How Virtual Reality Could Change Shopper Marketing, B2B and More

Gaming Is Obvious Application, But Low Cost Opens Host of Ad and Research Options

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Scene from SapientNitro's e-commerce virtual reality demo in a Soho loft.
Scene from SapientNitro's e-commerce virtual reality demo in a Soho loft.

Virtual reality barely exists as a consumer market yet, and marketing plans around the technology as a result remain far more virtual than real.

But in a penthouse suite reached via a cramped and decidedly low-tech elevator during the International Festival of Creativity in Cannes recently, SapientNitro provided a glimpse into how powerful VR could be for e-commerce -- or as a shopper-marketing research tool. And while it may be years before VR is adopted widely enough to be a meaningful consumer advertising medium, the future is far closer to now for business-to-business marketers and marketers of other big-ticket items.

"Head-mounted displays are about to really hit the mainstream. They're going to get cheaper. They're going to be given away with cell-phone contracts. It will pretty soon just be one more piece of gear in your life. Where consumers are, brands are going to go," said SapientNitro Global Innovation Lead Adrian Slobin. "I'd be shocked if within a year's time there isn't something a retailer or CPG has done" with VR.

One reason is that the cost is relatively cheap for brands and consumers alike. The agency built its own VR e-commerce demo for Cannes in six weeks for "low six figures" using the Samsung Gear headset, but Mr. Slobin said it will run equally well on Google Cardboard.

The demo allowed people to virtually move through a large Soho apartment, getting more information by focusing on diamonds that pop up alongside furniture, housewares or apparel, and then place items in a shopping cart by tapping on the headset.

"You can create a story around your brand that you can't do on a laptop," said SapientNitro Chief Creative Officer Gary Koepke. While the idea is that any e-commerce site can put its products into alluring 3-D spaces, it can be applied equally to resorts, hotels or tourist locations. It may be tempting to stick brands' billboards or videos into virtual environments, too, but Mr. Koepke sees far more potential in building more engaging experiences.

Then again, more mundane experiences also may have some use. Retailers or consumer brands can use the technology to recreate real-world stores, shelving and merchandising. Think of it as Cardboard meets corrugated displays. It would be an alternative to higher-cost real-world or VR test stores such marketers as Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever or Kimberly-Clark Corp. now use to test shopper-marketing efforts today. Now the tests can be done in people's homes or in the offices of retailers without any travel required, with far easier customization to resemble the stores of different retailers.

"This is the point at which people are really starting to take notice of the potential" of virtual reality, said Callie Leone, associate global strategist at B2B agency Gyro. Companies with really large machinery will be able to use the technology to demo or train people on use without big outlays for travel or shipping. Giving a customer a $200 head set is considerably cheaper than buying a plane ticket just about anywhere, after all.

Likewise jewelers, furniture sellers or others with high-value consumer items can provide virtual "try before you buy" approaches without the risk of shipping the products, she said.

Ultimately, VR will change all kinds of advertising in ways that are hard to imagine at this point, said Gartner Group analyst Brian Blau.

"Visualizing products using immersion is going to give people a different way of thinking about them," Mr. Blau said. "It's going to allow for different brand experiences. It's just going to be interesting to see what creative people come up with."

Dampening the hype, Facebook isn't even thinking of advertising applications yet for Oculus Rift, said the company's VP-advertising engineering Adrian Bosworth in a Cannes press conference. All the focus for now is on entertainment and gaming. Unilever is looking into VR and preparing to do tests, but has nothing to talk about yet, said Jeremy Basset, marketing strategy and new ventures director for the company.

While Gartner Group projects 25 million virtual or more limited augmented-reality combined headsets will be in consumer hands globally by 2018, many of the earliest VR adopters will be hard-core gaming enthusiasts who may be of limited interest to many brands, said Mr. Blau.

Google certainly didn't make VR seem any less geeky by unleashing photos of people, mouths agape, staring into its budget-priced Cardboard box VR offerings recently. But the single or low-double-digit prices for Cardboard gear help prove the technology won't be cost prohibitive either for consumers or marketers. Samsung Gear's VR set, already on the market, costs under $200, while many expect Oculus Rift to ultimately hit the market at a similar price next year.

SapientNitro's Mr. Slobin believes widespread adoption could start as soon as this holiday season and reach 50 to 100 million headsets in the next two years.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified SapientNitro Global Innovation Lead Adrian Slobin as Andrew.

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