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    As consumers head back outdoors, brands embrace AR and immersive experiences

    A report from the Out of Home Advertising Association of America in partnership with The Harris Poll found that 69% of American adults increased their positive awareness of their surroundings as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions began easing last fall. Similarly, throughout the pandemic, outdoor dining and “streateries” have continued to draw crowds, while parks and beaches hosted throngs longing to be back outside, together again.

    With more people embracing the outdoors, brands have been busy finding clever ways to reach them. Among them is Niantic, the world’s leading augmented reality company behind several popular games, including Pokémon GO, the breakout hit it launched in 2016. As the game has grown over the years and as others have been developed, so have the ways in which Niantic has been able to use these platforms to connect audiences with the advertisers who want to reach them.

    For example, when the National Park Service wanted to promote its variety of smaller, local national parks last year, Niantic helped it create in-game activations to get the message out. As a result, the geo-focused native ads Niantic featured within Pokémon GO enabled meaningful interaction with players during National Park Week and opened new avenues for park fundraising.

    “Our in-game ad products allow brands to really drive prospective customers to their locations with unique offers within specific areas of the country,” said Erica Kovalkoski, Niantic’s head of brand partnerships. “Players love it, and it has a high engagement rate. It’s fun and playful, which is different than when you get spammed on other platforms with ads that are interruptive or irrelevant.”

    This ties into Niantic’s goal of being more than just a gaming platform, but a way for people to connect.

    “I think what we learned from not only the initial success of the game, but the continued retention [of players], is that it has really proven that Pokémon GO is a forever game,” Kovalkoski said. “And that’s because we believe people crave the exploration, socialization and exercise that the game provides. People keep coming back for that.”

    That the game tapped into those desires was no accident, she said. 

    “Niantic’s entire mission is really focused around exploration, exercise and meaningful social interactions, with a goal to create a 3D map of the digital and augmented world,” she said. “Every decision we make really centers around these core principles. … It’s really important for us to make a positive impact in the world.”

    As Niantic continues to innovate in this area, other brands are also embracing the outdoors.

    Take, for example, McDonald’s, which drew headlines last summer with a walk-through billboard, where its London customers could pick up a McFlurry iced treat on the go. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, outdoor installations allowed fans of Apple TV+’s hit “Ted Lasso” to inhabit a replica stadium and sample biscuits made famous on the show.

    For Niantic, the hybrid world includes getting creative with the avatars inside its games. Through recent work with brands, such as Gucci and The North Face, players have been able to engage with in-game wearable products that also are available in stores or online.

    “Avatar products are exciting to our players,” Kovalkoski said. “It’s a brand aspect that consists of self-expression for our players to demonstrate who they are through gameplay.”

    But Kovalkoski also has seen Niantic’s games have an effect in other ways, she said. Through stories Niantic has collected from gamers around the world, she has heard firsthand about the power of bringing people together through AR gaming.

    “Everything from stories around, ‘I lost 150 pounds playing this game’ to ‘I found the love of my life and we just got married,’ to how it’s helping them fight depression, addiction, you name it,” she said. “We didn’t necessarily know what we were creating in this community when we were building the games, and it’s just touching that it has made such a great impact.”

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