Stephanie Day with permission from AMD
Assassin's Creed, the movie version of the popular role-playing game that opens in the U.S. on Dec. 21, is being promoted with typical Hollywood bombast: trailers, posters, interviews with star Michael Fassbender.
Then there's the virtual reality twist. At select AMC theaters, moviegoers can don an Oculus Rift VR headset from Facebook and become a (passive) character in a scene. Without giving too much away, the experience involves taking part in a dramatic escape, including sword fights, alongside Fassbender's brooding Aguilar de Nerha.
Big brands and startups alike are beginning to experiment with VR as a marketing medium. Yes, it's still very expensive, and few consumers own the pricey headsets required to watch. But chief marketing officers, banking on estimates that hundreds of millions of people worldwide will be using the technology by decade's end, are willing to dip into money they've set aside to test new media platforms.
The experiments run the gamut. Vroom, the online marketplace for used cars, has been testing a virtual shopping experience at malls. Liquor-maker Diageo in November released an anti-drunk-driving PSA using a version of the technology. Hormel Foods has even dabbled with a virtual reality bacon game that gives players the option of winning coupons or buying products online.
"The brands that start to experiment in VR now will have the muscle memory to do so when it's big—and they'll have a competitive advantage,'' says Noah Mallin, who handles social media marketing at advertising agency MEC North America.
Producing a complex simulated world is expensive and beyond most CMOs' budgets. Many companies opt for ads shot with multiple cameras recording in 360 degrees—a method known as 360-film. Generally less costly, it's currently as close as you can get to virtual reality without breaking the bank. The producers of Assassin's Creed could afford to build a technically challenging, high-resolution experience in part because they teamed up with other companies, including chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices, which provided its graphics cards and expertise in exchange for associating its brand with a popular gaming franchise and VR technology.
Proponents say VR means ad makers can create more visceral and emotionally resonant commercials. James Knight, who helped create the Assassin's Creed experience as AMD's virtual production director, says letting viewers become characters makes them feel part of the story and hopefully will drum up more interest in the full movie.
The promotion is unlikely to sell many more tickets or drive sales for AMD. But Knight says it could help popularize VR as an entertainment platform and prompt some consumers to buy the still-pricey headsets and associated hardware; only about four million headsets will ship globally this year (excluding the $15 Google Cardboard), according to Superdata Research. Of the more than 20,000 people expected to watch the Assassin's Creed promotion, 99 percent will probably be trying VR for the first time, Knight says.
The technology's immersive nature—especially when the user dons a wrap-around headset—also means viewers aren't looking at anything else when a company is trying to sell them something. By contrast, people watching conventional TV commercials or seeing ads online are constantly bombarded with distractions—friends texting, news alerts, crying children and so on.
With its PSA, Diageo was looking for an emotionally raw experience that would leave a lasting impression on consumers tempted to drink and get behind the wheel. The purveyor of Johnnie Walker and other brands also hopes the ad will burnish its reputation as a socially responsible company.
In the 360-film, which can be watched online with a simple Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream or even Google Cardboard, viewers experience a crash from the point of view of a passenger riding in a car—the drunk driver's arms flailing, glass shards flying past and the vehicle flipping on its side. In a conventional ad, the viewer would be removed from the experience, says Dan Sanborn, Diageo's senior vice president of entertainment marketing.
"You can demonstrate the noise of the impact, the feeling of the impact and the visual devastation of the impact in VR, in 360, in a way you never could from a static image or from regular films," says Sanborn, who adds that the video generated 3 million views in less than a month. "You're essentially putting them into something that unless they were in an accident, they wouldn't otherwise be able to experience.'"
Diageo's main aim is to see whether the film changes people's behavior and learn what works in VR. Next year, the company plans to show the movie at marketing events for Johnnie Walker and other brands. Consumers checking it out in person will use a high-quality Oculus Rift headset and sit in a moving chair programmed to vibrate, lift, lower, and shake in sync with the action—simulating the motions a person would actually go through in a crash.
Vroom VR | Source: Vroom
Like many companies, Diageo doesn't expect the film and other such experiments to have a measurable impact on sales. But VR has already moved the needle for used-car seller Vroom, which since its founding three years ago has sought to persuade consumers to make one of their largest purchases on the web. Chief Marketing Officer Gaurav Misra wanted to use the curiosity surrounding VR to educate people about the company and familiarize them with the online car shopping experience.
Since August, Vroom has been testing a popup booth in Phoenix area malls. Shoppers don an HTC Vive headset and enter a virtual showroom where they can see 3-D models of Vroom inventory. Using hand controllers, they pick a vehicle they want to learn more about. They navigate around the car, examining the exterior details up close. They can even sit inside the vehicle and check out the dashboard, seats and rear leg room. A mini test drive is also part of the experience (though it's not currently interactive). Thousands of people have tried out the technology.
To Misra's surprise, many consumers took off the headsets and voiced interest in buying a car right then and there. In response, the company bulked up the staff working the booth and added iPads so customers could actually shop. He says the extra revenue generated has offset the costs of operating the popup. Vroom will probably open up more of popups in the future.
Vroom's experience provides an early peek at the potential of VR as a powerful marketing tool. But until the technology is widely available, most companies will continue to hedge their bets. In VR, there is no rule book, no clear set of strategies for what works and what doesn't and almost no off-the-shelf production software. There are few defined metrics for success; one of the few measures available is amount of time spent in the virtual experience. At the same time, these projects cost a lot and take a long time to come to fruition; the Diageo video took about a year to complete, for instance.
"When you're experimenting with something you're usually dipping your toe in the water," says Ian Schafer, CEO of creative agency Deep Focus. "This requires you to go up to your knee. It's not for the timid."