back, maintaining momentum would simply have required filling up the media schedule. Now, it requires brands not just to continue their marketing but also to find ways to make their products more interesting, their experiences more immersive, their communities more involved and their data more insightful, individualised and actionable. Brands must be iterative because consumers are iterative. Everyone keeps moving on. Today, there’s no such thing as brand maintenance.

Storytelling as gameplay

We tend to think of stories as beginning, middle and end. But markets of course don’t work that way. They are ongoing and volatile. The challenge for brand storytelling it seems to me lies in writing “arcs” for brands that plot where the brand could do in response to what the market does or could do. Think of it as storytelling as gameplay, where the brand has a range of options available which can be played out in response to consumer reaction. Skeptics will argue that such a way of working through the future has too many variations, will be different across markets and takes the ownership for the brand’s direction away from the brand itself. Isn’t that the lesson though from what happened to Pokémon Go? What goes up will come down – and arguably the faster it rises, the quicker it falls as excitement gives way to frustration, disappointment or the next attraction. Revival is possible – that’s the good news – but only by giving customers reasons to come back or never leave.

Increasingly, the brands we create and manage behave like stories and are subject to the constraints (and the opportunities) of fashion. They have timeframes within which they are potent. And they live or die on their ability to stay interesting and keep selling. Unless “next” is ready to run as soon as “now” expires, there’s a real threat that a brand, particularly a brand that has accelerated quickly, will stall.

Updated: This article was originally published in September 2016 and has been updated in August 2018 to include more detail and discussion points. A shorter version of this article was posted elsewhere under the title The End Of Brand Maintenance.

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