As luxury consumers increasingly seek meaningful purchases, it’s less about products they own than the story behind them.
With the help of virtual reality (VR) technology, Paris watchmaker Cartier, opened a 100-square-meter exhibition in Shanghai from November 22 to 25 that allowed consumers to immerse themselves in the narrative behind the company’s Santos watch collection; the watches cost up to about $57,800 (RMB 402,000).
Cartier created a VR experience that brought visitors to Paris in 1901 to follow the journey of aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. With the VR headset, they could almost feel the thrill of flying a plane through the Paris sky while enjoying the 3D views of Paris’ iconic landmarks: Les Invalides, the old Opera House Palais Garnier, the Seine River, and the Eiffel Tower.
This experience may seem unlikely coming from a watch company, but it tells the story of how their first wristwatch came to be. In the early 20th century, Dumont, a good friend of Cartier founder Louis Cartier, complained about having to check his pocket watch while flying. Cartier then created one of the first wristwatches in history for his friend, worn on historic flights. (In a recent uncommon celebrity campaign for Cartier, actor Jake Gyllenhaal repped the watch.)
“Augmented reality and virtual reality allow a new, immersive way to tell stories,” said Pierre Rainero, Head of Heritage and Design at Cartier. “With this heritage high-tech event, Cartier is pioneering, yet anchored in both modernity and history, transporting its audience back to Paris in the early 20th century.”
The strategy of pushing the watch collection makes sense financially: in the latest Richemont financial report, watch sales increased 7 percent year-on-year to €2.49 billion ($2.89 billion) in the six months ended September 30. “Watch sales grew strongly in Cartier’s stores, benefitting from the successful Panthère and relaunched Santos collections,” the group’s CEO Johann Rupert wrote.
Following the exhibition, visitors seem to be inspired as well, though the brand didn’t disclose how many visitors this exhibition attracted or sales it generated. One commented on Little Red Book: “I was moved by the origin story of the watch, even though I went for the gaming and entertainment value. But I learned that behind every great brand, there is an impressive story.”
On WeChat, Cartier posted three articles to promote the event, which in total garnered over 90,000 page views as of November 28. Its Weibo posts, however, lacked engagement. On Little Red Book, there were users shared 65 posts about their experience at the exhibition. One user expressed disappointment; she wrote: “It’s not as good as I expected, there aren’t a lot of wanghong (influencers) lining up to check in.” Though many praised the sophisticated technology and realistic aspects of the VR experience.
The difficulties of implementing VR in a campaign lays in the details. According to Cartier, it took them three months just to create the clouds. The entire AR and VR experience took the combined effort of an interdisciplinary team of storytellers, designers, developers and game engineers.
Beyond the most recent show, Cartier previously brought their art foundation exhibition into retail stores via VR last year. Consumers could walk into two Cartier stores in Shanghai to experience the exhibition.
VR has provided a level of engagement with luxury consumers on a scale that has not before been possible — it can help to reinforce brand stories to consumers. While luxury brands like Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton have a proven track record of educating consumers in museum-like exhibitions, the question remains: what is the return on investment for these events?
Perhaps the next time Chinese customers walk into a Cartier store for the Santos collection, they will look beyond the price tag and recognize that the watch is about a beautiful friendship more than anything else.