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How virtual reality could change the way we create and interact with brands

How virtual reality could change the way we create and interact with brands

I remember, some time in the not-too-distant past, rushing to pop my virtual reality (VR) cherry with a Vive headset and Tilt Brush software — excitedly splurging colours and effects in 360 degrees, blindly busting moves like an awkward teenager on a high-school disco dance floor, only to discover about 15 minutes in that a) I was buggered from the effort, and b) I didn’t really know what I was trying to achieve. My ‘artwork’ looked less coherent than something my two-year-old son does at playgroup. He believed that the furiously-drawn orange and green blobs were ‘effelants’, but I couldn’t even explain what I’d tried to draw because I hadn’t thought about it beforehand.

This ‘give it a go’ approach is quite common with new technology in business too. Just think how most of us first used social media channels or apps, for example. It was often tactical rather than strategic, and the results were a little hit-and-miss. But now, as the dust is settling and this technology is starting to be used more strategically, we’re beginning to see its real value. Clients, increasingly aware of the importance of emotional connections between their customers and their brand, are picking up on the immersive value that VR and its sibling, augmented reality (AR), can create that other forms of communication cannot.

This value is not just anecdotal.

Market research has shown that consumers feel more connected to brands that adopt Virtual Reality. For example, in a recent survey by the Greenlight Institute, 71% of consumers agreed a brand that sponsors VR is forward-thinking and 53% of consumers said they were more likely to purchase from a brand that sponsors a VR experience.

So, assuming we get our strategies right, and with the emotional power at our disposal, how could VR change the way we create and interact with brands?

Here are a few examples, some already being used and some more theoretical, to show where we might be heading with Virtual Reality:

Bending time and space with Virtual Reality

[A change in how we prove brand strategy, launch brands, and promote them to customers]

Imagine launching a beautifully crafted brand of South American wine in Australia to a hundred or so select customers. At the moment, short of flying them there, launch options are limited to options like video of the region, shipping over a regional wine expert with a suitably exotic accent or giving a dinner using local cuisine.

But imagine if you could ‘bend’ space and virtually transport all those lucky people to the region so they can experience the wine’s region, its people, and the process it goes through to create it. And then, imagine virtually ‘bending’ time, to show them the history of the brand from its roots to now. Wouldn’t that be a powerful way to show your brand’s strategy is more than just craftily-conjured words on a page? Patron Tequila has the right idea.

Branding with purpose

[A change in how we’re impacted by a brand’s story]

VR experiences can help us do more good with the brand stories we create. Even in its most basic form as 360º VR video that allows the viewer to experience an event through the eyes of the narrator, telling stories has never had as much impact. VR is such an immersive environment, removing real-world interruptions and giving you an audience with an undivided attention for two minutes, five minutes, or longer.

Whether it’s telling the story of a brand helping to combat poverty like TOMs, highlighting food scarcity in an unexpected environment like LA, or Alzheimer’s Australia’s Enabling EDIE workshop giving a VR experience of dementia, the effects are powerful.

Helping create safer brands

[A change in how we interact with a brand to make our lives safer]

It’s important for brands to show they keep their staff and customers safe. Indeed you often hear slogans like ‘zero harm’ loudly proclaimed promoting it. What if we could create brand experiences in VR that allow companies to train staff to recognise, experience and deal with dangerous situations? It would take place in a manner that doesn’t actually put them in danger, but fools their brains into thinking they are, so they react better when a situation arises. Companies like Brookfield Multiplex working with UNSW, NORCAT, Bechtel and QinetiQ are already implementing this, iCASTS: iCinema Advanced Safety Training Simulator.

Brands that will never exist

[A change to the physical state of brands, and the way we create them]

I remember the first time I created a publication that was never printed. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t fail at the job. It was published, but was launched unceremoniously and with just an email announcing it, as a PDF. I felt deflated. I didn’t get to experience that wonderful moment of receiving a printed copy hot off the press, smelling the ink and rubbing the paper stock. This is going to happen again because some brands will only exist in the virtual world. No receiving the first batch of stationery, no visiting the refurbished client offices with the huge shiny logo hanging somewhere and the carefully-chosen coloured furniture to feel, and no branded vehicles to proudly watch trundle down city streets. Be prepared to be ever-so-slightly disappointed, until you don your headset and see the virtual world you’ve branded of course.

Testing 1 2 3… and 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

[A change to the rigour we impose on testing a brand’s campaign or story]

Customers may begin to blur virtual and real-world experiences because of the way the brain creates memories. Obviously, brands want to tap into positive experiences and improve their emotional connections with customers but it has to be done very carefully because, if a very powerful long-lasting positive connection can be made, so can a negative one.

Consider the recent controversial Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner, showing the model using a can of the drink to end a stand-off between police and protestors. Imagine watching it in VR where the distasteful experience is amplified – viewers could be turned off Pepsi forever, their brains fooled into believing they actually witnessed the event. So what could this mean for branding? More testing. A lot more testing. In much the same way that communicators have introduced UI, UX, CX and more, there will almost certainly be a need for rigorous testing in Virtual Reality too.

Behave yourself

[A change to the type of brand representative, and the way customers interact with them]

The real world isn’t empty and neither should a virtual world be. These large free-roaming spaces may need to be populated with characters, preferably ones that can hold a half-decent conversation. That means deploying some form of AI that links to the brand. You’ll need to consider how these characters speak and interact with customers in a manner that reflects the brand, as if it was a real person! But beware of creating an experience that’s a bit too clever. Like Microsoft’s Tay, the Twitter AI that went rogue and was ever-so-slightly racist, homophobic, sexist.

The dreaded bevels, drop shadows and plastic wraps

[A change to the way we create the look of brands]

Prepare to shudder because we may see a resurgence in 3D logos. Remember them from years gone past? And then, with the need for tiny, super-legible favicons, and with some help from Apple flattening everything in sight, we were rid of them (mostly!). A collective sigh of designer relief swept the lands. But now we’re heading back into 3D territory with VR. Because, like the effect that digital had on the flattening of logos, we may now see the influence of 3D environments seeping into brands’ visual identities.

I’m here, I’m there, I’m everywhere

[A change to the way we research brands, and interact with clients]

Geographical distances already feel like they’re being removed by software like Skype, GoTo and FaceTime. But with Virtual Reality they will become irrelevant. In its simplest form, rather than just talking to clients on a screen, we’ll be able to have client meetings and presentations in a VR Space, with a client anywhere in the world almost as if we’ve been teleported to the same room. This technology already exists to some extent with such things as AltSpaceVR, VRChat, High Fidelity and others. On another level, it will vastly improve our research capabilities. We could be based anywhere in the world and experience an organisation we’ve been charged with branding, viewing the ‘native’ environment (albeit a simulated version) where we can immerse ourselves and get the understanding and powerful feeling of presence needed to do the project justice.

So, there you go. These are just a few examples of where Virtual Reality is, or may be, heading. And because this is the future we’re talking about, I imagine those orange and green blobby ‘effelants’ are very quickly going to become a lot more like ‘real’ elephants as the technology becomes more advanced and we improve our strategic approaches to using it.

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