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By Ashi Bhat, Co-founder

August 30, 2023 | 7 min read

Interactive experiences in virtual environments can enable brands to boost customer acquisition and engagement, writes Insider agency founder Ashi Bhat.

Ralph Lauren's 888 House

The 888 House / Ralph Lauren

Last week, Ralph Lauren unveiled a virtual showroom called the 888 House to celebrate the launch of the RL 888 handbag collection. As the brand prepares to return to New York Fashion Week this September after a four-year hiatus, the brand is leveraging immersive and virtual retail experiences in an effort to captivate a younger audience.

A sucker for all things immersive, I dove into Ralph Lauren’s new virtual experience. Set in a desert landscape, The 888 House combines 3D modeling and dynamic lighting to create a surreal virtual experience. I navigated through different rooms, each adorned with rustic walls, equestrian motifs and simulations of real products available for purchase. I could immediately ’favorite’ any of these products or buy them through the brand’s website.

Looking around in awe at the gravity-defying landscape of the virtual store, I couldn’t help but wonder: could immersive, interactive virtual experiences like this eventually become the norm for e-commerce? Is it possible that the ’metaverse’ could eventually reign supreme within this sector?

Many such branded experiences are currently accessible via browser and mobile, and they’re likely to become even more popular following next year’s release of the Apple Vision Pro headset. These virtual spaces present a range of exciting new opportunities: they enable us to chat with other customers through virtual avatars, which can transform online shopping into a more social experience; integrated AR filters allow us to try on virtual products; repeated visits lead to the accrual of digital collectibles, which provide us with access to exclusive brand perks; and we might even be greeted by AI-powered personal shopping assistants, which can offer personalized recommendations based on our unique tastes.

If that sounds like science fiction, consider this: Over the past year, brands like ALO Yoga, Crocs and Hugo Boss have all launched their own immersive virtual experiences. Their aim? To strike a chord with digital-native customers by creating immersive experiences through storytelling and gamification.

They also have a business incentive, of course. Acquiring new customers has never been more expensive, with digital ad spend hitting record highs in 2023. Meanwhile, personalized targeting has gotten more difficult due to evolving data regulations. (Last week, the European Union introduced the Digital Services Act (DSA) to impose new rules for Big Tech on content moderation and privacy). Virtual experiences offer brands a valuable new channel for customer acquisition and engagement; they’re particularly appealing to Gen Zers who tend to seek out experiences that blend physical with virtual reality.

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In the era of TikTok ads and out-of-home (OOH) advertising, brands are lucky to capture six seconds of a customer’s attention. 3D virtual retail environments, in contrast, can create brand experiences based on active user participation, leading to a more durable online presence and greater brand affinity. When paired with e-commerce data tracking, they can also enable brands to build a first-party-data-driven strategy. These spaces offer cost-effective access to real-time behavioral data, including key demographics, duration of engagement and consumer preferences. Brands can then harness these metrics to customize their offerings for individual customers, experiment with new products and build dynamic product-market fit.

Here are a few tips for brands looking to engage younger audiences through immersive virtual experiences:

Establish clear goals: Creating a virtual brand experience is all about leveraging a new channel to amplify a brand’s unique voice. Brands should think about their target audiences and understand why they might be drawn to this kind of experience.

Experiment and test: Before fully investing in a virtual experience, brands should consider starting with an immersive marketing activation to collect feedback on engagement.

Start early and commit: Brands that start testing and building sooner rather than later will have an easier time adjusting to customer behavior and preferences, which in turn can lead to more engaging customer experiences.

For brands that are willing to adapt to the rapidly changing face of e-commerce, virtual branded experiences offer a golden opportunity to foster customer relationships that transcend the limitations of the physical world.

Ashi Bhat is a co-founder of Insider App, where she’s developing blockchain-powered loyalty programs for consumer brands.

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