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Virtual Reality, Brand Immersion, And The Power Of Making Memories

Vrse.works president and cofounder Patrick Milling-Smith outlines the challenge and opportunities facing brands in virtual reality.

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A few years back the Journal of Consumer Research published a study titled "The Effect of Mere Touch on Perceived Ownership" that found consumers who touch products in the aisles will not only pay more money for them than those who keep their hands off the merchandise, but that startlingly this held true even for those who were asked only to imagine they had touched the product.

Forward-thinking organizations have already found ways to use virtual reality’s ability to leverage the power of this "illusionary immersion" to drive change. In 2015, the United Nations commissioned a series of films from us at Vrse.works to highlight the plight of Syrian refugees and Liberian Ebola victims, which helped raise more than $4 billion in direct support and funding. One of the films, Clouds Over Sidra, inspired one in six members of the public who viewed it to donate money, twice the average for the UN and UNICEF. The average response rate to direct marketing is often less than 1%, whereas our VR experiences with the softest of calls to action have garnered more than 15%. Making people feel often makes them act. We know this, but it seems to be something that needs to be spelled out when introducing new media that can change the game.

For consumer brands, the applications of virtual reality may be even more powerful. Over the past decade, brand managers have had to cope with emerging technology acting as the catalyst to an inexorable and ever-growing battle for audience attention. The content channel and platform explosion, and the rise of ad-blocking software, which has added to age-old techniques such as leaving the room during a TV commercial or flicking past a print ad, have all combined to make the biggest barrier to effective brand communication today simply to be seen in the first place.

But as technology has made the industry’s task harder, it has also both forced and enabled us to find new ways of communicating with consumers. We’re starting to see the value of moving away from an outdated model that forces an interruptive message on our audience to be "conveyed" toward a more participatory and shareable experience to be "felt." A great time for those of us who believe strongly in creativity and originality.

Whether it’s Guinness inviting us to feel the anticipation of a well-deserved pint, Under Armour the excitement of competition, or Audi the thrill of revving the throttle on a tightly executed gear shift, marketing briefs that seek to map and provoke empathy are much closer to how agencies are starting to think about brand shortcuts to audience attention, to break through the communications clutter.

A brand experience has more impact than brand communication alone. If your brand is a story, then traditional advertising provides the basic structure of the narrative, but experiences are the high points of dramatic action. Virtual reality offers a uniquely immersive and scalable platform to deliver visceral brand experiences that will augment the rest of the marketing spend.

In 2008, marketing professors at Indiana University found that more original brand communications reduced consumers’ resistance to persuasion. "This is an important finding", they said, "because any strategy that can reduce resistance to persuasion and make consumers more open-minded can have a significant impact on brand purchase intention."

Our psychological reaction to stimulus is similar to our physical reaction to viruses. Our immune system has a tricky time beating a foreign body on first exposure, but when it returns we have learned how to neuter its impact and it causes no harm. We have little trouble dealing with an unoriginal virus. Likewise an unoriginal stimulus—say, for example, a familiar advertising message conveyed through a familiar medium like a magazine page or television screen—is more likely to suffer defeat at the hands of our "cognitive immune system." That term was coined by James Hurman in his 2011 book, The Case for Creativity, which describes the way our brain becomes primed to ignore marketing by default as it tries to cope with the thousands of brand messages trying to breach its walls every day. Like any medium, its power is only as good (or bad) as the idea within it. However, in virtual reality, that idea will have greater power to break through and persuade.

In a rather presumptuously titled study "How Advertising Really Works" from his best-selling 2010 book, How Brands Grow, professor Byron Sharp says, "The dominant way that advertising works is by refreshing and building memory structures. These structures improve the chance of a brand being recalled and/or noticed in buying situations; this in turn increases the chance of a brand being bought." He concludes, "To influence behavior, advertising must work with people’s memories."

Enter the memory-creating medium of virtual reality. Sharp's finding sits at the heart of virtual reality’s power to supercharge existing marketing investment. While building awareness of brand attributes will long remain a critical task of traditional advertising, VR offers your audience the unique opportunity to feel the benefits of those attributes for themselves. By breaking the fourth wall and commanding 100% attention—you can’t second screen a VR experience—it has the power to create a shortcut to empathy in ways that can foster deep affinity and brand recall.

Footwear brand Toms, for example, donates a free pair of shoes to a low-income country for every purchase made in more affluent ones. We were asked to create a film that allowed customers to experience firsthand the positive effect these donations are making around the world, reaffirming their choice of brand and rewarding them with the unique understanding that comes from making the virtual journey to someone else’s world. Your purchase has a consequence.

Key to virtual reality’s power is its status as the only genuine audience-first marketing medium. In an age where we are often physically present in one space yet emotionally engaged in another—documenting life rather than truly experiencing it—VR delivers unparalleled presence in the moment, allowing us to hack the dynamics of audience attention.

But of course as the saying goes, with such power comes great responsibility. This is a new platform that people consciously choose not just to view but inhabit and participate in. Brands should be looking to create experiences that are truly entertaining, have a purpose, and crucially, are native to the medium. Replicating a 30-second commercial in VR will quite rightly be rejected by consumers, aggressively I would imagine. This is an opportunity to finally create effective branded content and experiences. Experiences that have a real reason to be and a real place to live, breathe, and evolve. Those that lead the way early will be disproportionately rewarded as virtual reality goes mainstream.

With Samsung, Sony Playstation, Oculus Rift, and Vive (a collaboration between phone and gaming giants HTC and Valve) already shipping hardware, Goldman Sachs predicts millions of wired headsets in people’s homes by the end of 2016. Any decent brand experience can expect to spend a long time in all those "greatest experiences for your VR headset" lists that will soon be plastering the Internet.

Underpinning the power of VR lies a single truth: what will be critically important for brands in the coming era is that they deliver amazing experiences. If you want to persuade your audience, give them a new experience, make them feel it in their boots, in their very bones—and it will embed a powerful memory, the visceral nature of which time will find hard to erode.


Patrick Milling-Smith is the president and cofounder of VR studio Vrse.works. He's also the cofounder of the award-winning production company Smuggler and produced the Broadway adaptation of the Oscar-winning musical Once, which won eight Tony Awards. Check out Vrse.works VR films by downloading the Vrse app in iTunes, Google Play, and the Oculus Gear VR store.

Related: Will Virtual Reality Go Mainstream?

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