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Brand Strategy E-commerce Future of Media

Has Snap laid the foundations for AR to be taken seriously?


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

April 20, 2021 | 6 min read

Augmented reality (AR) tech matured during the pandemic. For some clients, the shiny new gimmick became a brand-building, product-selling reality. Estée Lauder is the latest to show confidence in the product by recently launching a ‘try-on’ augmented reality foundation on Snapchat. The Drum explores why marketers should pay attention to AR commerce and its role in the great retail reopening.


Has Snap laid the foundations for AR to be taken seriously?

First, a brief history. Snap launched its AR lens in 2015, which inspired the rainbow vomit and animated hot dog lenses that have come to define the app. Months later, 20th Century Fox debuted the first sponsored lens to promote the Peanuts movie.

Toccara Baker, the EMEA product marketing at Snap, says: “AR on Snapchat started as a form of entertainment and expression but evolved to become an incredible tool for utility and commerce, empowering brands to not only reach their customers but connect with them in entirely new ways.“

Snapchat is just one of the tech giants pushing into e-commerce, but its reliance on AR here is unique when compared with its rivals’ approaches. During the pandemic, with retailers shut, immersive experiences, virtual showrooms and try-on products have had a chance to shine.

This has been years in the making. Snap first mastered face-mapping in the selfie camera and cosmetics were naturally the closest client fit. For Estée Lauder, hurt by the closure of make-up counters, it provided a welcome move into the digital space.

Snapchat users can try on 60 shades of Double Wear Stay-In-Place and Futurist Hydra Rescue SPF45 foundation via their cameras. And with the lockdown seemingly coming to an end, foundation purchases will likely be front of mind for many.

Estée Lauder has been testing AR try-on tech since September 2020. Its original campaign attracted “more than double the number of planned impressions,” according to Snapchat. Meanwhile, Gucci Beauty has used the tech to show off its Rouge De Beauté Brillant Hybrid lipstick.


Baker says 75% of Snap’s daily audience interacts with AR. It boasts 265 million active users globally, so that’s a lot. But it is always working to attract more and a big part of that is making the camera smarter.

It can now identify dogs, trees, food nutrition and even wines. It reacts to voice commands too. When it introduced 3D body tracking, clothing brands followed, while foot-tracking enticed shoe brands. Room mapping is also exclusive to the latest iPhones, and home décor brands may like the look of that.

Baker says AR is “revolutionising” beauty, retail, and entertainment, but there’s also interest from auto and travel. “Now, brands can own the digital layer around their physical goods.”

Getting to this point has involved enhancing the development tools, optimising delivery and piloting new features that bring more brands in. While this foundation grows, attempts are underway to make the AR formats more useful and shoppable. Part of this is training machine learning algorithms to smooth out the tech, be that matching skin tones, mapping body parts or tracking movement.

Now the latest innovation is in hand-tracking – “detecting 24 points... and specific gestures“. This creates new opportunities for clothing and jewellery try-on.

“We’ve built a behavior of daily AR use in the Snapchat camera and consumers are ready to fully embrace this technology as a part of how they shop and compare products.”

This year AR finally became a “performance channel” as e-ccomerce strategies were forced to mature.

Phaedra Poulimenou, performance group director at the media agency Manning Gottlieb OMD, believes the “possibilities are endless when brands think creatively.”

“We have certainly evolved from the early days of AR, when it was seen more as a gimmick, to it becoming a medium that offers consumers something useful, informational, meaningful or entertaining.”

The question is whether Snap affords enough scale to warrant the effort of building these experiences. If 75% of snapchat users use branded lenses, how far can they reach beyond that audience? How influential is it compared to other channels? And will fewer people be using social (and these tools) after a successful vaccine output?

Poulimenou doesn’t believe AR sales conflict with the return to retail. “In fact, it can drive consumers to counters. The pandemic offered fertile ground for the use of AR to accelerate, however this is only the beginning. With shops opening again, we see AR playing a big role in the future of experiential retail.”

In the immediate future, AR solves a lot of problems thrown up by ‘no-touch’. In the long term, however, it could unlock how-tos, reviews, user-generated content, gamification much more in the retail environment.

Manning Gottlieb OMD has delivered UK Gov Covid-19 mask awareness campaign through Snap, as well as a Spider-Man: Far From Home Landmarker Lens, showing just how versatile Poulimenou believes it can be.

But while she says Snapchat is “the leader in the AR space”, she also thinks that TikTok and Instagram have made “real strides” in creating compelling, useful cameras the next generation of social spend their time in. “We expect social partners to expand their offering in this space even further in the future.“

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