After a global lockdown scuppered Asics’ plans to host global media at its campus in Japan for a new shoe launch, it quickly turned to virtual reality (VR) to give journalists an experience that would match.
For the launch of three new premium, professional running shoes that had been in the works for over a year, Asics had earmarked big budgets to fly the world’s media to its Institute of Sports Science in Kobe. It was, after all, a special year. The Japanese-founded company was preparing for the Olympics and had timed the launch to coincide with the Tokyo marathon. Journalists would be given a glimpse of the brand’s historic roots in the country, as well as access to the highly anticipated shoes and the scientists that had engineered them.
Then, Covid-19 struck.
With neighbouring China in lockdown and confirmation on 17 February that the Marathon was cancelled, Fiona Berwick, general manager of marketing at Asics realised the likelihood of jetting hoards of reporters from around the world into the city was slim.
“We still thought we’d have a domestic event and then started planning a live-streaming event around the Paris Marathon which [Asics] sponsors,” she recalls. “But within days of that plan, it changed again.”
Japan went into lockdown, swiftly followed by France and the UK. At this point, most marketers with a highly prized product to promote might opt to postpone launch activity. Indeed, according to IAB research, over a quarter of brands have chosen to stop any marketing activity until the third quarter of the year.
But Berwick said it wasn’t an option. “These were three of the best products we’d ever produced so there was an element of pride in wanting to keep going with this,” she explains. Besides, the company has a strict timeline in which it can design, manufacture and market a product before work starts on the next one. Delaying for just a few months would have a knock-on effect for the shoe range, already in the design phase, to launch in 2021.
Asics had been working with PR agency Edelman on its ambitious launch plans. With options for what the brand could potentially do changing by the day, and no indication for how long lockdown in various countries would extend, the agency was instead tasked finding a solution that would give Asics the big ticket event it needed without a physical presence.
“At one point we considered a livestream but there were language barriers and there’s only so long people will tune in for,” says Edelman director Jonathan Halliwell.
“By bringing local media to Japan we were going to be able to take them on a brand experience. And as soon as everything fell through it was really hard to think of something that would land both the product story and the Asics brand story. We couldn’t get the shoes to the journalists so we had to make them feel like they can reach out and touch it. That was the challenge.”
Inspired by its first trip to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Edelman and Asics landed on the idea of using VR. Marketers' use of VR has been given a bad rap. The technology has historically been used because it can be, not necessarily because it should be. However, in this case the tech was the perfect vehicle to facilitate a tangible, realistic, walk through a showroom while interacting with sports scientists, as well as giving viewers a chance to view the shoe in up-close detail.
Through a chance email between two old colleagues, Edelman was introduced to the team at Solarflare Studios, a specialist agency founded last October following the sudden closure of renowned virtual and augmented reality agency Inition. It was briefed to create the Asics world in which users would be immersed – a major project for a fledgling agency.
“We had initial conversations with Edelman in early March,” says co-founder and chief client officer Jay Short. “Then we had conversations with [Asics] in the second week in March. Then the deadline was set for the 24 March.”
To put it simply; the process of client discussion, concept development, storyboarding and feed back would normally take several weeks. In this case, it was condensed into a matter of days. “The whole thing moved incredibly quickly. We were having two or three calls a day to co-ordinate with teams in Japan, the UK, the Netherlands… it was intense.”
Developers, planners, account managers and marketers from Asics, Edelman and Solarflare worked in 24-hour shifts – a day team and an evening team – to try and manage the workload and ensure the various elements were signed off quickly. Amid this, all three companies were contending with the same business pressures as many others in the UK and beyond, and were working around the clock to keep the wheels turning under lockdown.
A virtual launch
Against the odds, Solarflare developers were able to quickly create the content (see above) that would sit at the heart of the VR experience. It opened in the Asics Virtual Innovation Lab, a white room and in the distance a glass case containing the running shoes. A video screen is also in view, giving users a run-down of the company's history. After the video completes, the Metaracer, Metasprint and Metarise running shoes come into view. As each is demonstrated, the user is asked to participate in a series of games to highlight each shoe's unique component. For the Metaracer, designed to aid long-distance running, users pump their arms as stars whizz past. For the Metarise, which has a cushioned sole, users jump in the air to mimic a volleyball spiker. And for the Metasprint, users are asked to crouch as the floor turns to honeycomb, referencing the design of the shoe’s sole.
Then came the equally daunting task of getting Oculus Quest headsets into the hands of journalists in 19 different countries.
“We had ordered all of these headsets and had nowhere to put them. So, they were split across the team. Then we wanted to package them up properly so had to find a printer that was still running,” says Halliwell. “And then we had to get them couriered just as lockdown was coming. So, I actually got in the car and dropped them off to journalists I knew were close to my house in North London.”
The response so far has been encouraging, claims Berwick. Its earned media coverage has beaten expectations and many reporters have covered not just the shoe, but the novel way in which it was presented.
One recipient, Daniel Cooper, a senior editor at Engadet, wrote: “There are clearly upsides to this: A reduced carbon footprint traveling to and from a show that, sometimes, we don't need to attend. And there are some companies that spend enormously on their events more as a statement to the public more than for any practical purpose.
“The downsides are also pretty obvious: In most VR 'demos', you're not able to try the product, and there's less scope to scrutinize it, nor talk to the company's representatives. And VR is still new enough that some folks may struggle with motion sickness (as I did while trying to write notes and watch the show). In those ways, it's yet another wedge between us and the companies we cover, which is an issue.
“What's more important, however, is what this launch represents in a world where social distancing will be the norm for several more months. The longer Covid-19 rages on, the more other companies will look to lean on VR. This is at least a good first step. Hell, accountants at plenty of tech companies are probably doing a cost-benefit analysis of buying a truck-full of Oculus Quests right now for couriering to, and from, journalist's houses.”
While Berwick says it won’t be taking canceling all future press launches in favour of a VR-only experience, the company has learned lessons from the tech that will be adopted into future roll-outs. The agency is also considers how to take this tech to consumers, perhaps putting it in stores when lockdown restrictions begin to ease.
But the lasting impact of Covid-19 on Asics' marketing operations going forward has been a shift in mindset to what can be achieved working remotely, especially among the head honchos at the sports company's headquarters.
“I lived and worked in Japan for five years. Culturally working from home is really not accepted. The government has tried to encourage it as there’s a massive over-working situation. But the company is getting into it and we’ve been so much more productive. Some people I didn’t think would ever have wanted this, like our chief operating officer, are now accepting it. It will have a big impact on working culture.”