Marketing: Spinning Consumers with the Virtual Reality Experience

I’ve never been in a severe tornado. Yet, the Weather Channel and movies like Twister have certainly shaped my perception. But, until you have seen the devastating power of a tornado firsthand, it’s been difficult to appreciate its impact – at least until now. Today’s high-tech environment is even more advanced than many consumers realize. In fact, the intersection of technology, science, and marketing has given rise to larger than life virtual environments – so much so that the average user believes, even for a moment, that it’s real. And when brands take advantage of virtual reality, consumers respond.

Products like the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset and Sony’s Project Morpheus are really pushing the limits of virtual reality with Total Recall-like realism that many consumers fantasize about. But, with great technology comes great responsibility. For marketers it means understanding the nuances that make virtual experiences so impactful for consumers.

Warner Bros. whipped up sales for its release of the August box office hit Into the Storm – a movie about a town that gets ravaged by an unprecedented onslaught of tornadoes in the span of a single day. The entire town is at the mercy of the erratic and deadly cyclones, even as storm trackers predict the worst is yet to come. Most people seek shelter, while others run towards the vortex, testing how far a storm chaser will go for that once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Spoiler alert: everyone dies. But, chances are, you already knew that because the viral marketing campaign leading up the movie’s release involved what USA Today describes as a “virtual reality headset experience that brought users directly into the film’s climatic tornado scene.” Users were required to enter a glass booth and equip themselves with Oculus Rift goggles and ear pieces. The combination of 360 degree visuals, sound, and winds matching the direction of storm elements made this experience so real that it prompted 1,000 people to spread the word about the movie.

What this campaign did well is create an emotional experience that shocked consumers into better understanding of the impact of such a tornado. Of course, each participant experienced a virtual death at the end of this exercise. But that didn’t matter. The intrigue far outweighed the deadly visualization. Also – the movie as a product itself – is like virtual reality candy.

Real-life simulation is a growing marketing tactic – particularly for consumer-facing brands. But to get it right, these experiences must deliver a shock value that stirs widespread social media communication. And it only involves reaching a tiny portion of your target audience initially. Also, the element of surprise should be saved for the experience itself. In other words, it can’t be over marketed. The real marketing happens after the experience.

For marketers, the bar has been raised. Now, consumers have to really feel a difference. It’s like that new roller coaster that everyone raves about. Nothing could have prepared them for the excitement than the ride itself. With virtual reality, marketers can recreate that sensory experience with powerful visuals, sound, smell and physical elements like wind and water. In the end, consumers should walk away in amazement. If they don’t, it’s a missed opportunity.

So, while all the effort goes into the virtual reality experience, marketers need to back off on the fountain of words we’ve embraced for so long.

Don’t try to sell it, don’t try to convince people it will be great, and don’t overdescribe what it will entail.

Let the power of the experience itself do most of the work. Doing this will create curiosity without expectation and build the foundation for powerful campaigns that engage your most wanted consumers.