Love it or loathe it, Pokemon Go has put augmented reality (AR) firmly back into public consciousness. While the phenomenon may not ultimately benefit Pokemon stakeholder Nintendo, it could be a serious boon to Blippar, a visual search platform that is pinning its hopes on Japan for Asian expansion.
Founded in the UK in 2011, Blippar has been in Japan since 2014. Its Asian presence also includes India and Singapore, where it launched around six months ago. The application enables users to augment their environment by scanning objects and in return receiving relevant information or content. Blippar recently upgraded its system, which is based on machine learning, to the equivalent intelligence of an 8-year-old child. It aims to reach that of an 18-year-old by the end of the year.
The bigger the user base, the more “intelligent” the system becomes—and Blippar’s immediate challenge in Japan is reeling in those users. The company did not provide usage figures, but its platform is not yet widely known and has some way to go before reaching a tipping point in the market. Sean Nichols, Blippar’s managing director for Japan, hopes Pokemon Go will help it along that path.
Nichols says Japan is of “vital importance” to making Blippar work globally given its adoption of smartphones and level of connectivity. But he acknowledges that AR’s footing in Japan is still shaky. He recalls a boom five years ago that revolved around Hatsune Miku, a virtual singer whose appeal as a legitimate ‘performer’ is, for many, difficult to fathom. Back then, the extent of AR was basically “dancing girls on products”, he says. Once people got over the initial ‘wow’ factor, they were left with the sense that AR was little more than a gimmick, with no relevance at all to marketing KPIs.
“People have no desire to see that again,” says Nichols, who describes himself as having been “anti-AR” back in the days when he worked in advertising.
So how does Pokemon Go change things? “Now, with AR having been put into such an amazingly rose coloured spotlight, it’s much easier to get clients over the past and show that when executed properly and with the right content, AR can be the tool that rockets an experience into the stratosphere,” says Nichols.
The big question is, of course, will people want to engage with brands as much as they do with Pokemon characters? Detractors of the game complain of entire parks in Tokyo being given over to hordes of Pokemon-hunting “zombies”. It’s hard to imagine similar scenes for anything more commercially driven—although not out of the question given the right proposition.
“Pokemon Go has a cultural angle and natural compatibility with AR,” notes Omri Reis, a senior researcher at Flamingo Tokyo. “It will change the image of AR and give better prospects on the surface, but it’s just the starting point.”
Firstly, Blippar is a 'visual discovery' tool. Driving widespread adoption means making people aware that they can search for things by holding up their smartphones, not just by keying a word into Google. That awareness is currently low, Nichols says, but he remains optimistic: “The QR code was invented here. It’s a question of making the leap from scanning a QR code to scanning everything.”
The initial hurdle to overcome is getting people to download the app. Growth will come when people find Blippar “to be useful and informative in daily life”, Nichols says. “A lot of things we don’t need until we have them. So right now, people don’t see why they need it. But when they start using it, it will become obvious how it can improve people’s lives.”
Reis agrees that Japan has historically shown “great willingness to adopt technologies when they can alleviate problems” or lead to better lifestyles. In this respect it is perhaps no different to any other market. But communicating those benefits and building confidence in them is especially important. It’s key for Blippar to enhance its public visibility in order to achieve mainstream recognition, he says.
“The way to do so is only through a strategy that communicates with grievances, demands or desires that are relevant to the Japanese consumer,” he suggests. “Visual search, for example, can be a great product for the elderly population since you don’t have to use a small keyboard to type. This should be coupled with great, relevant content in Japanese, of course.”
Blippar’s current approach revolves around the creation of campaigns for well-known brands such as Coca-Cola, Heineken and Red Bull (the company operates a small in-house creative agency) and for celebrity acts such as Jin Akanishi and Gackt. Music fans are a potentially easy win and means of driving awareness partly because of their willingness to do anything to get closer to their idols and partly because Japan is the “last bastion of the CD”, which is easily ‘blippable’, Nichols explains.
Assuming more users flock to Blippar, there is still the challenge of getting brands in the door. While a company may recognise that Blippar is not “your mom’s AR”, Nichols says, they can still be hesitant to jump in for fear of seeming to promote Blippar rather than their own brands. The fear of failure also weighs heavily on the shoulders of Japanese marketers.
In an effort to put those concerns aside, Blippar offers a performance-based model along with measurement in the form of a dashboard showing the number of interactions and unique users filtered by time and location. Brands are free to create their own initiatives (usually with the help of external agencies) or work with Blippar directly. Nichols says he is keen to get Blippar into the hands of programmers—a move away from being a walled garden. Costs vary, but Nichols is adamant that “we need to create a product where the only cost incurred is when success happens”.
What success looks like depends on the brand’s KPIs, of course. Much of the work so far for brands such as Chivas Regal revolves around sampling, coupons and giveaways. Indeed, Nichols lists “free stuff” as one of four secrets to a successful ‘blipp’, along with exclusive content, use of celebrity and educational content aimed at children. Chivas’s recent campaign combined free drinks with lighthearted educational and quiz features; other concepts, such as one for Ito Yokado during the Golden Week holiday, are more driven by branding: the campaign brought to life children’s drawings of their mothers, becoming the biggest ‘blipp’ in the world during that period.
There are definite factors standing in Blippar’s favour: the appeal of ‘product as media’ is difficult to argue with. With fatigue showing among consumers who have spent a lifetime of brands thrusting messages upon them, there are also strong signs that people are ready for less intrusive, ‘pull’-based marketing. The key will be to avoid being seen as frivolous this time around. In the end, Blippar’s success depends on the brands that use it. Platforms like Blippar and AR itself “is not a gimmick”, says Claudia Cristovao, group creative director of AKQA Tokyo. “But if you make it a gimmick, it will be.”
Japan may be Blippar's priority, but whether it takes off or not, China is apparently raring to go. “We get bombarded with requests in China,” Nichols claims. “Chinese people are the opposite of Japanese. The Japanese are cautious. In China, they want it now. But they can shut you down immediately. It has to be done right, but my opinion is we have to start now. We recognise the importance of the market and hope to make a major splash there soon.”