SXSW has turned into the Superbowl of “brand experiences.” This year, virtual reality was the main technology focus. McDonalds even created a virtual reality experience where attendees could paint the inside of a giant Happy Meal box.
There is obviously tremendous promise in virtual reality, and some are calling 2016 a breakthrough year in virtual reality for marketing.
But as with any new technology, it’s not the technology itself that ultimately matters for marketers; it’s what you do with it. The novelty of the technology will eventually wear off.
I like this perspective from Jason Kingley, co-founder of games developer Rebellion:
“Brands have to fight the temptation to view VR as a shiny new plaything, since creating VR content for the sake of it will not be tolerated by users. Given that these headsets transport users to strange new worlds, a ‘multi-touchpoint, 360-degree, UX-centric customer journey’ isn’t what users are after. Brands need to ask themselves what users require and expect and mustn’t get in the way of their experience.”
In other words, brands have to resist thinking of virtual reality as just a giant 3-D ad experience. Marketers should remember the painful lesson with “ad blockers” — if marketers interrupt consumers too much with a self-serving brand experience, consumers will eventually find a way to get around them. There’s no such thing as a captive audience.
Virtual reality introduces a rich opportunity for creative exploration and storytelling. The potential is for brands to create a more immersive experience than ever possible before. But they have to be experiences worth experiencing.
I found an interesting rant from a critic about marketers and virtual reality, “McDonald’s and the gold rush to fill virtual reality with ads”. It’s worth reading for a sense of the push-back that marketers will surely see when they enter virtual reality. He writes,
“McDonald’s shows us the capitalist dystopian side of VR, where the only limit is how many logos your eyes can take in at once … with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive coming out this spring, this type of marketing will only accelerate. If there’s a benefit of campaigns like McDonald’s virtual Happy Meal, it’s that they serve to temper our expectations around VR. Having access to reality-shaping technology has infinite possibilities. But marketers see the possibilities too, and this time when they blast our retinas with immersive new ad formats, the messages will be harder to escape than ever.”
Whether in virtual reality or in real life, the takeaway for brand experience is ultimately the same. If you want consumers to engage with your brand, your brand has to be engaging.
Here’s a related cartoon I drew last year after SXSW.