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Both entertainment and technology play pivotal roles in allowing brands to connect with people. From the first TV ad for a luxury watch that aired just over 75 years ago, to the now commonplace practice of tailoring content in real-time and delivering customer services via Twitter.

With virtual reality becoming the tech du-jour, brands are trying to experiment with the medium and see what’s possible. (Emphasis on the word ‘experiment’). Activations currently tend to be on offer at specific events, with limited audiences. The more successful ones, from Samsung Gear’s bicoastal “The Night Before” holiday execution that offered users a 360 degree ride with Santa in his sleigh, to Verizon’s abstract, music-centered and somewhat isolating “The Melody of Dust” VR experience at SXSW, are garnering some attention and buzz on social media and in the press. But they are not yet enabling truly innovative forms of interaction. As the technology becomes more widespread and companies gain more of a handle on how they can leverage VR, agencies must help to guide clients on how to leverage VR in a way that aligns with their brand and helps them to achieve their business goals.

Jumping off the bandwagon

Smartphone adoption has played a huge role in enabling brands to build strong relationships with customers. It’s the immediacy and quality of content, and the convenience that smartphones enable that has helped brands to do this, though, rather than gimmicky activations. Banner ads are despised, and email marketing blasts are left unopened because they feel like an intrusion into a space that is highly personal. People invite brands into that space when they’re providing something useful or enjoyable. This wasn’t always something that companies understood, though, and when apps first became a thing companies rushed to make them to show they were current and innovative. Most were used once and then left dormant on people’s screens before being deleted to make space for photos, or productivity and gaming apps.

While there’s no doubt that VR is going to play a role in how brands market and engage with their customers, it will take time for companies to learn how the technology can be of true value. People’s tolerance for tokenistic, didactic marketing is at an all-time low and they need to quickly feel that their engagement is being adequately rewarded — or they’ll remove the headset and go elsewhere.

A chance to change perceptions

You only have to walk into a Sephora to see how powerful being able to see, touch and feel brands can be. And VR allows brands to bring that experience to the online realm, and move it beyond words, videos and pictures into three-dimensional immersive interactions. More than that, VR gives brands the opportunity to create entire experiences that are shaped to reflect their values and vision without being diluted or losing anything in consistency or clarity of delivery.

Undoubtedly, when this is done well it can change people’s perceptions of who you are, and embed in them a much deeper understanding of why your brand exists. Imagine being a company who makes sustainable clothing, and you want to help your customers to understand why this is so important? You can create an entire VR experience that will link up the merchandise you sell and the story behind it, creating a richness that is really exciting. For example, philanthropic shoe brand Tom’s recently installed a “virtual reality chair” in its Venice, CA flagship store complete with VR headsets that transport visitors to a remote village in Peru to take part in the company’s trademark giving trip. The New York Times was also one of the first media outlets to create news stories using VR that truly change the user’s perspective by putting them in someone else’s shoes and showing them a new angle, involving people in the narrative in new and powerful ways. This is a more thoughtful approach to using VR to mold and shape brand identity.

The potential to redefine brand experience

If we start to consider that VR can be a brand access point, where people will eventually shop, chat, research places to eat (imagine being able to ‘go’ to a restaurant before you’ve booked a table) then maybe we’re getting closer to what VR can accomplish for brand building. If you can then envision that there’s a whole other world where people can do/be/see things that would be impossible for them to interact with in their normal lives, we start to see how brands using VR can extend their reach.

Of course, this scenario does create issues, particularly for luxury brands. What if you could dress your VR self from head to toe in Chanel, but you wouldn’t in a million years be able to buy any in real life? Should a brand charge you to do that in a VR experience or should they let you do it for free, which might compromise the exclusivity of your brand? This has already been an issue for luxury brands on social media — how do you democratize something that’s built around exclusivity?

Also, consider how mobile has super-powered the amount of content we consume, and how brands like Refinery29 have become masters of branded content that integrates new products and services into something people are already consuming. A similar thing could happen with VR — brand experience will become intertwined with content and entertainment, and whoever is best at integrating it in a seamless and authentic way will win.

Get past the gimmickry

In a similar way to brands rushing to create apps for smartphones, many of which quickly became obsolete, we’re now in an experimental phase with brands leveraging VR experience for press coverage to enhance reputation. The experiences themselves, though, are not necessarily of huge brand value.

Turning this around, we can ask ourselves which companies really learnt lessons over the last 15 years about use of digital technology, and how to make it really valuable to them. Who will have remembered the pitfalls of consumer interaction from the first apps, mobile sites and social media activations they launched? Looking back to go forward may be more valuable than companies realize, and mining their past successes and failures could equip them with a more sturdy strategy for leveraging VR.

There’s still a ways to go — headsets need to become more affordable and widespread for user adoption to reach a point where brands can interact with a meaningful number of people. The experiences themselves also need to become more seamless and intuitive before we’ll see the full gamut of what VR can offer. Like when apps first launched, it took experimentation and persistence for companies to work out how best to leverage them. By encouraging brands to be more thoughtful while they experiment, and to take note of what does and doesn’t work so they can pioneer VR usage in a really impactful way, this medium will likely follow suit.

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