Will virtual reality fundamentally change the marketing industry?

Image captured from YouTube

Image captured from YouTube

When Palmer Luckey’s virtual reality startup, Oculus VR, was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for an impressive $2 billion, the bulk of public interest came from tech enthusiasts and gamers. To people in the know, Facebook’s vote of confidence suggested that after years of futile development and marginal half-successes, virtual reality was finally on the cusp of mass market viability.

Fast-forward just two years, and VR is steadily maturing into a mainstream sensation. Mark Zuckerberg sees it as the future of social media. Google has assembled a dedicated virtual reality team. HTC, Samsung, and Microsoft have all either released headsets or have projects under development.

And like any revolutionary development in the tech world – think social media, live-streaming, mobile proliferation, or even the widespread adoption of the internet itself – businesses are eagerly investigating ways to leverage virtual reality for marketing purposes.

“Virtual reality is one of the latest technologies marketers are trying to wrap their heads around to figure out how to best utilize the tool to achieve brand objectives,” writes Michelle Greenwald for Forbes.com. “While we’re only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of impactful ways to use VR for marketing, several pioneers have found creative ways to do it well and support their unique value propositions.”

The New York Times is one such pioneer, having jumped into the VR environment in late 2015 with the release of The Displaced, a short film depicting the excruciating hardships faced by some of the world’s nearly 60 million refugees. Through the release, the Times was able to cement its position as a forward-thinking news outlet, while also showcasing its storytelling prowess and generating substantial public interest.

Virtual reality and storytelling are natural allies: at its best, VR emphasizes the physical and emotional context of the story being told. For The Displaced, that meant placing the audience in jarring, often troubling surroundings. While most brands aren’t interested in making their target audience uncomfortable, many have adopted VR to convey the unique emotions that define their products.

Moving forward, emotion is likely to be at the heart of many virtual reality marketing efforts. Volvo turned to VR to create a buzz around its XC90 SUV. The company crafted a fully immersive test drive experience that was shot along a 60-mile stretch of highway near Vancouver. The audience is encouraged to take in British Columbia’s stunning scenery from the vehicle’s cushy interior, an experience which evokes simultaneous feelings of freedom and safety.

“We wanted for many people to experience the joy we feel around this car,” said Volvo North America EVP Bodil Erikkson. “It’s simple, it’s playful, and also grownups should be able to play a little.”

A number of fashion lines have also adopted virtual reality to communicate specific, branded emotions. Dior released a truly gorgeous 360-degree video in October 2015 which brought viewers onto the sweeping grounds of Christian Dior’s childhood home on the coast of Normandy. The experience underscores the exclusivity and elitism woven into the brand’s DNA. Topshop, meanwhile, released a 360-degree experience that placed users front row at the brand’s Fall/Winter 2014 show at London Fashion Week. The audience was able to experience the excitement and glamour of a normally inaccessible event. The experience is very much in line with Topshop’s strategy of delivering a high-fashion look and feel at attainable prices.

Check out this video listing ten great VR marketing experiences, courtesy of mbryonic. In addition to The Displaced, the Topshop Catwalk Experience, and Volvo’s test drive, the list includes a tour of Patron’s Mexican headquarters which emphasizes the history and prestige inherent to the brand; a Merrell hiking experience meant to replicate the excitement and adventure of an outdoor excursion in Merrell boots; and a Marriott Hotel showcase which transports users to exotic Marriott locations around the world.

In each case, the audience is allowed to briefly taste a desirable, product-specific emotion during their experience. The idea is to leave the customer eager for a fuller, more sustained version of the emotion, one which can’t be provided through a VR headset.

Virtual reality as a storytelling and marketing tool is in its infancy, but its potential to engage audiences and effectively communicate the unique value of brands’ products is enormous. Through virtual reality experiences, companies can provide unparalleled context for their brand, and attach specific emotions to their products.