Why Virtual Reality is Auto Marketing's 'Sleeping Giant'

Brands Are Using Virtual Showrooms and Test Drives to Reach Younger Buyers

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Mitsubishi Motors 'Night Drive'
Mitsubishi Motors 'Night Drive'  Credit: Mitsubishi Motors

How big could virtual reality become for auto marketing? Here are some clues: Toyota agency Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles has a 35-person VR team that is developing virtual showrooms. Infiniti -- which began testing virtual reality last year -- is getting more aggressive, including striking a new ad deal with The New York Times that includes VR. And this week, Mitsubishi is debuting a program allowing potential buyers to test features on its new Mirage G4 using their smartphone, a laptop and an interactive video.

The initiatives come as automakers seek to lure tech-savvy millennials whose car-shopping habits are digitally-driven. Real-world test drives remain highly relevant -- Autotrader found that 88% of shoppers would not buy a car unless they took it for a test drive, according to its latest "Car Buyer of the Future" study, which surveyed 4,002 consumers. But auto marketers are using VR as a way to lure younger buyers into dealerships to take those test drives with online marketing that goes beyond static words and images and staid promotional videos.

"Virtual reality is the sleeping giant that could be another disrupter to significantly improve car shopping, the test drive and brand as well as dealer experiences," Joe Richards, director of research and market intelligence for Cox Automotive, said in an email. Cox, which owns car-shopping websites Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, recently began studying how automakers can effectively use VR for a forthcoming report.

Mitsubishi is using its interactive video to lure younger buyers to its 2017 Mirage G4, an inexpensive car that is a sibling to the Mirage hatchback, which skews older. The campaign, called "Night Drive," calls for people to use a smartphone, along with a desktop or laptop, to virtually test features on the G4 on a midnight racing track. At one point users are asked to tap a break button on their smartphone. That begins a demonstration of the brand's "hill start assist" feature, which in real life makes it easier to start the car off a steep uphill slope by preventing it from moving backwards. The agency on the campaign is 180LA. The video's soundtrack is by Los Angeles-based DJ Nosaj Thing.

"A lot of times it's hard to get people into the dealership to experience a test drive," said Francine Harsini, senior director of marketing at Mitsubishi Motors North America. "This is a new marketing launch for us. So this enables people to get familiar with the brand, but also with the car and then get into the dealership."

At the end of the experience, users get a highlight reel of their experience in the form of a GIF that can be shared on social media, where it will also run ads driving viewers to mirageG4NightDrive.com.

Infiniti got into VR last year at an event at the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The automaker allowed fans to sit in the passenger seat of a Q50 with Oculus Rift goggles. The VR experience created the illusion of being a passenger in the car as former Indiana Pacers star Jalen Rose drove around Indy. Of the fans trying it, 50% signed up for future communications from Infiniti, a rate that far exceeds the average for non-VR events, said Allyson Witherspoon, director-marketing communications and media for Infiniti USA.

That gave the brand confidence to keep investing in VR, especially at events where actual test drives are not feasible because of space constraints or other factors, she said. In late 2015, Infiniti put an exhibit at the Pebble Beach Automotive Week that allowed drivers to virtually sit behind the wheel of its Q60 concept car. The "Dream Road" program portrayed exhilarating drives such as along Italy's Stelvio Pass.

VR is also playing a role in Infiniti's sponsorship of a forthcoming video series by The New York Times called "The Fine Line -- Olympics: Rio de Janeiro 2016." As part of the ad buy, the Times created a VR film featuring training scenes of triathlete Rob Mohr, along with footage of Infiniti's Q60 coupe. The ad buy includes a nyt.com homepage takeover that will include the video. The Rio project was among six new video series the Times announced at the NewFronts earlier this year. The ad partnerships are handled the by T Brand Studio, the publisher's brand marketing unit.

Audi VR experience
Audi VR experience Credit: Audi AG

Automakers are also bringing virtual reality inside dealerships. For instance, Audi is rolling out VR systems at dealerships that allow customers to experience vehicles in various environments or to "virtually dive into specific parts of the vehicle and explore their technical design," according to Audi's website. "You're wearing the glasses and you really think you're in the car," Marcus Kuehne, Audi's virtual-reality project lead, told Bloomberg earlier this year. "You get a good feeling for the size -- do the rims fit to the body of the car, do the colors inside the car fit well together?" he added. "You can judge this much better through this technology than on a screen."

Cadillac is taking it one step further by encouraging more than 400 of its lowest-volume U.S. dealerships to voluntarily adopt "virtual showrooms," Automotive News reported earlier this year. The dealerships would not even stock Cadillacs. Instead, salespeople would visit prospective buyers at their homes or workplaces armed with virtual-reality units supplied by Cadillac, Automotive News reported.

Virtual showrooms could also be used to complement visits to traditional dealerships. VR programs under development at Saatchi & Saatchi give users the experience of walking around a showroom from the comfort of home. Viewers could virtually sit inside a car and quickly understand the difference in headroom or differences between trims and models.

"It's a great way for consumers to come to the dealer excited and informed. It will allow them to really understand what vehicle they want and what trims they are most excited about. And the dealership will provide them the opportunity to verify that and make their final decision," said Michael Wilken, director of 3D at Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles. His virtual reality team, which works on a variety of projects for Toyota and Lexus, has grown from about 15 people a couple years ago to 35 people today, he said.

"In our experience, new technologies that allow consumers to interact with virtual vehicles actually enhance the in-person test drive," Cooper Ericksen, VP-vehicle and marketing communications for Toyota, said in an emailed statement. "Guests arrive at a test drive more informed about the vehicle. They know the questions they want to ask, creating a much more satisfying experience."

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