Virtual Reality Will Change Marketing

By: Kash Dhanda

Note: I wrote this piece in November of 2014, well before the advent of the consumer grade VR headsets and the accompanying media attention they have received. In the intervening years, much has changed and this article is no longer as prescient as it once was. That said, I still stand by the fundamental thesis, a thesis I think has been borne out by the prevalence of major brand VR experiences. 

Every new medium – radio, TV, Internet – presents new possibilities for marketers. Forward-thinking marketers are able to exploit the unique quality of each new medium, as they did with the Internet and the world of intent-based “search marketing.” However, most marketers end up pursuing sub-optimal strategies, irritating both their customers and their managers – just think of the prevalence of flashing banner ads. 

Immersive virtual reality will divide marketers in the same way: some will create compelling experiences that dazzle their customers, while others will simply translate their old campaigns onto a new technology and make their customers yawn. The question is: how do marketers take full advantage of the new medium of virtual reality?

In this essay, we’re going to cover:

  1. Why marketers should be drooling over virtual reality (VR)
  2. The ingredients of a great VR experience
  3. Examples of VR marketing campaigns from major brands
  4. Ideas for VR marketing campaigns

Ready? Let’s dive in.

Case Study #1: Marriott Hotels

Marriott Hotels took visitors in 8 cities on a virtual trip around the world with their Teleporter – a phone booth-like structure that incorporated the Oculus Rift DK2 headset, wireless headphones, and a suite of on-board 4-D sensory elements. Users were taken to a virtual version of a new Marriott lobby, then to the black sand beaches of Maui, and then to the top of a skyscraper in London. The experience become multi-sensory with the aid of heat lamps (sun), fans (breeze), rumbling floor (movement), and even a water spritzer (ocean spray). The experience not only cemented Marriott’s reputation as an innovative brand in the minds of their customers, but also garnered massive amounts of press and 200,000+ Youtube views. For more information, see their Travel Brilliantly website.

Benefits of Virtual Reality for Marketers

In late 2014 and early 2015, virtual reality headsets are fairly rare. Consumers can’t buy them easily in stores, and many consumer-ready versions don’t even have release dates. The Oculus Rift consumer version isn’t likely to ship before late 2015, roughly the same release time expected for Project Morpheus (Sony’s VR headset) and a consumer version of GearVR (Samsung’s VR headset).

This means we have to draw an important distinction between pre-consumer release (pre-CR) campaigns and post-consumer-release (post-CR) campaigns. In the pre-CR world of 2014 and 2015, brands are responsible for delivering both the experience and the hardware a consumer needs to use the experience. In the post-CR world of 2015 and beyond, consumers will be able to get the hardware themselves, enabling brands to focus on building the best possible experience.

In both cases, the biggest benefit of virtual reality is the one-of-a-kind emotional impact brands can have on consumers.

Since the mid 1900s, advertising and marketing have moved away from selling on features and moved towards selling on emotion (for example, think of Coke’s “Happiness” campaigns, which have exactly nothing to do with how Coke tastes). Immersive virtual reality can deliver an emotional reasonance impossible to achieve through any other medium. Take, for example, the Marriot “Teleporter” experience shown above. No number of traditional ads could have generated the same sensations of excitement, trepidation, and awe as the VR experience. The user will associate these unforgettable sensations with the brand (Marriott) who provided them.

In addition to this general benefit, there are two other major advantages to virtual reality for marketers, one pre-consumer-release and one post-consumer-release.

Pre-CR Benefits

In general, the best marketing efforts create a lasting impression on the viewer. The goal is to occupy “mind-share”, to basically lodge your brand in the consumer’s mind so that, when they have a need, they remember your product and purchase it.

Virtual reality experiences are more memorable than traditional advertising by an order of magnitude, especially before a consumer version is released. Since consumers can’t easily access the technology, any experience they have with it is bound to be novel and memorable, simply due to its rarity.  As anyone who has used the Oculus Rift can attest, it’s simply unlike any other media-experience on the planet.

This memorability presents a number of benefits to brands. First, there is the viral effect that comes from word-of-mouth, as amazed consumers talk, text, and tweet about their experiences. Then there’s the amount of press attention, especially for brands who are the first in their industry to use the new medium. Finally, the brand itself is boosted with associations like “innovative,” “modern,” and “tech-savvy.” These associations are particularly useful for businesses trying to engage millennials, who oftentimes are distrustful of companies which do not appear to embrace technology.

Post-CR Benefits

After the consumer release of VR headsets, we can expect to see a greater abundance of experiences distributed on a greater scale. For example, imagine an immersive VR short film about snowboarding, sponsored by Red Bull. Or a virtual journey through the Guinness Distillery, sponsored by Guinness itself. Or a short game where users must defeat invading hordes of plaque, sponsored by Crest.

These campaigns will be similar to the experiences we’re currently seeing from Coke et al., but will be downloadable and playable at home. They will reach a far greater number of consumers than current efforts, since consumers will actually have the hardware in their living room. Early on, these experiences ought to be targeted at a younger, tech-savvy demographic (the likely early-adopters of VR headsets like the Rift), but as adoption of virtual reality grows, we can expect to see a greater diversity in the types of experiences being created.

The major benefit of the post-CR world for marketers is the ability to distribute large-scale experiences in a cost-effective way. Take for example this ad by the TV network TNT, where they rigged a small town square with a “drama button”. After touching the button, a number of increasingly ridiculous things happen, including a fight between a biker and an EMT, a women on a motorcycle in lingerie, and a police shootout.

Whoever came up with this concept must have had some difficulty selling it to their managers. The performance itself is expensive just to set up, and re-performing it for a new set of people would add a large marginal cost. Considering the small number of people in the town square who actually got to experience the event firsthand, it also had a very high cost-per-individual-experience. If the ad had not gained much traction online, it would have been an expensive failure indeed.

Virtual reality makes it much easier to ensure that the cost-per-individual-experience goes down dramatically, since a brand can deliver the same exact experience, at no marginal cost, to anyone with a virtual reality headset at home. This is what makes it so cost-effective to create large scale experiences previously untenable in the physical world.

Brands Who Have Already Used VR:

What Makes a Good Pre-CR Marketing Experience?

Pre-consumer-release experiences, as detailed above, are necessarily going to be different than post-CR experiences. Here’s what the best existing virtual reality marketing efforts have in common:

  1. Stimulate Multiple Senses a.k.a 4-D: Stimulating the other senses – smell, touch, and sound – can be a powerful way to deepen immersion in a VR experience. Rumbleseats and tiliting floors were used in the Game of Thrones experience to make the user feel like they were actually moving. Marriot used scents (e.g. the smell of a beach) to further simulate that the user was actually transported to a new location. Heat lamps can simulate the sun, misting bottles can simulate the rain, and fans can simulate wind. The pure visual experience of immersive virtual reality is astonishing, but combining it with any of these methods will elevate the experience into one that will be tough to forget.
  2. Use Big, Awe-Inspiring Settings: Both HBO’s Game of Thrones experience and Coke’s World Cup campaign took advantage of the fantastic sense of scale users can feel in virtual reality. Whether it’s falling off a mile-high wall or walking into a 60,000 person stadium, the user will be dazzled by the sheer enormity of the environment and will be left with a visceral sense of the virtual space.
  3. Be Mostly Passive: Giving the user control within the experience – for example, letting them control where their character walks in the virtual world – can improve the level of immersion, but can also be uncomfortable for those new to virtual reality. This is especially true for users who don’t regularly play video games. For this reason, many of the best current virtual reality marketing experiences are either cinematic or have fixed movement.
  4. Stay Short: Although it’s rare in professionally made experiences, there is still a risk of nausea for some people when they are first trying virtual reality. This nausea often disappears after the first couple uses (what’s known as getting your “VR legs”), but for first time users this can be an issue. While there a number of techniques developers can use to reduce the likelihood for nausea, the safest bet is to keep the experiences relatively short. Most are under 10 minutes.
  5. Gives a Take-away: The best experiences take a page from theme parks by giving the user something to take with them to remember what they just went through. Marriot did this exceptionally well: visitors were given a side-by-side video showing the virtual world they were seeing on the right side and a video capturing the user’s reactions in the real world. Videos showing the user jump around in the seat and react to the virtual world can be fun to watch and beg to be shared with friends and family.

What Makes a Good Post-CR Marketing Experience?

After a consumer version is released, a shift will take place within the VR marketing world. It’s unlikely many users will have rumbleseats or tilting floors at their own house, so 4-D stimulation won’t work. At the same time, brands can assume the users will be familiar with virtual reality (they would, in this scenario, own a headset at home), which means users will be more comfortable doing more complex things. A good post-CR marketing experience should:

  1. Require Active Participation: Whether it’s controlling a character in the virtual world or creating choose-your-own adventure stories, interactive experiences will be much more effective than passive experiences. In a post-CR world, it’s safe to assume that users will be comfortable enough in virtual reality to interact with the marketing experience your brand has created.
  2. Tell a Story: In order to compete with non-sponsored VR content, brands will need to create compelling stories for users to go through. After all, the alternative to brand-sponsored experiences will be full-fledged video games, 360 degree movies, and the virtual web. Whether it’s a story of adventure, mystery, or romance, VR marketing experiences in the future will need to capture the user’s imagination in order to be effective.
  3. Have Replay Value: Developing a VR experience can consume a large amount of resources, so to get the most bang for your buck, your VR marketing campaign should have replay value. The easiest way to do this is by creating a game relevant to your brand (e.g. a short racing game over cobblestone roads, created by Michelin), although brands could also develop social experiences (e.g. a virtual coffee-shop to meet friends in, created by Starbucks) or even training tutorials (e.g. a demo teaching users how to change their oil, sponsored by Penzoil) which appreciate in value with multiple viewings.

Case Study #2: HBO

To promote the show Game of Thrones, HBO created a virtual reality experience where users went up to the top of the 700-foot ice Wall (a major setting in the show). Using 4D elements like a shaking elevator-like structure and strong fans, users were completely transported to the virtual world of Westoros and were made to feel like they had actually entered the fictional universe. This type of engagement would be impossible with anything except virtual reality. The exhibit not only garnered press and internet interest, but helped HBO to become the talk of SXSW 2014, a conference of influencers in the worlds of tech and entertainment.

Ideas for Virtual Reality Marketing Campaigns

Interactive Stories

The most obvious use of virtual reality is the creation of interactive stories, where users are able to work their way through a narrative which highlights particular aspects and/or products of a brand. For example, imagine Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow” translated into virtual reality, where the user is put into the first-person perspective of the main character. These types of beautiful stories demand to be shared and allow consumers to connect emotionally with a brand.

Training Tutorials

With virtual reality, brands will be able to give every customer a “human” walkthrough of how to best use their product. For example, Penzoil could create a VR tutorial showing how to change one’s oil, complete with a life sized car and an animated guide. The guide could, in exacting real-to-life detail, walk the user through the oil change process step-by-step. The experience could then run the user should a short mini-game to test their understanding. The spatial understanding gained from seeing someone use the product in a realistic space will have a greater impact and be more memorable than any traditional 2D video tutorial.


Games are a great way to get a customers actively engaged with a product or brand, and even to make them feel as though they are actually using a product. For example, Aston Martin, in conjunction with the makers of James Bond, could create a racing game which allows you to race any historic model of Aston Martin, complete with weapons and gadgetry

Cinematic Experiences

Non-interactive cinematic experiences are likely to be the easiest VR campaigns brands can create. Already we are seeing 360 degree cameras (like Samsung’s Project Beyond), and as they become cheaper and easier to use, cinematic experiences will become the default method of VR marketing. For example, Red Bull could record beautiful 360 degree immersive films of snowboarders doing down famous mountains. By putting a 360 degree camera in the hands of a snowboarder going off giant jumps, Red Bull could deliver a first person perspective of what snowboard Big Air feels like. The level of immersion could even make the consumer themselves feel like they were snowboarding, turning the cinematic experience into a teleporter of sorts.

Taking the Next Steps

Smart marketers will flock to virtual reality and use it to engage their audiences in previously impossible ways. The memorability of experiences, the positive brand associations, and the cost-per-experience are simply too attractive for marketers to pass up.

Once you’re convinced of the potential of VR, where do you go next? VR experiences, pre-consumer-release, will cost at least $15,000 to develop and operate, so determining your budget is the first step. Post-consumer-release experiences will be cheaper, but will still cost 5 figures on the lower end.

The next step is to gather your team and identify who your experience is catering towards and what your experience will impress upon the user. Brainstorm possible experiences, but remember that the creative agency you hire to create the experience will have valuable ideas to add as well. For example, Chanel might want to create an experience for fashion-bloggers that makes them feel like insiders. They might create a fashion-show experience that makes users feel like they’re sitting in the front row of a private showing of next season’s clothes.

Third, develop internal support by explaining the benefits of VR marketing to stakeholders. If they are having difficulty understand the concept, reference the benefits of experiential marketing generally (here are two great resources about experiential marketing) before talking about the novelty and relative affordability of VR marketing.

Finally, select a creative agency to work with. Since virtual reality is still so new, there are not many agencies who specialize it it specifically, so don’t be surprised if you have difficulty finding a VR-only firm. The agency you select should bring along with it 3D artists, visual effects talent, and programmers with experience working in gaming engines such as Unity or Unreal Engine 4. Work with your agency to develop a compelling experience and before you know it, you’ll have a campaign that will have both your customers and your peers talking.

What do you think? Will virtual reality be a powerful medium for marketers, or not? What makes a great VR marketing experience? What kinds of VR marketing campaigns would you like to see in the future? 

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