Virtual reality isn't better than actual reality, but it's the next big thing because it allows consumers to form a unique connection with a brand.
One of the hottest trends in marketing is experiential marketing, which is marketing that inspires consumers to engage directly with a brand.
This kind of marketing is also called "event marketing," "live marketing," "participation marketing," "engagement marketing" and other labels. The idea is that marketers creatively design ways for consumers, in a specific location, to do an activity that is compelling and inspiring, which helps to create a sense of connection with a brand.
Experiential marketing is the most powerful form of marketing for those who participate. If done right, it creates an unforgettable, emotionally charged experience. Because of its effectiveness, spending on experiential marketing campaigns has been on the rise in the past few years.
Until now, the biggest problem with experiential marketing is that it doesn't scale.
Yes, you can thrill a few dozen, a few thousand or even (if you've got a stadium full of sports fans to work with) a few dozen-thousand. But that's a small number of people compared to a TV or online campaign. But that's about to change.
Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality
The latest tool in the arsenal of technology deployed for experiential marketing campaigns is virtual reality or mixed reality platforms.
(Just so we get our words right: "Virtual reality" is when everything you see in the goggles is computer generated; "augmented reality" is when you can see the real world around you, but goggles superimpose computer-generated objects that appear to be right in front of you.)
You can't really describe what these platforms are like to use. Suffice it to say that they make the unreal feel very real. They are transformative experiences to use, and make a huge impression. They're ideal for experiential marketing.
A brilliant example of mixed reality in experiential marketing is Volvo's use of HoloLens.
Everything about this is futuristic. The campaign itself won't launch until next year (only some journalists got the chance to experience it). And it markets a car that hasn't even been built yet.
Still, the campaign gives a taste of what's possible when combining future tech with experiential marketing.
HoloLens is Microsoft's next-generation, Windows 10-based mixed reality platform. To use it, you wear a pair of goggles that can create the illusion of 3D, fully animated virtual objects right there in the room with you.
When car buyers visit Volvo show rooms next year, they'll be able to put on HoloLens and experience what the yet-unreleased S90 sedan will look like, inside and out. They'll be able to spin it around, look at the engine block floating in space in front of them, see on-road demos of the safety features and more. In subsequent campaigns, Volvo and Microsoft hope to be able to simulate the experience of sitting in the car and using the dashboard controls.
There are other examples in development for using virtual reality and mixed reality for experiential marketing campaigns.
They'll be amazing, but they still won't scale.
How 2016 Changes Everything
We currently live in a world where virtual reality and mixed reality are rudimentary platforms on the fringe. A tiny number of early adopters are using these technologies on Samsung's Gear VR platform, Google Glass, Google Cardboard and other low-end products.
But the heavy hitters are expected to start hitting the market for consumers starting next year. The biggest launch will be Facebook's Oculus Rift platform, which will deliver full VR to consumers.
HoloLens is expected to ship for business use only sometime in the next year, and in a few years in the future a consumer version is expected.
Magic Leap will probably come out with a consumer version of its HoloLens-like platform for consumers.
And there will be others.
Within five years, I think consumer in-the-home virtual reality and mixed reality platforms will be as widely distributed as console video games are today.
The mainstreaming of these technologies will change everything. For the first time ever, experiential marketing will scale to the masses in unlimited numbers.
Instead of offering the Volvo HoloLens experience to showroom visitors, Volvo will be able to make the software a downloadable and viral app.
Advertiser-supported virtual reality and mixed reality content will have experiential marketing content instead of ads. These can not only be convincing and immersive, but potentially social and participatory. Best of all, they can go viral and spread across the world in minutes.
And that's why virtual reality and mixed reality will totally transform marketing. It combines the emotional impact of experiential marketing with the viral scalability of Web campaigns.