In-store and out of store, brands are giving VR a whirl FEATURE
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Marketers are dipping their toes in VR, testing out how to use the technology to give their messages an extra punch.

Located in Venice, Calif., TOMS' flagship store is a cozy shop and café, where you can buy the company's footwear and eyeglasses or sit in an open-air back patio and sip the brand's fresh-roasted coffee.

But while there's also lots of messaging all around the place about the company's mission—buy one product and you pay for another pair for someone in need—perhaps the most gripping experience is a "virtual reality chair" that anyone can try out. Put on a headset and you're transported to a village in Peru, where volunteers hand out shoes to a passel of beaming children. The immersive technology, introduced in the store about a year ago, allows you to understand in immediate way just how important these "giving trips' are to the recipients of TOMS largesse.

For marketers, VR has a mouth-watering potential –a tactic for creating an immersive and highly engaging message. In fact, TOMS is one of many brands dipping their toes in VR, testing out how to use it to give their marketing an extra punch and trying it out in everything from in-store promotion to advertising.

Customers have a visceral emotional reaction to VR experiences--and then act on it"Customers have a visceral emotional reaction to VR experiences--and then act on it," says Brian Roth, vice president of sales at Immersv, a VR platform. "And that's what every brand is looking for." Plus, for companies trying to be on the cutting edge, the technology provides a badge of cool—and makes promotions fun.

Certainly, the more consumers feel like they're experiencing something for real, the greater the potential there is for high engagement. For example, according to Roth, VR video promotions have higher completion rates than standard videos. And the click-through rate is 15%-20% or more compared to .2% for conventional videos seen on a desktop, he says.

In-store promotion

One way marketers are using VR is as part of in-store promotions and experiences. Customers can, say, check out a remodeled bedroom in VR, while they're just a few feet away from the products they would need to buy. Take Lowe's. About a year ago, the retailer introduced an app that uses the technology to help consumers visualize home improvements. In "Holorooms", customers can put on Oculus Rift headsets and choose everything from lighting and paint color to fixtures, then arrange them in a room with real-life dimensions. If they don't like what they see, they can substitute, say, a different wallpaper and decide whether that suits them better. Lowe's shoppers can also view their home improvement projects at home, with a Google Cardboard viewing device. 

See also: The virtual reality revolution

On the other hand, for a company like TOMS, VR experiences serve a different purpose. The one-for-one mission is both the firm's raison d'etre, as well as a crucial element in its marketing. Thus, its VR experience isn't about providing a virtual try-before-you-buy opportunity. Instead, the object is to make the mission feel real and allow shoppers to feel a direct connection to the communities their purchases help.

Advertising

At the same time, marketers are experimenting with applying VR to advertising. In some cases, that involves using a subtle tack. Earlier this year, for example, GE debuted a documentary miniseries about innovation that uses VR technology. Called The Possible, the five films allow viewers to experience cutting-edge technology such as flying on a hover board or taking a walk with a robot. In addition, each film is followed by a brief 360 degree video underscoring the message that GE has an unconventional approach. For example, in Fighting Fire with Fire, a nod to the TV show MythBusters, scientists show how they can put out fire by using high- frequency, intense bursts of sound.

Similarly, in 2016, Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) engaged Kelly Lund, a social media star who shares various outdoor adventures with his Wolfdog, Loki, on Instagram, YouTube and other places. They created, among other things, a two-minute 360 degree VR video documenting a trip to the very snowy and pristine Colorado mountains. To get there, dog and owner drive in a Mercedes 2017 GLS sport utility vehicle. Then they have fun snowboarding and frolicking in the snow. "Users feel like they are part of the action," says Mark Aikman, general manager, marketing services.

See also: Finding enlightenment through VR

Results have been positive, especially with Millennials, the target audience, according to Aikman. In 2016 alone, the videos earned more than 4 million views across platforms and nearly 80,000 social media engagements. Plus, MBUSA's Instagram followers grew by 57,000. There's also been an increase in the number of 18 to 34-year-olds visiting MBUSA's site.

When it comes to using VR as an advertising vehicle, one barrier to entry for some brands is the cost of creating 360 degree videos. That's where startups like Immersv come in.  Launched in 2015, the company has a platform for producing VR content, aimed largely at brands and agencies. Says Roth, "This is a stepping stone for someone to try it out."

 

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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.