19/04/16

Could virtual reality kill experiential marketing?

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With its ability to create highly engaging immersive experiences, will VR mean the end of experiential? Sally McLaren investigates…

Virtual reality (VR) suffered an anticlimactic launch in the early 1990s – people were not ready for it, and neither was the technology. Fifteen years on, VR is back and it seems that this time it could be here to stay.

This year will see the official launch of two highly anticipated headsets: Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus by PlayStation, and Business Insider estimates that the VR hardware market will be worth a whopping $1.9 billion by 2020, taking the technology into millions of homes.

Content remains to be the biggest barrier to mass market success, but with Oculus and independent developers investing heavily in films and games, and a reignited consumer appetite for tech, there’s a good chance that this time VR will be less the fleeting fad we saw previously and more a permanent feature in our lives.

Brand owners have certainly not been shy to embrace the VR craze and the immersive experiences it offers. Sectors such as travel and tourism, and automotive, naturally lend themselves to the notion of transporting prospective customers to an alternative reality. As such, we have seen the likes of Lexus and Volvo, among others, experiment with the technology to offer virtual test drives, and airline Qantas partnering with Samsung to transport viewers to the Great Barrier Reef.

Even beyond the more obvious brand applications, we have also seen an abundance of FMCG brands lured by the technology – to lesser and greater degrees of sophistication. Boursin Cheese’s ‘Sensorium’ invited consumers in shopping centres to explore the contents of a fridge, while Absolut Vodka livestreamed a series of 360 degree virtual music concerts to its young, progressive audience.

But what does the rise of VR mean for the future of experiential marketing, which has seen an upturn recently in response to consumers’ growing demand for more authenticity from brands? Will there be a place for real world immersive experiences when you can create virtual ones?

The answer is two-fold:

1.Putting the ‘REAL’ into Virtual REALity

To create the truly authentic brand experiences that more and more consumers are looking for, marketers must strike the right balance between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’. It is when these two are effectively combined that a VR brand activation can give way to an authentic and memorable experience.

South by South-West Expo 2016 presented some of the best-in-class applications. One was by a company called Krush, which combined an actual spinning cockpit with a virtual space trip.

Jaguar took this concept one step further with its ‘Actual Reality’ test drive experience at the Big Bad Toys expo in New Zealand. People were tricked into believing that a Jaguar F-type had been customised with hydraulics to offer a super-real driving experience. The truth was that once the VR headset was on, the curtains lifted and the participant was unknowingly driven around an actual racetrack, and at tremendous speed! Mixing the real and the virtual in this way makes for a more engaging experience than using VR alone.

We all know that VR will change the way we watch films, play video games or even read the news in the future. So another way brands can ‘keep it real’ when using VR is to show people how the technology might impact their lives going forward.

This of course, will only work for brands whose products are intrinsically linked, in some way or another, to VR. For example, The Economist recently invited people to ‘See the future of history’. The experience let them explore a virtual reconstruction of the Mosul Museum, which was recently destroyed by ISIS. At the same time, the progressive newspaper was showing people how its news content (its product) may be consumed in the future.

2. Experiential is changing 

While the notion of using experiential ‘techniques’ to transport consumers to alternative realities through physical experiences is fairly well-trodden territory, modern experiential is much further reaching, with a broader definition: Communication through creating or doing something tangible in the real world (Real World Ideas: A Guide to Modern Experiential Marketing, 2016). It is no longer simply the creation of an event or live activation, but rather developing an authentic, engaging real world focus for a campaign, which can then be amplified through a variety of techniques, such as social media and, yes, even virtual reality.

Just as live streaming to mobile can take experiential activations to the masses, no matter what the scale, so can VR and 360 video, but in a more immersive way. For example, you could argue that an experiential campaign like the well-known and highly successful Smirnoff Nightlife Exchange Project, where cities and countries ‘exchanged’ their nightlife, would actually have been enhanced by VR technology. However, there are other real world activations, such as Ikea’s Big Sleepover , or Shell’s people-powered football pitches, where VR would neither add to the experience or be able to replace it.

VR technology can certainly deliver highly engaging and immersive experiences, which can be used to enhance modern experiential marketing. However, VR alone does not have the dynamism necessary to deliver authentic brand experiences. To create authentic marketing communications, brands need to look to the real world to engage their audiences, not a virtual one.

Sally McLaren is Board Account Director at real world marketing agency Sense.

This article appeared on The Wall.

19/04/16

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