Virtual unreality: how brands can thrive in a world of blurred boundaries

As the delineation between consumers' real and online lives becomes less clear, marketers must strive to keep pace, writes Suzy Bashford.

We live in a world where we can summon a cab within minutes via an app. We can book into a stranger's spare room, instead of an expensive hotel, courtesy of Airbnb. Our virtual personal assistant, who lives in our smartphone, can warn us to leave 15 minutes early for our meeting because traffic is unusually heavy. Users of the Canary app in Seattle can even summon cannabis to their door within the hour.

Such technology, which slips seamlessly between the virtual and physical worlds, has led some tech experts to argue that marketers should ditch the word 'digital' altogether. Dave Coplin, Microsoft UK's chief envisioning officer, is one of them.

"We're there now. It just is. Can we just move on? Please?" he says. "The average marketer needs to be in this mindset because it's an incredible time of opportunity and those who don't take the leap of faith will get left behind. But, at the moment, the opportunities are being discussed in the wrong places; among tech folks. We need marketers to join the conversations, as that will change the way technology goes to market and the kind of solutions that are built. Marketers don't need to be geeks, but they do need to understand this stuff."

You need to ensure you're communicating a clear and consistent message that is 100% customer-focused and don't confuse consumers with technology integration for technology's sake

The problem, according to Coplin, is that it can be hard for marketers to see the potential in emerging technology, especially when presented with an "ugly term like the internet of things".

Consequently, rather than talk to marketers about "rainbows and unicorns", he is on a mission to give them concrete evidence of transformative marketing to fire their imaginations about the possibilities ahead. He cites Microsoft's Christmas tie-up with John Lewis (see below) as a shining example.

Some marketers, though, need no convincing that the dichotomy of physical and digital is over. "If you're thinking about these two worlds as separate entities, I'd argue you shouldn't be working in a marketing department today, even though we're in the infancy of application (of this technology)," says Steve Cobelli, global digital marketing manager at Jaguar Land Rover.

Cobelli's ambition is, as far as possible, to make the physical and virtual worlds appear as if they are one, by making the transition between the two so seamless that the customer doesn't notice the changeover. For example, mindful of how vital the virtual experience is in the research phase of buying a new car, Cobelli hired agency Connect to overhaul his brand's online car configurator. Now, customers can send their ideal configuration to their local dealership so that when they go to test-drive a car, they don't have to waste precious time explaining their needs.

"We also empower our customers by giving them a code that they can give to the retailer to bring up their configuration. This way, if they haven't sent it in advance, they don't feel their time is wasted once they get there," he says.

This may seem a simple procedure on the face of it, but behind the scenes, linking the physical and virtual worlds can often be complex and challenging. In this case, it involves accommodating more than 7m possible configuration combinations.

As Cobelli points out, it frequently requires organisations to change the way they work and how departments are aligned. "You need to ensure you're communicating a clear and consistent message that is 100% customer-focused, and don't confuse consumers with technology integration for technology's sake. Crucially, if you make a digital experience integral to the customer journey and it affects the physical retail experience, you need to ensure sales staff interacting with the customer understand this."

Nonetheless, even Cobelli, who clearly has a forward-thinking mindset, still has the word 'digital' in his job title, which could suggest that structurally, his organisation is still approaching the onand offline worlds as discrete.

It's just life

One business ahead of the curve is Contiki. As a youth-travel brand targeting millennials, it has to be, explains Alexis Sitaropoulos, group marketing director. "We're primed to take advantage of the fact that lines are blurring - or, in many cases, being destroyed - between the physical and virtual worlds. Just as millennials don't care whether they are on a tablet, phone or PC, the divides between what is digital and what is real are being torn down. Millennials look at you strangely if you talk about a 'digital' or a 'social' channel because, to them, it's just life. Sending a WhatsApp message is the same as talking to someone, so it's imperative to be considerate of how those two channels interplay."

Our technology provides a bridge between the physical and virtual world

This blurring works to Contiki's advantage because travel is consumed in the moment. By embracing this new world where a virtual reality is becoming just 'reality', it is able to keep consumers' experience of the brand alive and make it more tangible long after the actual experience of a tour is over. To do this, it has been working with tech firm Stackla, which pulls together what customers say about their Contiki experience.

Andy Mallinson, managing director, Europe, at Stackla, explains: "We aggregate the content which is naturally being shared by its travellers and help Contiki tell a brand story, which it can, for example, storyboard on its website. Our technology provides a bridge between the physical and virtual world."

By doing this, the digital experience has become such a valued part of the brand, according to Sitaropoulos, that if it were restricted, the brand would become much less attractive.

"Five years ago, there was only the product experience. Now, if we marketed a trip but said you're not allowed to post photos on social media, the value of that trip would go down significantly," he says. "The fact that our brand story isn't told by a marketing team, or by a shiny TV ad, helps us, because it adds realness and believability, which resonates with our young consumers. It does mean letting go and putting your brand in the hands of consumers. That takes guts and makes you trim away those layers of sheen on your brand and present them in a real way."

This flow of content isn't just from the physical world (the tour) to online: the process also happens in reverse. For example, Contiki takes travel selfies gathered online and plasters them all over its coaches. Similarly, it uses customer feedback from social media in its hard-copy brochures. This reverse information flow is being seen in businesses that started with an online focus, too, such as Airbnb and Net-a-Porter, which produce high-quality print magazines to amplify their brands in the real world.

Elsewhere, the Premier League is a good example of a brand using digital to improve the physical experience. Cathy Long, head of supporter services at the organisation, worked with Future Platforms to create an app designed to help football fans attending matches, particularly at away venues.

"Going to a stadium can be daunting and stressful because supporters are worried about how their team is going to perform," she says. "We wanted to take that stress away and make it easier to access all the information they need on the day in one place. We had some useful conversations with Future Platforms at the start and I quickly realised that, rather than think about it as 'producing an app', we had to think about it as producing a solution to a problem, which happens to be through technology."

Through digitally mapping a fan's journey the team analysed potential stress points, such as parking, traffic and access to tickets. It created a simple-to-use app, which notifies the consumer of important information like where to collect tickets and whether traffic congestion is affecting routes to the stadium. This mapping process has also led to physical improvements in the stadium environment, such as more rest points for disabled fans.

Integrated experience

The main challenges Long faced were getting the tone of voice right ("you can't be too corporate"), how to ensure the content was relevant to the day (given that situations like traffic jams are constantly changing) and organisational structure. While the Premier League has a small, nimble team that moves quickly, Long felt the set-up could be further improved. "We still have a separate digital team, which integrates into other departments, but we're looking at how to make this more effective. If you have to go through a tech team to do something, it's a bit like me having to contact the IT department to make a phone call."

Customers now see our brand as always-on, expecting identical levels of service and experience, regardless of channel

Now the app has been downloaded by 50,000 fans and garnered good reviews, Long's main challenge is to keep up with consumer expectations for her brand to be more responsive and proactive and relay information instantly.

As the physical and virtual worlds collide, customer expectations are soaring. "Customers now see our brand as always-on, expecting identical levels of service and experience, regardless of channel," says Anders Lyckman, global creative director at US fashion retailer Forever 21. "If they get a response in-store immediately, they expect one online immediately. So we have a commitment to both provide inspiring and engaging brand content and meet customer-service expectations 24/7."

However, he stresses that while the onand offline experiences should be integrated, they should not "be carbon copies of each other"; rather, they should play to their strengths. In light of this, Forever 21 is working with integrated agency ODD to create more "theatre" in retail stores because "there is something about being present and able to experience, touch, feel, smell a brand that is, and always has been, so very powerful".

Perhaps the trickiest shift to which marketers must adapt in this new service economy is the rising demand from consumers to be treated as individuals. Further, there is a growing expectation, particularly among millennials, that brands, as part of their value proposition, should bolster their customers' personal brands online. "Brands have a huge opportunity to build on the selfie culture and help people extend, expand and strengthen their sense of self in our digitally enhanced world, through their products and communications," says Paul Marsden, consumer psychologist at digital agency Syzygy Group.

Think back to the Contiki travellers. When they stand in front of the Eiffel Tower, are they there simply to be physically present, or are they are also thinking 'is this experience going to boost my digital profile'? Would your brand make consumers feel the latter? If not, it could mean it becomes obsolete in their lives, slung on the virtual junk heap, in favour of a brand that can.

John Lewis teams up with Microsoft to fuse the digital and real worlds

Monty's Magical Toy Machine

In the run-up to Christmas, children were able to take their favourite toys to John Lewis' flagship Oxford Street store and have them scanned using photogrammetry technology. The toys would then appear on-screen as a moving, life-like 3D image, dancing for their owners and providing an opportunity for a unique selfie.

The application (supporting John Lewis' 'Monty's Christmas' TV ad), was the result of the retailer's challenge to Microsoft's creative technologists to use technology to add to the magical spirit of Christmas.

According to the team behind the project - which included agencies Adam & Eve DDB and Manning Gottlieb OMD - it demonstrated how technology can be used to challenge the boundaries of onand offline consumer engagement. John Lewis' director of marketing, Craig Inglis, described it as "one of our most exciting ideas yet".


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