Temptations of Virtual Reality Marketing and How to Resist Them

Written by: Nathanael Muscat

We are on the verge of something big, and marketers know it. Virtual Reality is coming of age and brands are bracing themselves for the transformations the technology will bring in the way we live, communicate and think.

Deloitte (2016) predicts that 2016 will be a defining year for Virtual Reality (VR), expecting consumer spending in this area to reach one billion dollars in a single year for the first time. For their part, tech companies are raising the stakes, with a host of new products launching over the coming months (Hern, 2015).

VR is set to be more immersive, more expansive than it has been so far. The main entries this year, namely the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony PlayStation VR, differ from the current popular options by offering dedicated technology. Incumbents such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR are merely ‘viewers’ (Polygon, 2016), extensions that turn a smartphone into the closest thing to Virtual Reality.

In the US, 95% of social influencers keep abreast of developments in VR and the absolute majority of those who have had a try recommend it to their friends (Greenlight VR, 2016). In addition, content studios are ramping up their VR-oriented material, with production houses such as The Uprising Creative going as far as setting up a studio devoted entirely to Virtual Reality works (Virtual Reality Reviewer, 2015). Indeed, 30% of the expenditure forecasted by Deloitte (2016) represents content – mostly gaming and marketing material.

Virtual Reality looms imposingly on the horizon, and with marketing practice already gravitating towards richer and more extensive content creation (Pophal, 2015), VR promises to be the last frontier for CMOs. A fifth of users say that branded VR experiences improve their impressions of the source companies, while only 1% say it negatively affects their opinions (Greenlight VR, 2016). With such a promising scenario, who can hold back from marketing the stuffing out of VR?

The Two Temptations

One lesson learned from Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type press, is that any medium that catches on is a game-changer. Professionals across all sectors, from filmmakers to surgeons, are probably dreaming up possibilities that the advent of VR may bring to their respective fields. Not to be outdone, the marketing department is also busy rethinking the prospects. (Heine, 2015).  

Marketers may impulsively be drawn to fill this new communication space with their adverts and logos. Being the latest thing, VR might seem an eloquent statement about the technological proficiency of the company. In doing so, however, companies are probably prompted more by tactical justifications than by strategic sense. With new toys in the hands of customers, marketers may easily fall into two major temptations:

  1. Flag-planting: pasting messages all over the newfound territory with adverts, jingles, competitions and all the whistles;
  2. Gold-rushing: getting their hands onto the new thing just because it is, well: new.

The hype surrounding the instrument itself may stir up a stampede of marketers flooding in with their magical 7Ps formula and annex VR to their list of web media accounts. Indeed, is Virtual Reality not an excellent evolution of “Place”, if not “Promotion” and, why not, “Physical Evidence”? Such an approach, however, leads only to the trap of minimizing the potential of Virtual Reality.


A Different Reality

The trouble with the two maneuvers described above stems from one common misunderstanding: VR as a blank slate that needs to be filled. This attitude completely overlooks the basic promise of Virtual Reality. Customers enter the virtual space as subjects, not objects, of reality – it is a world in which they bring their own thoughts, fantasies, fears and ambitions to the fore (Kozlov & Johansen, 2010).

Virtual Reality accentuates the first-person dimension, allowing users to play out their imagined worlds (Bergström et al., 2016). Unlike everyday-life experiences, where we are part of a whole, the VR ecosystem puts consumers at the centre of the stage (Koles & Nagy, 2012). It is a universe dedicated solely to the individual.

Eisenbeiss et al., (2012) trace the motivation to engage with virtual worlds to three elements: socializing, creativity and escape. While they may seem contrasting drivers, they are all connected at the root by the desire to establish a digital persona (Bergström et al., 2016). This impetus to explore the self and develop a unique character underpin the blossoming of VR and set it apart from other means of communication. 

Virtual Reality is indeed a new way of seeing things; however, it’s things that are internal to the users rather than external to them. The technology is, therefore, not a shinier billboard that makes customers more willing to stare at advertisements. Quite the contrary, its distinctive feature is to isolate people from their surroundings and immerse them in their own worlds. The retreat from ordinary circumstances uncovers deep-seated human needs that outgrow the physical world (Eisenbeiss et al., 2012).

A Different Marketing

Brand-centric prompts and activities are, in the VR world, a distraction. Promotions, company announcements, awareness campaigns in the traditional sense, seek to point the people’s attention towards the brand and its activity. The traditional push-pull communication dynamic between a brand and consumers risks fading into irrelevance at best, and becoming a cause for concern at worst (Bacile et al., 2013).

In VR, consumers are part of the marketing process, and not simply its target, they expect an experience that responds to their needs and wants in the particular moment (Wind, 2008). Bacile et al., (2013) warn that messages tightly controlled by the company are perceived as intrusive, and argue that communication in this age needs, instead, to be co-produced between the firm and its clients. A meaningful conversation is never completely brand-centred, even if it is about the brand.

The virtual space allows customers to set the conditions, rather than the company as traditionally the case (Koles & Nagy, 2012). The customer’s own perspective and ability to shape the message is key to communication that is worth its while. Co-production of communication is not only more relevant to customers, but also more beneficial to companies (Bacile et al., 2013), as users import their identities and preferences into it.

The suitability and utility of the message, nods at the other temptation: entering VR for the sake of its novelty. VR presence, too, needs to be justified by its relevance to the user’s experience. Hype is not enough a factor to affect consumption patterns: it needs a more comprehensive strategy (Swann, 2001). 

While classical marketing has unearthed a wealth of insight into customer engagement, grounded in need-based, rational consumption models, Koles and Nagy (2012) believe that virtual interaction demands a paradigm shift. Participation in the virtual space presupposes a high degree of emotional intelligence on the part of brands, as they are expected to add something to a consumer’s world (Koles & Nagy, 2012).

In this perspective, a marketer’s concern is how the brand can contribute to, and enrich, the customer’s self-experience. Moving the corporate presence into the virtual universe without taking any active role in the user’s world, is tantamount to idling about.

The risk of a narcissistic dive into VR is to alienate the customer and reduce the brand to irrelevance. Virtual Reality is user-centric, and as such, the marketer’s efforts should be spent in finding ways to support that internal voyage and make it more meaningful.


The Age of Consumer Power

Virtual Reality is not simply a result of technological advancement, but of changes in consumption patterns too. The information systems that make VR have been around for years, even if they lacked today’s sophisticated technologies (Robertson & Zelenko, 2014). As early as 1985 companies were working to make VR commercially viable (Newton, 2014) and 10 years later, Japanese brand Nintendo was first on the market with the ‘Virtual Boy’ (Hern, 2015) – a 3D gaming console.

After years of limping along, the market is now ready to embrace VR (Schnipper, 2014). The change in scenario is in part fuelled by technical advancements (Robertson & Zelenko, 2014) and big-corporation backing (Hern, 2015), however, it is also thanks to a shifting consumption mentality. The emergence of Web 2.0 turned the customer base from a passive crowd to an active community (Berthon et al., 2012); the marketplace now has leverage in its voice. 

In this context, brands increasingly place value on the relationship with customers; however, not many may be ready to give up the conductor’s baton altogether (Wind, 2008). VR is an essentially content-production medium (Labrecque et al., 2013) and brands that plan to hop on the train need to recognise the new rules of the game. Wind (2008) calls for a transition from “customer relationship management” to “customer managed relationships”, allowing consumers freedom to administer their interaction with brands and their offerings.

Technological developments shape the consumption landscape which, in turn, paves the way for further technological progress. According to Labrecque et al. (2013) digital capabilities have been shifting more power into the hands of consumers. The rise of Virtual Reality reflects the culmination of a sequence of developments in the way people understand their value as consumers. In this light, traditional marketing schemes cannot be extended to emerging media without considering first the transformation from brand-centric to customer-centric perspectives.


The Good News

Ceding power to consumers is not necessarily a grim scenario for companies (Christodoulides, 2009). On the contrary, it helps the brand become better acquainted with its consumer type (Berthon et al., 2012), enable a focused strategy and a fine-tuned positioning. Empowered clients look for a superior experience, one that fits more comfortably to their needs rather than those of the brand (Spenner & Freeman, 2012).

VR has a lot to offer to brand management in terms of user experience. Coyle & Thorson (2001) suggest that highly vivid content produces stronger and longer-lasting attitudes towards brands, and Virtual Reality is the pure application of interactive vividness – the delivery of rich and highly responsive content. Users are able to transfer their corporeality onto other virtual bodies, reproducing the same physical feelings and emotions (Bergström et al, 2016).

Research reveals that VR experiences do affect brand perception.  One study observes changes in attitudes towards automobile brands reflecting the participants’ assessment of the experience while virtually test-driving different car models (Dobrowolski et al., 2014). VR users participate in the virtual environment with the same personal dispositions as in the physical world (Kozlov & Johansen, 2010). 

Despite the potential of VR for brand management, it cannot go alone, and needs an integrated marketing architecture. Goel and Prokopec (2009) argue that flat worlds such as websites are better than immersive worlds at providing information and description. Their study shows that the strengths of VR lie in non-linear thought processes; examples of which, they propose, are trust and interpretation (Goel & Prokopec, 2009). Virtual Reality is not a medium above the rest but a compliment to an omnichannel strategy (Wind, 2008).

Real Virtuality

The search for individual authenticity extends from the physical to the digital sphere (Labrecque et al., 2013) and VR is an outstanding space for the exploration of that genuine persona. Virtual communities themselves are a way of nurturing and express the user’s autobiography (Labrecque et al., 2013)

Virtual Reality may be the most powerful storytelling medium yet; only, this time, the storytellers are the users themselves (Berthon et al., 2012). It is less up to the marketer to author the plot and design the structure, as is the case with company-centric media.

Bacile et al., (2013) envisage a co-production process that goes beyond the input-feedback pattern, where messages carry as much the identity of the consumer as of the company. In this narrative, the brand enters as a character, perhaps an archetype, but not as the author (Christodoulides, 2009). In the hands of the marketer, Virtual Reality is a tool to develop and enrich the story created by the consumer.










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