With Pokemon Go yet to see an official India release, and other games in the series like Pokemon Sun and Moon only available in India via unofficial channels, you’d think the franchise’s relevance in India is limited at best. But that’s far from the case.
While Nintendo may choose not to release its 3DS games and Pokemon Go developer Niantic may waffle over an India release, that hasn’t stopped The Pokemon Company from bringing Pikachu and friends to the nation.
We spoke to Jiggy George, Founder and CEO of Dream Theatre, which is The Pokemon Company’s agency in India, to know more about the company's plans of bringing the Pokemon franchise to the country.
“We're the first believers of Pokemon. Much before Pokemon Go actually happened,” says George. He was part of the core team at Cartoon Network that launched the Pokemon TV show in India, back in 2004. Seeing its meteoric success made him realise that there’s scope for more Pokemon.
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“It was an amazing hit on television. But all we saw [as merchandise] was a whole bunch of pirated trading cards and no consumer products at all,” he says. The lack of consumer products meant that the show’s success was nowhere as long-lived as it should have been. He believes that merchandise would have kept the recall for Pokemon high, and of course, been another revenue stream; it's something that he's keeping in mind now, as Dream Theatre, prepares for Pokemon's second innings in India.
“We always thought the missing link on Pokemon was the fact that there were not enough consumer products and touch points where consumers could touch and feel the brand outside the realm of television,” he says. “So our entire submission to The Pokemon Company was to say, 'give us all the rights'. Give us the rights to place it on television because at that point it was dead on television. It was running at 10 at the night and no one really believed it would come through. But we said we need television rights, we need the home entertainment rights, home video for whatever it's worth, we need all the rights possible.”
With Dream Theatre working closely with The Pokemon Company, we had to ask whether India would see an official launch for Pokemon Go? If it does happen, it will be a sudden affair. “Our clients in Japan got to know a day before the launch... and to think Japan launched much later than the rest of the market. We still don't know, maybe you'll know before us.”
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But forging a relationship with The Pokemon Company was one part of the equation. The other was getting a buy in from broadcasters, which proved to be tougher.
“Everybody said it worked and it had its time and there is no coming back for something like that,” he says. “Except for Disney. The head of content and programming is a big fan of Pokemon himself and had seen the highs back at that time and is a complete believer. He went one step further and said we should start chronologically from season one all over again. Without the backing of Disney, we would not be able to build that. They went full hog with Hungama TV. We started with season one, two, and three, and placed it on television. It became the biggest show on television.”
It’s at this time, George tells us, that some old episodes popped up on Cartoon Network as well. Now, it’s normal for a show like Chhota Bheem or Doraemon to be on two channels of the same network, but being on two channels, from two separate networks was an oddity, though it was something Dream Theatre was delighted by.
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“Hungama TV and Cartoon Network going for it and slugging it out and this was our complete wet dream,” George says. With a surge in popularity, it was time to bring in official merchandise, to avoid pirated goods flooding the market.
“[In India] 95 to 98 percent of the market is unorganised. Most opportunistic retailers know that if something is hot, they bring things in,” he says. “Right now we're much more comfortable because we got it covered on apparel with mass apparel, apparel that already exists with online stores, in department stores, back to school supplies, toys, and plush toys.”
The big opportunity though, is with adult clothing. According to George, there’ a “massive wave of demand” for it and Dream Theatre is looking for ways to make it possible. It’s an interesting prospect, as it would mean the audience for Pokemon in India - which you’d assume to be children - has seen a generational shift to an older target market.
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Aside from plush toys and back to school supplies, Dream Theatre has also teamed up with Kellog's by including Pokemon collectibles in specific cereals such as Chocos.
“I think the Pokemon audience now are the guys who are first-jobbers," says George. "Because they were the guys who were up watching the show when it came up first time in early 2000s. And these are the guys who are getting into their first job now. They're big fans. For them it's nostalgia."
"And they look at the kids and say ‘fantastic, go catch them because we did this years back'," he adds. “It's a bit like kids being brought in by their parents to a Rolling Stones concert saying ‘hey this is what dad grew up on’, it's a bit like that, but with very young boys and girls. And these young kids are telling kids back in school that we've been there and done that.”
In order to capitalise on this, Pokemon won’t be restricted to Disney, George says. Dream Theatre has roped in Voot - a local video on demand service in India, so the show can be watched minus a cable connection. For George, it’s an attempt to broaden the Pokemon base further.
“We know that India is the second biggest smartphone population. We know that there is a possibility of the world moving with 4G onto that train. At this point television is the mainstay,” he says. “But we decided that we'll have every influence point covered so we do believe for example Voot being there and the possibility of people who don't want to be on appointment viewing can also do a catch up of that on Voot.“
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Despite the generational change to Pokemon, and the growing adult audiences, some things never change though. Pokemon has a long history in India, but everyone's favourite Pokemon was easy to guess.
“It'll always be Pikachu. Pikachu is the one which has also been in all of the communication when you look at Pokemon and how it's put out on all communication material in the past," says George. "It's always been Ash and Pikachu."
“From a pure consumer products perspective, these characters look really cool and our experience has been on consumer products is that Indians warm up to characters that are fairly symmetrical and round," he adds. "The more edgy these characters look, they've not resonated so far. Whether you look at Chhota Bheem, or look at Angry Birds or even Pikachu, there's no sharp edges, it's all very smooth. Cute quotient needs to be high.”