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April 27, 2018

The triumphs and pitfalls of VR experiences by brands

Written by Investis Digital

Last year we published Futurology, a report that looks at the various technologies shaping our digital communications world. One of the fundamental shifts was the fragmentation of devices we use to access digital content and services. No longer restricted to PCs, smartphones and tablets, we can now access the digital world by talking to a speaker, donning a VR headset, AR glasses (and now headphones) or simply tapping the contraption on our wrist.

Indeed, over the last 6 months since we published the report I’ve spent many hours shouting into my Apple watch and even longer shouting at my Google Home.  I am convinced it has strong sport biases toward football – it helpfully explained the off-side rule but just you try asking it about cricket!

And what about those VR headsets?  

eMarketer estimates that by the end of 2019, AR users will top 54.4 million which is nearly one in five internet users. Meanwhile, market researcher IDC expects total spending on AR/VR products and services to soar to nearly $215 billion in 2021. Despite these astonishing predictions, 2017 was yet another year in which VR and AR didn’t go mainstream despite the (short lived) success of Pokémon Go.

So while some of these technologies fail to live up to the hype, a number of brands have successfully used them to engage audiences. I’ve rounded up a selection of VR experiences by brands to highlight some of the triumphs—and some of the pitfalls.

Pan Right for Loki 

Ask me who Loki is and I’ll start with the Marvel comic character, and then if I’m feeling intellectual the Norse God. I would not say, “Loki, sure, he’s a dog, an influencer and a fan of Mercedes Benz.” In this context, Loki the WolfDog and his owner Kelly Lund are featured in two films for the Mercedes GLS. They share the same script, but one film is a traditional 2D format, while the second is shot as a 360-degree VR experience, providing a rare opportunity for us to assess the two formats side by side. 


So here’s the question: does the addition of 360 degrees add to this film’s experience? For me, it’s a no. The cinematography and visual storytelling of the traditional format is far more captivating than the novelty of the second video. In common with many “surround sound” experiences is the lack of being able to look in all directions. At one point, subtitles are required to direct the viewer to ‘pan right to see Loki’ as he runs alongside the car.

Speaking of car ads, the one below is one of my recent favorites. It appeared on Ebay selling not just a car, but a lifestyle –if you bought this 1996 Honda Accord.   

In less than a week, it had over 5 million views on YouTube, with bids reaching $150,000. (The bids were so high that Ebay pulled the car from auction, convinced it must be a scam.) Equally as brilliant was the super-fast response from car buying service Carmax, who created their own ad offering to buy the car with its contents as featured. Including the cat. 

For me the takeaway is clear. Story comes before technology. And this is what we’ve been telling clients for years. For more on the importance of crafting the right story for your audience, see our Director of Creative Content, Lucy Hartley’s article “Want to create connections? We’ve got the power…and it’s visual!” 

Eat Mor Chikin

No, I haven’t resorted to text speak – you won’t find any LOL’s here – ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ is a long-running ad campaign for US chicken chain Chick-fil-A. For those unfamiliar with the brand, they’ve been using cows holding poorly spelled signs encouraging consumers to eat more chicken – presumably in the interests of self-preservation.

In the past they’ve used a host of novel approaches to bring the campaign to life, including 3D billboards and protesting cows, and I think they’ve found a great way of bringing the essence of the campaign to digital.

Eat Mor Chikin

Rather than being put off by the now established VR memes of cars driving around tracks, freefalling, swimming, etc., the ads celebrate them. The ‘cowz’ discover stock VR footage and hack together their very own VR experience. Designed to look home-made, the production has some suitably professional touches, such as the great cow swim cycle and the ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ message daubed across multiple hot air balloons prompting the audience to look around without the need for subtitles or other intrusive prompts.

It’s silly, it’s irreverent and that’s what makes it a wonderful extension of this long-running campaign.

Experience CowzVR for yourself here. 

So there we have two VR experiences – one that I think works well, and one that for me is a fail of format over craft.  

The power of immersion

Of course, successful VR experiences don’t have to be tongue in cheek – the New York Times regularly produces engaging journalistic pieces in 360, accessed through their dedicated app NYTVR and recently debuted an AR experience celebrating the legendary costumes of David Bowie.  Even if you don’t try it in AR, just watching the  animated banner on your laptop is truly mesmerizing.

The charity sector was an early adopter of VR and its ability to put the audience in the shoes of others.

The Royal British Legion used 360 video to bring home the horror of the First World War for the 100th anniversary of the  Battle of Passchendaele.  No less tragic, the effect of barrel bombs in Syria is told by Amnesty International in their immersive documentary ‘Fear of the Sky’. 

Both use a mixed media approach, combining photography, film and interviews, with the Amnesty team providing cameras and training to activists on the ground so they could capture the impact first-hand.

These are great examples of immersion, but they remain essentially ‘lean-back’ passive experiences. So what can brands do to leverage the power of gamification or co-creation to create 360 active experiences?

Active and immersive

A simple but no less effective example of an active VR experience was created for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Last Call 360, viewers choose the virtual bar of their choice and then spend the evening “hanging” with friends, playing trivia, games, and enjoying as many virtual drinks as they want along the way. The more drinks ordered the more their virtual world becomes distorted to hammer home the effects of alcohol – and hopefully the stupidity of drink driving

The hiking boot brand Merrell took the concept of an active VR experience to a whole new level with their “trailscape” experience. To promote the launch of their new hiking shoe, they created a 4D experience combining a virtual visual world viewed through Oculus Rift with a physical environment consisting of a rope bridge and rock face.

The sign-off

VR may not yet be living up to its hype — nor gone mainstream — but used in the right way it can take audience engagement to a whole new level. The old rules for creating great content remain: clarity of purpose, relevancy, and creative craft and story are all required to ensure your VR experience is memorable, and not food for the cowz.  

If you’re interested in creating a VR experience as part of your digital communications, get in touch!

Simon Gittings is the Creative Director at Investis. He’s also a Google Home and Alexa owner and a reluctant public speaker on all things digital comms. Still, get in touch.

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