Virtual reality offers an enticing proposition for brands looking to engage consumers in more immersive ways than ever before. But can VR really save marketing? That’s the question we put to Karmarama’s Lawrence Weber and VCCP’s Adrian Gans, who had some very different views on the issue.
YES: Lawrence Weber, managing partner of innovation, Karmarama
I’m always wary of playing the early marketing adopter role with new tech. For every Facebook on which you don’t build an audience quickly enough, there is a Meerkat you use to live stream – albeit enthusiastically – to an empty room.
It’s not just specific technologies audiences lose faith and interest in. It is positively de rigeur to give the digital revolution itself a dig in the ribs – witness just last month Sir John Hegarty laying waste to the content revolution, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian celebrating the apparent failure of the e-reader revolution and the slightly gleeful de-horning of any wandering unicorn by the wider press corps.
Despite all of the push back against new tech’s ability to change behaviour, however, I remain an unabashed celebrant of VR. I think it has a unique potential above all other current horizon technologies to keep the lines of communication open between brands and the consumers they so desperately need to be heard by. Here are a few reasons why.
It has an inherent sense of magic
Of the current crop of tech exciting the marketing community, only VR actually creates excitement in the people who experience it. There may be thousands of AI-driven chatbots on the way to Messenger and programmatic targeting may be becoming more accurate by the day, but consumers are either ambivalent or hostile. Put a VR headset on anyone, however, and you see how quickly they understand and enjoy the experience.
The key for brands is to provide content and interactive set pieces they want to return to again and again, by becoming content creators or patrons of the new VR arts.
The model though is definitely one of immersion, not interruption, so it’s very much not a traditional broadcast
It creates a single point of focus
The single biggest problem for marketers trying to get audiences to engage with them is one of focus. Your ad may be playing on the TV, but the viewer’s attention is more than likely fixed on the screen six inches from their face. There is no such issue with VR.
Early content creators like the New York Times are calling VR ‘the empathy machine’ for its ability to concentrate the attention and emotional reaction of viewers. That same phrase was used to describe cinema in its early days and we know that cinema has a special place in the hearts of marketers precisely for its ability to impact.
It gives us back our ability to drive creative innovation
The problem with the democratisation of production – and, to some extent, distribution – is that it creates a huge volume of content that often fits modern platforms better than work produced by brands.
There is a reasonable barrier to entry for VR – whether that be specialist cameras, rendering capability or the skills needed to exploit the new medium – and to a certain extent that is a positive thing for brands.
The creative canvas of the TVC helped modern film greats like Ridley Scott cut their teeth and produce better art. Brands can play a similar role with VR. This ultimately will help brands better communicate with consumers.
There is no doubt there will be brands who get it wrong with VR and no doubt the eventual form factor for headsets may make the current incarnations look ridiculous, but the creative potential of true immersion is too great for brands to ignore. After all, we may not get another chance to sit out a creative revolution – like we’ve all arguably done with YouTube – before we become lost communicators forever.
NO: Adrian Gans, innovation director, VCCP
There’s a glitch in the matrix. I feel uneasy. People look to me as an advocate of new technologies but here I am the naysayer. Am I corrupted? Not as far as I am aware. The truth is that many aspects of VR make me uneasy.
There are positives too, brilliantly expounded by my counterpoint. Yet in the realm of marketing I feel quietly confident VR is an unlikely saviour. I offer you three good reasons.
Time waits for no tech
Deloitte Global recently predicted VR will have its first billion-dollar year in 2016, adding that “as can happen with emerging technologies, there is considerable hype about the impact of VR in the near term. Any company that is considering VR in any regard should have a careful look at the likely addressable market.”
There is an imbalance between the inflated levels of investment and the adoption of hardware. High quality headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive cost a lot of money too. Google Cardboard goes some way towards making VR accessible, but it’s more of a sweet toy than a game-changer.
Then there’s the content. I’m a big fan of 360 video and expect it to proliferate rapidly, but you can watch it just as easily on YouTube as on any cumbersome head-mounted display. Sure, content will get more immersive, headsets will get cheaper and lighter, but how long will that take? Time waits for no tech (and AR is waiting in the wings).
‘Just because’ is not a good business case
Just because Zuckerberg and co are spending billions on VR doesn’t mean it’s a nailed on success. Because, secondly, ‘just because’ is not a good business case. Marketers need to think brand and category before plunging in to the virtual. If you are selling video games then VR is going to be an important part of your marketing toolkit, especially with the arrival of PlayStation VR in October. Likewise, if you are selling anything spatial by nature, have a go. Property, travel and sports will certainly benefit from people being able to try before they buy. The same goes for automotive.
In those cases the 3D experience may well be the USP, so why not offer people a virtual tour? Disney has just launched an app that does just that for some of its film franchises, and that’s great.
There are other uses too, in B2B and even not-for-profit, exemplified by the recent 360Syria website from Amnesty International. VR can add a new dimension to storytelling. Just be sure that being immersive is a good fit for your brand, and that your target audience have a headset. Otherwise, consider that some high quality interactive 360 video may go further and last longer. And make sure you have a good website.
It’s not real
Finally, let’s not ignore the obvious. VR cuts people off from reality. From nature and from human interaction. At its best, it’s a sensational experience. But it’s not real. Not really real. The path it takes us down is one of increasing isolation and disassociation. Do people want that? Do brands want to be part of that?
Samsung’s ‘Bedtime VR Stories’ makes this point perfectly. The trailer has a working mum sharing precious story-time with her daughter from a distant hotel room. Despite the emotional soundtrack, the whole thing makes me very uneasy. There’s a child in a headset (and bizarre mask) and a mother trying to reach out to her but apparently unable to use Skype.
No. VR will not save marketing. Not like this. New technologies that are easily accessible and that help us to become more human, they are the future.