VR is a bold new branding medium, but it is not a sales tool

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Jon Collins is global president of integrated advertising at Framestore. He will be speaking at the Dubai Lynx on What Four Years of VR Have Taught Us.

Virtual reality (VR) is the most exciting new platform to be introduced into marketing, entertainment, education and healthcare for many years. Yet brands still struggle with committing to a budget, largely due to concerns about return on investment (ROI).

90 per cent of chief marketing officers I’ve spoken to in the last six months asked the same basic question: “If I spend a dollar on a VR project, can you guarantee me a return of $1.50?” The answer is that I can’t. No matter how good the creative or execution, if it doesn’t answer this question it fails in its purpose. Or 99 per cent of the time, it won’t get commissioned in the first place.

Framestore has been lucky enough to be an early torchbearer in the brave new world of VR. Having created one of the globe’s first VR marketing campaigns back in 2013 (HBO’s “Ascend the Wall”), we now have several years’ experience of working with brands and studios on major VR projects.

For “Ascend the Wall”, HBO and Relevent created a world-touring exhibition to announce Game of Thrones Season 4. They wanted an experience that gave fans at the exhibition the feeling they were in the show itself. Using Oculus software development kit (SDK) 1 was the perfect solution.

Our very next job was for Merrill Shoes’ Sundance event. They wanted to give people the experience of climbing the Dolomites, despite being in a small room in Utah. We again deployed a VR solution, but this time pushed VR’s limits by allowing users to walk around within a controlled space so they felt the physical experience necessary to create the perfect illusion.

In our clients’ eyes, both projects were successful. But neither asked: “How are we going to sell more tickets or boots?” They wanted experiences for customers that created stronger connections with the brand. And the experiences’ limited access was offset manifold by social media reach.

In these early days of VR, it was easier to get attention. As buzz heightened, many companies entered the market with their own lower-cost VR solutions and many brands invested small amounts to test the water. But the results were often underwhelming because they were generally re-versioned TV spots, not tailor-made VR concepts.

Meanwhile, technology and consumer expectations have evolved so quickly that VR’s novelty factor is already fading. Today, a below-par VR experience will backfire because donning a headset and immersing yourself in a brand’s world for five minutes is more of a commitment than watching a TV commercial.

When VR is done well, there’s no other experience quite like it: you’re not just witnessing; you’re experiencing. Placing users inside a world built around brand touch points and layered with levels of interactivity creates not only deeper engagement but also memorable experiences that outlast many others.

To reach this point, though, requires fully-fledged investment. And this makes it even harder to put aside the deeply engrained ROI mentality. The inevitable reaction is: “If not a sales uptick, what will I get from a $500,000 investment?” It’s an understandable question. Here’s the answer:

If you want a metric showing more product being shifted, invest in traditional channels. But if you want to reboot profile and make bold brand statements, VR’s propensity for immersing people in brand culture and enabling interaction makes it the place to be.

The perfect example is Lockheed Martin’s “Field Trip to Mars”, where we transported a school bus of unsuspecting children from the streets of Washington DC to the surface of Mars. The project was the first of its kind: rather than using VR headsets to transport children into a virtual reality, we used bus windows as screens to display Mars imagery. To create authenticity, every move, tilt and bump on the bus’s journey was synched to the Mars content.
By eschewing VR headsets, we created the world’s first group VR experience.

Lockheed Martin’s goal was to show its credentials as a pioneering technology company. By commissioning a groundbreaking VR project that also demonstrated how the brand has built tech to take this generation of schoolchildren to Mars, Lockheed Martin used VR to create a paradigm shift in brand perception: the type of invaluable marketing that goes beyond ROI.

Unlike other mediums, VR isn’t a passive experience. No one person’s editorial view is being imposed; the user is in complete control of where they look and utterly engaged. It’s this unique sense of user agency and empathy that delivers paradigm-shifting marketing, elevating a brand from product to experience or idea.

With such a young medium, we’re only scraping the surface of how to nurture this powerful brand/consumer connection. But one thing is certain: thanks to ongoing innovation in VR interactivity, this connection will only get deeper.

VR technology progresses so quickly that we’ve already witnessed the arrival of hand controllers. From 4D effects to voice activation and haptic feedback, VR experiences will get more interactive as time moves on. Providing the quality is high enough to create authenticity, increased interaction allows people to go deeper, further suspending disbelief and connecting with the brand in a more profound way.

By being genuine to a brand’s cultural touchpoints and investing enough to create a high-value experience, VR’s ability to drive total engagement whilst evoking a strong physical response is priceless. Get this right, and traditional forms of ROI become redundant.

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