We’re leaving the age of products and advertising. For years, brands have relied on marketing to bring them closer to consumers. Advertising and repetition were the keys to memorability. Now people control how and when they engage with brands. If a brand hopes to connect with people, they need to create meaningful experiences.
According to a 2015 Harris study, 72% of millennials prioritise experience over ‘stuff’. People crave new ways of discovering themselves and a greater understanding of the world. They seek out brands that have real purpose and demonstrate ways that they’re contributing to real change.
72% of millennials prioritise experience over ‘stuff’
VR creates immersive experiences. Chris Milk, VR creator for Here Be Dragons and Within, says: "Virtual reality connects humans to other humans in a profound way I’ve never before seen in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perception of each other." A brand can garner this power and help people understand other people, cultures and problems.
As Milk describes, it is a true empathy engine that drives greater awareness of important issue and stories in a way that traditional media or advertising just can’t. His project with The New York Times' "The displaced", shared three emotional stories of refugee children from Ukraine, South Sudan and Syria. For the past few years, it has been one of the benchmarks for the potential of VR. It delivered more than a million Google Cardboard headsets to customers and drove awareness of a global crisis at scale in a way that VR never has before.
Other groundbreaking projects have included BeAnotherLab’s Gender Swap. In this experiment, two people wore cameras and Oculus Rifts to immerse themselves in an embodiment experience to aid the awareness of gender, identify, queer theory, intimacy and more. At Sundance this year, journalist Nonny de la Peña shared Out of Exile, a VR animated film that shares the story of a young gay man coming out to his homophobic family.
79% of consumers will seek additional VR experiences and 81% tell their friends about it
Empathy can drive real behavioural change and improvement. A partnership between UCLA and Microsoft showed how VR could boost retirement savings by taking subjects into the future to see how their lives could pan out if they didn't put enough into their pension funds.
We know VR can work. According to Touchstone Research, it has the potential to be incredibly shareable: 79% of consumers will seek additional VR experiences and 81% tell their friends about it. And it is more memorable and long-lasting when compared to the more transient experiences of advertising.
Brands like Jaguar, Adidas and Ikea have experimented with VR. But until a brand can create an immersive experience that truly connects their audience with issues that actually matter, we’ll continue to view its activities as VR for PR. It can be a powerful empathy engine if brands can find a way to create tools for real behaviour change. To do this requires an approach that leaves products and advertising out of the mix. That’s why a strategic approach and creative vision for VR is becoming increasingly mission critical for brands and why I think a digital expert could be the one to lead the charge.
I don’t believe unlocking the capabilities of VR to the masses is going to be done by a film director or god of advertising. Harnessing the power of the medium requires someone who might meld technology and utility together. I wouldn’t be surprised if the person to do it is a teenage digital native trying to break the tech to make an everyday function easier, or hacking it to drive a social movement that matters to them.
As for brands, it’s time to shut up about product and find ways to empathise with customers about complex needs and emotions. Leave your TVC and strapline at the door.