By Alexander Jutkowitz. Originally published on LinkedIn.
Silicon Valley frenzy aside, virtual reality has a lot to prove before it graduates into the realm of the “real thing.” Yes, it’s hard not to be swept up in the promise of front-row seats to any experience imaginable. And, yes, behemoths like Facebook, Google and Samsung are placing billion-dollar bets on its future. But there’s that stubborn “vomit problem.” And the underwhelming track record. And the open question of whether it can actually achieve mass adoption beyond the diehard tech crowd.
Still, if you’re a marketer, it doesn’t really matter if it flops. Tinkering in virtual reality today means mastering the marketing reality of tomorrow – and not just because it might earn you early-adopter prestige.
Whether the next big thing is virtual reality or wearable technology or the internet of things, it’s clear that technology is becoming more intimate. And to succeed, content – both from marketers and traditional publishers – will need to play by the rules of a more human, less mass-mediated environment. Brands that are willing to do the requisite corporate soul-searching now will be paid off in spades in the years to come.
Marketers and media types are beginning to make use of new devices like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR for their transformative ability to render immersive, like-you’re-there experiences. Virtual reality can whisk potential customers away to Maui’s most beautiful black sand beach, transport them to the set of their favorite television show or drop them into the center of a major sporting event. And, as with any kind of content marketing, if done well, those customers will feel more emotionally connected to the brand that made it all possible.
But marketers would be remiss to overlook another key dimension of the platform: it rewards authenticity and transparency, arguably even more than the content platforms of today.
Smart brands are increasingly building consumer loyalty by openly imparting their hard-won insights and time-tested values through articles, videos and other visuals. Virtual reality – and other on-the-horizon tech platforms – could prove even more powerful for brands that know what they stand for and how to communicate it.
For example, through its Travel Brilliantly website and campaign, Marriott has steadily pulled the curtain back to share its innovations and collaborate with consumers. Its Oculus Rift-powered program last fall was a natural extension of those efforts. Without leaving a Marriott hotel, the experiment enabled guests to travel to downtown London or Maui’s Wai’anapanapa beach. But even beyond the experience itself, it gave consumers a glimpse into the future of travel as Marriott sees it – and invited them to build that future together.
Outdoor apparel maker Merrell is another company that recently embraced virtual reality to give consumers a visceral experience that underscores its values. At the Sundance Film Festival this year, it encouraged people to don an Oculus Rift headset and instantly hike the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. The stunt offered up a thrilling experience, but also signaled a desire to break down the wall between buyer and brand.
Coke, Wells Fargo, Lexus, Elle – the list of brands and publishers experimenting with the new technology is growing. But even if an all-out virtual reality campaign is too expensive to justify, the emotional context created by the new platform is still worth probing. While virtual reality campaigns are interesting and impressive on their own, the behind-the-scenes work could be even more valuable in the long run. The practice of defining core values, identifying stories and developing internal processes for communicating them can only help prepare brands for the marketing landscape ahead.
If nothing else, virtual reality reminds us that technology isn’t letting up in its march to meld man and machine. It foretells a future where success increasingly hinges less on a brand’s technical ability to create experiences that feel real and more on its capacity to understand what actually enables it to be real.