Where we talk about what it's like to market Pokemon, Pokken Tournament, and the future of the series.
J.C. Smith is the Director of Consumer Marketing for the Pokémon Company International. In addition to being a marketing head for the Pokémon brand, he helped organize the 2015 Pokémon World Championships, where we talked to him about his past, marketing the Pokémon brand, and the future of the series.
Nintendo World Report (NWR): How do you get into marketing Pokémon?
J.C. Smith (JS): Interesting story, I started about 15 years ago. I was working on a campaign for the attorney general of Washington and at one of the fundraisers my future boss said, “Hey do you wanna come work at Nintendo?” and I said “Are you serious?” and she was looking for someone with PR and government affairs background so fifteen years later, I’ve changed companies but still get to talk about fun stuff all day long. It’s awesome.
NWR: So you made a natural transition from Nintendo to the slightly-but-not-entirely disconnected Pokémon Company.
JS: It’s not totally disconnected. It is a very different – I mean we’re a very small company. Nintendo is not a huge company but much bigger than us, and our focus is one brand and one brand only. Basically, we take the creators vision; they want to bring people together. We want to make sure they’re having fun so we create events. This is one of them. Helps people communicate, but also helps people share their love of Pokémon, and we want to continue doing that for them.
NWR: And I guess that, since Pokémon, especially in the last few years, has become a very worldwide effort, you must be in a lot of contact with every region of Pokémon development at any given time.
JS: Basically, yeah. I don’t talk to them directly myself a lot, but there are a lot of people at our office that are. We want to make sure that the marketing we’re creating is getting across the key points that they think are important, and we want to make sure that we’re representing the characters or the game mechanic in a way that is true to the way they intended. So, that is a very important role. When you’re dealing with people that have poured their life into creating something great, we want to make sure we’re explaining it properly. That’s not tough, thankfully, because Pokémon, it’s a great group of people that are involved and they’re very communicative about it. So we have a lot of fun with it.
NWR: What’s it like organizing a worldwide marketing effort in collaboration with multiple territories, whether it be for X and Y or even something like yesterday morning – organizing Pokkén Tournament for worldwide?
JS: There’s not much to it if you have a great visual – a great product to show off. Something like Pokkén Tournament, it just looks great. They did a great job building a game that speaks for itself. I don’t have to say a whole lot. Our press release is what, two paragraphs long because everything is said by what you’re seeing on screen. So, in that sense, my job is very easy. We have to coordinate a few things here and there, but, in the end, they keep giving us good stuff to talk about – it makes our jobs very easy.
NWR: So you work under Japan to localize the message for a Western audience?
JS: Yeah. Well, it’s not completely the same. We have a very different philosophy to marketing in some ways. But they stream, we stream. They do media outreach, we do media outreach. We do ads, they do ads. But how we express it is different to each group. Sometimes our ads are the same in Japan as they are here. But, most of the time they’re not. We just choose what we think is best to represent the brand and go with that, so it’s fun. It allows for a lot of creativity and allows for a lot of unique stuff to get created.
NWR: And let me ask then, a brand like Pokémon, that is like Disney and like Nintendo in a lot of ways, and you have to market something to most age groups if not every single one, is that more challenging or less challenging than marketing to one specific one?
JS: I think the beauty of the fact that Pokémon is loved by so many age groups, we only have to talk about Pokémon. They’ll interpret it however they want. You can talk about how great a character is, and a kid will take something different than a competitive player, that will take something different than a player from someone in a different country. It’s all just, “Hey this is a great character, this is the moves it has,” and everyone does something with it so it’s not that challenging in that way. I would love to say we have this whole secret recipe but really we have this great product, and Pokémon has been around almost 20 years so a lot of people know about it. And we just have to keep introducing kids to the fact that there’s some cool stuff you can do. There’s apps, there’s video games, there’s a trading card game, and animation so go and have fun. And they do.
NWR: So you put out the Pokémon stuff, you let it speak for itself, and the audience does some of the work for you in that way.
JS: Yeah, a lot of the time. You work with a group of creators – you work with a group of people that are passionate about stuff that happens at Nintendo, right? So, we have people passionate about everything Pokémon. They have fans, we have fan sites, we have websites, we have reporters, we have all kinds of people that just love Pokémon and want to learn everything about it. And everyone does that work for us, really, because, if it’s done well, then it goes far and wide and everyone’s happy. Thankfully, there’s few instances of, knock wood, things that are, uh, you know, quality concerns or anything like that. We just get to say, “Hey, look how great this is! Have fun!” and people go and enjoy it.
NWR: And I guess Pokémon has grown to the scale that you can have a Pokémon World Championship in a different city every single year.
JS: Yeah. The size is challenging because there aren’t a lot of places that have space this big…no, that’s not true. It’s just that we want to make sure it’s a fun event for everyone and it’s a great vacation for all the families that are coming from around the world to play in this event. 38 countries is a lot of people getting exposed to how great Boston is this weekend.
NWR: And how many of these have you been to so far?
JS: This is my seventh.
NWR: What vibe do you get from this World Championship compared to others?
JS: You know, they’re all very similar in that sense. This one’s a little bigger. Meaning, there’s more players, there’s more streaming, so there’s a lot more strategy focus. There’s a lot more overt talking of strategy because we have the casters talking. But, you know, we had an event in Hawaii several years ago. It’s more intimate. Not as many people make the trip out there just to hang out and watch, let alone play. So, this feels big. It’s a metropolitan area with a ton of surrounding cities that have a ton of Pokémon fans that are coming down just to see what’s going on this weekend. So yeah, it’s been fun. Lot of energy in the room – it’s been very positive.
NWR: Let me ask you then: since you’ve been engrossed in Pokémon for so long, what is your favorite thing about Pokémon?
JS: The community, hands down. It’s a great group of people. Really fun group of people. They come to this event, it’s the World Championships, and people are still smiling and laughing. Stress doesn’t take over. It doesn’t make them into something they aren’t. They’re having fun, they’re just playing a game they love, and I think that’s awesome. And then they take this back and they’re doing this year round. I see it at Worlds and Nationals. I don’t see it in Iowa, I don’t see it in New York, because I don’t live there, but you know it’s happening there too because we wouldn’t have this same vibe everywhere we go if we didn’t. It’s very cool.
NWR: Moving a little towards the franchise, I’m thinking a lot about Pokkén Tournament and the hype behind its reveal yesterday. What kind of plans do you have for Pokkén Tournament?
JS: So Pokken Tournament…plans will be revealed later. But obviously it’s coming to the Wii U so there will be all kinds of opportunities for people around the world to play, compete, do whatever. We’re not announcing anything of note at this point though.
NWR: So no word on any content stuff, like will the game be bigger?
JS: Not yet!
NWR: I did see something during the demo yesterday that was about how more Pokémon will be revealed soon…
JS: Mhm. You got to see the reveal of Pikachu Libre yesterday, so that was a new one for the Japanese audience.
NWR: So it sounds like more are going to follow suit…
JS: More to come. Always more news to come.
NWR: Is it a little different having to work with Namco Bandai to organize something worldwide like this too?
JS: Not really. They’re awesome. They created a great game. The game, obviously people need to learn to control it so we had to learn how to translate the control board that shows all the moves for each of the characters, but probably the toughest part was shipping. You know, at the end of it, because you got to get them [the arcade units] over here from Japan. So they got them over here, we got them set up and everything’s been smooth. I’m really excited that they allowed us to have as many as we did, because I think the fans are really enjoying it.
NWR: How long has that been in the making? Moving this to America. Has plans been for Wii U and North America from the beginning or is that something that developed recently?
JS: I don’t know…I’m not privy to that. I was told to announce it, I’ll tell you that much. We knew the game was coming down, we knew the arcade machines were going to be out in Japan so we said, “can we have some for worlds?” It’s been months to get the arcade machines down. The announcement and the details of that we’ve been working out more recently. But it’s fun to be able to use this venue to do that because it’s such a great group of people to learn about something as big as Pokkén Tournament and go back and tell their world about it really.
NWR: So the whole Dave & Busters thing…
NWR: …How that’s moving towards arcades presumably next year, we’ll see how that goes. Was that organized by The Pokémon Company International also?
JS: It was not actually. In fact, I haven’t been involved in that, but I’ve been told that the arcade machine is not coming to the U.S., so I don’t know exactly what the plan is. But that was a long while ago, so who knows what may have changed. You know, you can’t stop someone from buying an arcade system so who knows what’s down the road.
NWR: So last you heard, there were no plans.
JS: Yeah, I haven’t been working closely on the arcade side at all because, really, I never worked on the arcade side but we’ll see. I think that would probably be handled by Bandai Namco. But I’d have to follow-up with you on that.
NWR: So, Pokemon has a very important birthday next year…
JS: Mhm. Yes we do…
NWR: 20 years. February 27th, 2016. What kind of plans you got, other than Pokken Tournament?
JS: [Laughs] Wish I could tell you but I can’t!
NWR: Are there big plans for it?
JS: There’s always big plans for it. And obviously, you’re seeing some big product stuff for it that’s been announced that’s exciting for the year and we always want to keep fans on their toes, but nothing I can reveal at this time.
NWR: Are we going to hear more soon? I know CoroCoro is talking about some stuff that’s going to get revealed soon. Maybe involving a green blob…
JS: [Laughs] CoroCoro – I love ‘em! Maybe…
NWR: Might hear something in three weeks?
JS: We’ll keep you on your toes!
NWR: Might see one of those minute-long trailers with the green blob and a new Zygarde form?
JS: [Laughs] You ask good questions. Nothing I can say.
NWR: So nothing on Pokémon XZ, YZ, X2, Y2?
JS: [Laughs] Nothing I can say at this time.
NWR: Because, it would be real nice if something came out next February!
JS: I appreciate your enthusiasm and you ask a lot of good questions but nothing I can reveal at this time.
NWR: All right. Just so I can throw these questions at you, I think a lot about Pokémon on Virtual Console, something that has not happened yet…
JS: Pokémon Pinball, Pokémon Trading Card Game…
NWR: The RPGs!
NWR: I obviously know if there are plans you cannot tell me about them, but can you tell me what’s held them back so far?
JS: I cannot because I do not know if it has been held back. They may have just made a decision not to. But yeah, I haven’t discussed that at all.
NWR: Will Pokkén Tournament be…is that your main plan for the early part of the 2016 anniversary?
NWR: Okay, so it is not your main plan for the early part.
JS: I’m splitting hairs. No, there’s lots of stuff planned for the 2016 year but nothing I can talk about now.
NWR: Okay, okay! Then, what can you say about the future of Pokémon?
JS: I can say that the creators are continuing to come up with awesome ideas and will continue to come up with awesome ideas to put in video games, the trading card game – you see an arcade machine downstairs. So, there’s a lot of cool stuff in store.
NWR: And last but not least, can you just throw a cryptic word out there? Just anything. Something will get me to scratch my head. That, like, in eight months I’ll go, “That’s what he was talking about!”
Thanks to J.C. Smith for his time, as well as The Pokémon Company International and TriplePoint for setting up the interview!