“A shiny new plaything” or an experience to remember: will VR change the face of marketing?

“A shiny new plaything” or an experience to remember: will VR change the face of marketing?

In an increasingly saturated media landscape, businesses must venture out of their comfort zone and into consumers’ heads to forge the most authentic bonds they can. Experiential marketing continues to be one of the most effective ways for brands to connect with customers, but now that virtual reality technology has entered the fray, the playing field has been transformed.

Although tech is often accused of contributing to a sense of disconnect and loneliness within society, the opposite may be true when it comes to marketing. Social media and digital influencers are now as vital as any tradvertising campaign, allowing for instant communication with customers and a potentially viral spread of brand messages.

Adding VR to the marketing mix can allow brands to diversify and intensify audience engagement in a more personalised way. However, it’s not a surefire route to success; feats of technological innovation will dazzle, but they may not leave a meaningful impact beyond the initial shock of the new.

Why experiential marketing is the current buzzword for brands

A 1998 book entitled The Experience Economy identified experiential marketing as an increasingly important tool, encouraging brands to leave an impression on potential customers before they even purchase a product. Authors Joseph Pine and James Gilmore explained that consumers were starting to seek experiences almost as avidly as products, and were willing to pay a premium for anything they bought which offered more to them than the product itself.

Despite the fact that Pine and Gilmore were writing late in the last century, their ideas still hold water. 84% of respondents to a 2013 survey said they felt experiential marketing was important, very important or critically important to their business. It’s not just businesses either: 65% of consumers told the same survey that they prefer experiential marketing over every other type of marketing.

London-based t-shirt printing company Printsome state that there are a number of reasons why experiential marketing works. They note that experiential marketing allows brands to communicate on a personal level, increase brand loyalty, save money on advertising and stand out in an information-saturated market. “If you can come up with a clever idea,” the company observe, “You’ll have a fantastic way to make your brand truly unforgettable for customers.”

Writing for Campaign, Michelle Perret discusses the importance of experiential marketing with younger consumers. Perret surmises that millennials “would rather tell people about something they have done than about something they have got.” Therefore, the experience that a brand or product can give them holds more importance than the product itself. For consumers, it’s not about the car, but the drive.

How VR can enhance media and experiential marketing

Marketing gurus have been keen observers of these changes to their usual modes of practice, with one manager recently summarising to The Drum that the speedy synthesis of tech and advertising “allows for a greater degree of evaluation and measurement.”

But it’s just as prevalent in news media as well. In 2016, The Economist experimented with VR and 360° video and created an experience which allowed people to witness the destruction of artworks by ISIS. RecoVR: Mosul showed that, done properly, virtual reality can be a powerful tool for engaging people in new and insightful ways. The project went on to win a BIMA award for innovation.

Encouraged by the success of RecoVR: Mosul, The Economist have recently launched Oceans VR: Net Positive. It is essentially a VR version of an earlier article, but by using this new medium, they’ve found new ways to tell the type of stories they are known for, to a newer audience.

The novelty and relative limitlessness of virtual reality technology is what makes it so appealing as a tool for consumer engagement. For example, National Geographic has been experimenting with using VR in reporting and storytelling, in order to give people the experience of visiting the Yosemite National Park without actually going there.

Likewise, the Marriott Hotel Group gave newlyweds outside City Hall in New York—where around a hundred couples get married each day—the chance to experience a virtual honeymoon in London and Hawaii.

What will the future hold for VR and experiential marketing?

Writing in 1998 for the Harvard Business Review, The Experience Economy’s authors predicted that “From now on, leading-edge companies—whether they sell to consumers or businesses—will find that the next competitive battleground lies in staging experiences.”

Virtual reality technology can allow brands to offer the engaging experiences Pine and Gilmore correctly predicted would become increasingly pertinent in consumer engagement, albeit in the immersive digital sphere.

From “nationally simulcast virtual reality experiences” for the Netflix show Mr. Robot, to a travelling “sensorium” to promote Boursin, we are only now starting to see the possibilities of combining virtual reality technology and experiential marketing.

However, as the use of virtual reality technology becomes more affordable and commonplace, brands must remember that dazzling tech won’t be enough in itself to match the kind of one-off, hands-on interactions provided by traditional experiential marketing. This is an argument made by Jason Kingsley, co-founder of games developer Rebellion, who urges brands to “fight the temptation to view VR as a shiny new plaything, since creating VR content for the sake of it will not be tolerated by users.”

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

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