Pokémon Go gets a boost from Starbucks

Starbucks has partnered with the maker of the augmented-reality game, one of a string of sponsorships by major companies.  

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
A Starbucks store is seen inside the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX airport in Los Angeles, California, United States on October 27, 2015. The coffee chain has partnered with Pokémon Go.

Would you like a Frappuccino with your Pikachu?

It’s a question Starbucks baristas may be asking players of Pokémon Go starting Thursday, as the coffee retail chain has partnered with Niantic, the maker of the augmented-reality game. About two-thirds of Starbuck’s coffee shops are now Pokestops or Gyms, where players can unlock certain features of the game, including a flavor of the milkshake beverage it has brewed just for them.

Since Pokémon Go became a summer sensation, Niantic has teamed up with major restaurants and retailers abroad to bring Pokémon trainers into stores. But Starbucks is the first in a string of large American companies to become sponsors, turning their brick-and-mortar shops into hotspots for the game to bolster their business and Niantic’s. It also offers a preview of how other chains could use augmented reality to draw in more foot traffic.

“We anticipate our participation in the game will encourage more customers to visit your store and increase the number of transactions,” wrote Starbucks, in a leaked announcement to it employees that described the partnership.

Pokémon Go is a game that uses a smartphone’s GPS and camera to overlay the real world with virtual monsters. Players walk city streets and other public spaces to find and capture these monsters that appear on the screen of their phones. They can also stock up on virtual items such as eggs, Poké balls, and potions at PokeStops, and battle other players at Gyms.

Of Starbuck’s 13,000 or so coffee shops in the US, 7,800 have become PokeStops or Gyms. Players can also unlock and buy a special, berry-flavored Frappuccino, which Starbucks will offer them for a limited time.

Niantic hopes the partnership will be one in a string of sponsorships to rekindle the success it saw this summer. Pokémon Go, which took advantage of the nostalgia for the original card game and animated series from the 1990s, broke the first week downloads record on Apple’s App Store, and was the fastest ever to reach 50 million downloads overall, according to USA Today. But this success has waned since the summer. In August, the game developer said it was exploring more company sponsorships, a concept first born in Japan.

Shortly after the release of the game, McDonald’s became the first major company to partner with Niantic, turning nearly 3,000 of its restaurants in Japan into so-called Gyms, as The Wall Street Journal reported then. The move encouraged more game play while bringing foot traffic, and perhaps empty stomachs, into McDonald’s.

Small businesses across the United States took advantage of this model by either paying for short-term promotions or just welcoming players inside. Small-business owners spoke of the uptick in traffic they saw, especially if their storefronts became Gyms or PokeStops, according to AdWeek. But Niantic also offered owners a feature called Lures, which, for $1.19 an hour, would attract players.

But sponsorships with major companies solve a general problem of mobile advertisers. Ambarish Mitra, chief executive of augmented-reality developer Blippar, told Marketing Week that advertisers have not seen push notifications or coupons on mobile phones translate to more in-store purchases.

“But if you integrate these into the game behavior of Pokémon Go, the possibilities for marketers are endless,” he said.

Andy Pringle, head of performance media at Performics UK, added that “Pokémon Go will actively encourage users to engage in ‘ads’, through driving them into store, or owned location, to have an interaction with the brand in return for an in game reward.”

At Starbucks, players will be encouraged to buy the blended beverage.

A Sprint sponsorship is expected to come on the heels of the Starbucks announcement. Sprint will reportedly be the exclusive mobile sponsor of Pokémon Go. Players are likely to be encouraged to visit more than 10,500 Sprint and RadioShack storefronts in the US, which will also become PokeStops and Gyms.

"We expect a huge uptick in traffic," Sprint Chief Executive Marcelo Claure told CNET. He called this a different way to advertise. 

As other mobile game developers look to replicate the success of Pokémon Go, this sponsorship stands as a model for them to replicate too.

Other companies are also incorporating augmented-reality into live shopping experiences. Ikea uses augmented reality to allow consumers to “try out” furniture in their own homes via the IKEA Catalog app, as Bailey Bischoff reported for The Christian Science Monitor.

“The app allows shoppers to aim one’s phone at a space in their living room and see the ‘projection’ of a couch to decide whether it would fit or to try out how different colors work with the room,” she wrote.

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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