Try before you buy: Why virtual reality is good news for B2B marketing

From high-end devices such as Oculus Rift to inexpensive cardboard equivalents, it’s estimated we’ll be buying some 24m virtual and augmented reality headsets a year by 2018. Good news for B2B, where ‘try before you buy’ is an expensive norm.

Will virtual reality (VR) ever become a marketing reality? The much-hyped medium has hit the headlines in recent months with brands as diverse as Amnesty International and Thomas Cook turning to it for campaigns.

Globally, marketers are looking to create experiences that supplement or complement ongoing campaigns and, in doing so, bring PR buzz into ad strategy. At present, most of this activity is heavily weighted to the gaming community or one-off events but brands believe that VR – and increasingly augmented reality (AR) – could be a viable and cost-effective marketing channel.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the B2B space where the ‘try before you buy’ ethos is common but expensive – a virtual trialling of aeroplanes or retail spaces, for instance, makes sense before making physical realities.

Nick Bailey, chief creative officer for EMEA at full-service digital agency Isobar, says anyone involved in technology and creativity is playing more and more in the VR space, particularly when marketing high-value purchases with longer consideration.

He points to a campaign created last year by Isobar in Australia for Chevrolet, called CoDriver. The experience combined Oculus Rift with CGI, purpose-shot 360-degree video footage, 3D positional sound recording and in-car vibration technology to ‘drive’ passengers through the rugged terrain of New Zealand.

The principles of transporting potential customers to such a virtual world could easily be applied to even higher value propositions, such as in the aviation and engineering sectors where the high cost of creating such immersive experiences is offset by the value they bring.

General Electric, for instance, celebrated the launch of its Brazilian research centre in late 2014 with a VR installation. Visitors to the facility could see what a subsea factory looked like from the comfort and safety of an armchair.

GE has now created VR experiences for all the major platforms including Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard and YouTube 360, showcasing the company’s work in technology. One example, Neuro, aims to act as a VR portal in to the human brain.

Bailey explains that while it’s a considerable investment to create the content or experience, “when you compare that to flying over a lot of senior executives to review a prototype, it makes huge sense”.

Particularly so when global tech giants are putting their considerable might behind it. Facebook bought market-leader Oculus Rift in a deal worth $2bn in 2014, while Samsung has launched its Gear headset, powered by Oculus technology, and Google launched Cardboard, an entry level system that utilises a person’s smartphone to deliver VR experiences. Just last month it announced that it had shipped 5m Cardboard devices, and a leak earlier this month in the Financial Times suggests that it is planning a major upgrade of the devices.

It’s all a long way from Nintendo’s 1995 flop of a headset, Virtual Boy, which caused feelings of nausea and motion sickness in many of its users.

Better technology will ensure VR remains more than just hype this time around (provided, that is, the content is good enough) according to Jay Short, the new business and sales director at Inition, an agency that works with brands and advertising agencies to create technology-led experiences such as VR and 3D printing.

Short believes the buzz around VR is, at the moment, akin to that around 3D printing three or four years ago, but with more potential because the companies backing it already provide viable commercial platforms for brands.

“In the last five years we [Inition] have shifted more towards VR. It has become a powerful tool for marketers. There is a huge buzz around it and companies and brands are looking for ways of exploiting it.”

One important reason why, he says, is the immersive nature of the technology and the fact “brands are looking for ever more immersive ways to reach their audiences”.

Inition worked with Adore Creative to develop a unique experience for Russian Copper Company, which enabled participants to follow a step-by-step raw copper ore extraction exercise in an immersive way. The three-minute, first-person film was unveiled at Innoprom 2014 to C-suite executives and leaders of Russia’s engineering industry.

One big change he has witnessed over the past year is that brands previously dipping their toes in the VR waters are now devoting an annual budget to it. They are also beginning to demand measurement metrics to prove its worth as a marketing tool.

For forward-thinking marketers, it is crucial that VR is part of an overarching strategy rather than ad-hoc projects. Marketers, particularly in the B2B space, he says, must give their customers reasons to keep coming back.

Will Harvey, innovation lead at the creative agency VCCP, concurs: “VR is not a one trick pony,” he says. B2B marketers should take note of the New York Times, which is offering continuous exclusive content that keeps its ‘readers’ coming back for more. “Marketers should look to create a roadmap of content and distribute it effectively.”

He believes VR for brands will quickly evolve into AR experiences, where digital information is overlaid on a physical or virtual environment.

“Google Glass hasn’t died at all,” says Harvey. “They tried to position it directly into the consumer market and that was really badly done.”

Reports suggest that Google is readying a second, foldable version that will be positioned more at the business market for multiple users, perhaps in sectors such as engineering and pharmaceuticals, where multiple people can share experiences and collaborate.

“The prediction is that there will be 24m VR and AR headsets in 2018. We will see it used more and more by brands and for more high value products, allowing people to really try before they buy. So much so that it may become a normal channel.”

He also believes B2B marketers could use it to create 360-degree conferences, so that Proctor and Gamble or Unilever, for instance, could virtually gather their executives in one space, saving on travel costs.

Employee engagement and training are two further areas marketers are looking into. Hitachi debuted an engaging mobile experience to emphasise the company’s value of business-to-social engagement while embodying its slogan of ‘inspire the next’ at two European company events.

Employees at the events were encouraged to interact with the app and engage with the content, which was built around Hitachi’s accomplishments and strategies within its focus realm of ‘social innovation’. Short says it is an example of how a company can communicate information to its own staff in a positive and interactive way.

And it is in the space beyond ‘mere’ marketing where proponents of VR and AR believe the most exciting future lies.

From collaborating on new product design to hosting 360-degree conferences or virtually seeing how pharmaceutical products work on and in the body, VR and AR are capable of changing the ways businesses work.

Bailey concludes: “Fundamentally, it’s going to be about more than marketing. It will be about business transformation and delivering ways not just of connecting but also driving efficiencies, particularly around creative collaboration and shared working environments. The business opportunities are immense.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's B2B special issue on 24 February.


Catherine Turner

All by Catherine