Virtual reality is helping make experiential marketing scalable, but do consumers actually want these types of experiences?
The term surreal estate comes from Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel Ready Player One which is played out in the Oasis, a virtual universe where people pay real money for virtual property, and are paid real currency for virtual activities. Brands are using virtual reality (VR) to immerse consumers into another dimension – a virtual environment where they can spend real money.
The exciting thing about VR is it produces a change in state – you feel different when you take the headset off. “We’re so anaesthetised to marketing, that to produce a change in state is very exciting,” says Jonathon Palmer, head of strategy at digital agency Omobono.
“The future is about being there, albeit virtually – fusing the real and the digital spaces,” adds Martin Hollywood, lead creative technologist at Razorfish London. Like Cline’s Oasis, sophisticated, commercial VR is an immersive experience.
Experiential marketing isn’t new – but VR helps make it scalable (and apps make it trackable). The opportunities to develop real brand collateral become more interesting as VR makes experiential marketing immersive and interactive.
VR is already winning at sport, first through in-game advertising and product placement – within the Fifa game, for example. This is surreal estate, as brands are paying real money for virtual billboards which have different production values, but target real consumers. And the brands that advertise on virtual billboards and within VR experiences are not the same brands that appear on the stadium billboards because they are targeting a different market segment....
Do consumers want this type of experience? And does it drive brand engagement? Jason Alan Snyder, chief technology officer at Momentum Worldwide, which produced the Verizon Indie Car experience whereby people can watch live action via VR, believes it does. “Consumers have realised that advertising is fake and VR can create real experiences,” he says.
VR extends experiential marketing by physically bring users into the game. The first live action VR experience – created by Momentum Worldwide for American Express VR at the US Open – enabled fans to play tennis with a professional athlete and was a huge success, attracting over 1bn media impressions worldwide. Since then, Snyder has worked with Verizon on immersive sports experiences. Blending VR with physical reality made experiential marketing particularly memorable for american football fans trying this VR installation.
Hardware is not the greatest challenge – while Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets are used mostly by gamers, Verizon and other brands offer walk-in experiences at events. Most mainstream consumers experience VR via their smartphones, using a Google cardboard reader, which is a popular brand giveaway (the New York Times has given away almost 1m in six months).
Price highlights additional potential: smartphones offer the possibility of payment processing and links to products and services that may be featured in the VR experience. All VR needs is an in-world payment gateway to enable in-world purchases and then we will get even closer to the surreal estate envisaged in Ready Player One.
What will happen when the VR novelty wears off? How much of the impact is down to what Virtual Futures director Luke Robert Mason terms ‘VRginity’, whereby brands are competing to be people’s first VR experience – the one they will never forget? Mason sees ongoing challenges arising around content – the challenge for brands is not around people’s ‘first time’, but the fact that most VR experiences are best the first time you try them.
Snyder believes that it is still early days for VR and branding: “VR is about what brands are doing for people, rather than what they are saying.” He adds that the potential is limitless because as yet there are no standards in VR user experience (UX) design....