Virtual Reality Will Change Every Brand Marketers View of Consumer Connectivity, Social Media and Retail Selling – and Every Consumer’s View of Brands

Oculus Connect 2 (OC2) kicks off at the Loewe’s Hotel in San Francisco this week with digital, media and brand glitterati in attendance at this potentially historic event for the digital, marketing and communications industries. One day in the future OC2 may well be reflected upon as the digital equivalent to the first Olympics for the worlds most accomplished developers in the newly revitalised digital arena of Virtual Reality.

“As users become ever more comfortable with their VR journeys these times ‘away’ will increase. The key for brands is to be thinking early about how to be part of these journeys, how to add value to human lives by creating unique environments rich in satisfaction for the user and that never, ever, feel like something shoehorned in from another media.”

Just as with their counterpart competitors at the physical Olympics, the cerebral athletes of VR are coming from all over the globe with countries including England, USA, Japan, Brazil, France, Sweden, Germany, Israel, Canada, Dubai, Australia, New Zealand and many others being represented by their best Virtual Reality sprinters and distance runners.

These futurists are gathering to showcase their work and discuss more than just a glimpse of the future of personal immersive experiences, immersive entertainment and gaming applications for Virtual Reality. Thanks in no small part to hardware OEMs (new and established) getting their VR hardware offerings together, the 30-plus years of yearning and dreaming about Virtual Reality is at an end.

VR’s time has come. And so has your ability to be anywhere. With anyone you want.

But what has all of this got to do with the future of consumerism, brand journeys and product buying experiences? As with most things to see the future clearly you need only look to the past.

You can understand, possibly even forgive such a question from traditional brand marketers – but only if you blindly value the supposedly “safe guaranteed ROI” options: the proven marketing roads and advertising channels, that some speak of so comfortably. I guess it also helps a bit if you are one of the head-in-the-sand luddites or a fully paid up member of the keep-it-below-the-parapet brigade.

By way of a handy example I read recently, in a leading marketing publication in Asia, the self-penned words of no less than the worldwide creative director of a highly respected agency, whose founder vied for position with the great Bill Bernbach in writing the original books on using new media – Television it was at the time – to communicate brands and sell $millions worth of their clients’ products while simultaneously helping to create the New Age of Consumerism. Every professional marketer I know nods knowingly when he or she hears the iconic words: “Have you ever wondered what the man who drives the snowplow drives to get to work?” VW may not be flavour of the day today but their advertising heritage is outstanding. This thought leader actually described VR to his clients and marketing peers as a technology that would disappear up its own backside – exactly because it was trying to replicate reality! What an astonishingly poor grasp of the near future and the impact of VR on human life. There are probably two great fathers of advertising turning over in their respective graves as you read – and quite rightly too!

Inevitably with anything disruptive the conversation turns to metrics and attempts are made to pigeonhole VR into something already existing so that satisfactory comparisons might be drawn, sometimes to justify a do-nothing “watching brief”. Traditional campaign costs, reach, channels, penetration, cost of capture, conversion rates, generating brand loyalty, social media sharing – it’s all on the table.

“With VR you can create anything anywhere – a paradigm shift in all sorts of negotiations, for example the question of what is a shop and why limit my brand display to the Range dictated by the store owner…?”

The imminent advent of VR on a grand scale is a bit of a PFB moment (pre-Facebook), if you’d known back then what you know now, what would you have done differently for your brand to be the first, the fastest, and the best to connect with FB consumers?

What many of those marketers weaned on lumping communications strategies together aimed at ‘demographic groups’ did not see coming was the emergence of the Individual as the new King and Queen of everything to do with the survival of your brand. The new challenge has become how to build a genuine, authentic and caring one-to-one relationship with every single one of your customers. How indeed?

Step in top players from the games industry to stand alongside top marketers.

The greatest game experiences are designed and built by Imagineers with a deep psychological understanding of each individual player. These Imagineers understand that deep engagement comes from building a “Relationship of Experiences” over time that without discussion becomes a two-way communication leading to exceptional loyalty. The engagement times in gaming defy comparison with TV advertising; print advertising; and even the new kid on the marketing block: Programmatic Media buying. And great VR experiences are already generating unprecedented individual dwell time – with the brand environment and activities being quite literally on the front of your customers’ eyeballs.

As users become ever more comfortable with their VR journeys these times ‘away’ will increase. The key for brands is to be thinking early about how to be part of these journeys, how to add value to human lives by creating unique environments rich in satisfaction for the user and that never, ever, feel like something shoehorned in from another media.

Ah, (I hear some of you thinking), but no one has a VR headset, where’s the audience going to come from and how quickly will it grow? Answer: the world’s original disrupters are all doing it again – and helping the world’s new VR Imagineers with a huge (largely US investor driven) financial leg-up to get there faster. The bets are big – and not always immediately understood by traditional City Bankers and Analysts – check out the original Facebook-Oculus-Wall Street threads to remind yourself (and to see what has happened to FB’s share price since) – but the rewards are potentially much bigger.

If you and your brand are not already exploring your VR strategy now would be a very good time to start. The big names and numbers involved in opening this new dawn are impressive: Google Cardboard at one end of the ‘hardware’ spectrum will guarantee significant market penetration – and not just from early adopters. At the other end of the scale there are high-end and very expensive PC experiences that some people feel kind of defeat the point. After all, where is the virtual freedom in being tethered by cables to your computer? Sitting in the centre ground you have big players like Oculus technology partner Samsung with its superb Gear VR. In the console sector Sony are moving rapidly towards launch with their constantly improving and equally superb Project Morpheus powered by the PS4 while rivals at Microsoft are doing the same with the futuristically named HoloLens for Xbox One. Having acquired Oculus for $2billion in April 2014, Facebook will not be backwards in coming forwards to bring its 1.49billion Facebook users into the new world of VR – as the evolution of communications and sharing platforms. Like me, Mark Zuckerberg and his team saw VR for what I saw VR – not as a simple hardware extension to gaming experiences but as the next generation of personal and multiple-user immersive communications media for personal – and for business use.

“VR is about being there without travelling, how valuable is that?”

The real commercial excitement is the impact VR will have on the retail, personal and corporate communications sectors. Use cases are being opened every day including retail, food, social, business, production, manufacturing, medical, entertainment, learning, design, architecture, travel and inevitably, sex. With VR you can create anything anywhere – a paradigm shift in all sorts of negotiations, for example the question of what is a shop and why limit my brand display to the Range dictated by the store owner…?

Imagine Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Pinterest, Vimeo, YouTube and your favourite game or real world environment all rolled into one – and then imagine the ability to “Be” in the experience with other people, perhaps friends or perhaps your brand’s sales person leading your next prospect through a demonstration and closing the deal with avatars that look and sound like you and them.

VR is an “iPhone moment” for consumers. You remember how you loved your BlackBerry or Nokia 9110? You didn’t know how badly you needed that first smartphone, until you started to use it. And suddenly there were smart devices everywhere. History repeats.

We are going to be hearing a lot about “Presence”. Presence is one of the earliest clearly defined words in the fluid state of vernacular development as the digital industry and brand marketers struggle to describe to themselves and to consumers exactly what VR does – and why it is the most important digital development ever. Presence is the ability for the user to be believably transported by what the developer or content concept provider has created into another place, time and space experience.

Learning the common language of VR is important and another term to get your head around is “Spherical Media” meaning a world or immediate environment digitally captured by new 360 by 360 degree camera rigs, or digitally created in studios so that the user feels themselves to be at a point or points inside and part of a total surround-sound-and-vision-existence. Light-Field technology even allows us to use plenoptics to ‘look behind’ objects in 3D in VR environments we can create in a way only previously captured in very expensive movies such as the Matrix.

A handful of the worlds developers are nailing some of these exciting qualities to create mind-blowing engagement experiences and some have gone beyond the tethered hardware environment to deliver Real Time Live VR Experiences to users as individuals, or in groups, anywhere there is a mobile connection, and no matter which country each of the users happens to be in at the time they can share their time together within VR. 

This year’s VR Olympics Oculus Connect will feature keynotes from Palmer Lucky (Oculus Rift VR Inventor), Brendan Iribe (CEO of Oculus VR), Michael Abrash (Chief Scientist at Oculus), and John Carmack (Oculus Chief Technology Officer and co-Founder of Id Software).

See you, I’m just off to a VR Board Meeting aboard my virtual private jet…

Yours in Virtual Reality.