A view from Malcolm White

What brands need this Christmas is to bring VR to life

A concentration on experience should begin to inform our overall approach to communications, says the co-founder of Krow Communications.

For many British homes this year, Christmas will be virtual. According to a report by Carphone Warehouse, 10% of homes will have a VR device by Christmas – double the number that currently own one.

This begs the question, why don’t we use VR more often to bring a brand’s actual product or service to life? Not enough brands go beyond the fluff and the fun of experiences like John Lewis’ VR add-on to its "Buster the boxer" Christmas campaign.

Virtual demonstration

One advertiser that has taken VR to the next level is Fiat, which we worked with to offer virtual test drives of the Fiat 500X via Oculus Rift, around Europe, in 2015. Campaigns, especially those for new products and services or those designed to attract new users, must bridge a big gap between non-experience and experience. Almost 200 years ago, the unlikely figure of the consumptive Romantic poet, John Keats, understood what today’s marketers and advertisers seem not to.

"Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced," he observed in a letter to his brother and his sister-in-law. So, it’s rather surprising that we spend so little time worrying about how to communicate the reality of a product or service when developing campaigns.

Instead, we busy ourselves unearthing insights, debating the core benefits and defining the key message or messages – but we rarely acknowledge that sometimes the real challenge we face can be to simulate reality, virtually.

Reality simulation

I wonder whether failure to simulate reality is why some campaigns that tick many boxes actually fail in the real world? Among the bewildering array of metrics that we use to evaluate our campaigns, we never seem to ask, "can you imagine using the brand/product/service?"

I’m trying to remember the last time, or indeed the first time, that a communications tracking debrief pinned a campaign’s success or failure on reality simulation. It also feels that there is a prejudice against "product or service demonstration" – a tried and tested way to simulate reality – as a communications approach.

Perhaps this is because we think it’s old-fashioned merely because it was popular in the early years of TV advertising – the 60s and 70s. And yet there are examples, albeit too few, that demonstrate just how distinctive and successful this approach remains today.

An obvious one being 2013’s "The epic split" for Volvo, which simulated the reality of the stability and precision of Volvo Trucks’ Dynamic Steering System in a dramatic and surprising way.

I propose that a concentration on experience should begin to inform our overall approach to communications. Instead of aiming our strategy development research on current users at one end of the spectrum, and non-users at the other, perhaps we should conduct more research with those who "didn’t, but do now". This would help us to understand, and test out, how to trigger a simulation of product or service reality.

Starting out in this way makes it more likely that we will consider the simulation of reality as a tenable communications strategy, allowing us to also avail ourselves of 'virtual reality' and perhaps define a role for it in the campaign’s mix.

Seen in this light, John Lewis’ VR activity is a small step in the right direction towards the adoption of approaches that focus on reality and experience, but it’s not yet the big leap forward like their furry animal menagerie are enjoying on that trampoline.

Malcolm White is the co-founder of Krow Communications.