Can augmented reality really create thrilling brand experiences?

Customers don’t care about crafty jingles anymore. They expect exciting and even thrilling brand experiences. How can marketers cater to this shift in consumer demand? How can they make consumers care again?

Luckily, newly emerging digital technologies allow marketers to create novel and intriguing customer experiences. Augmented reality (AR) is one of them. By merging digital content with the physical world, AR can craft experiences in ways like never before.

AR’s potential for providing exciting brand experiences cannot be understated. Yet, it is also important to understand that AR is no silver bullet. Even if you invest a lot of money, there’s no guarantee that consumers will love your AR campaign.

Simply investing in AR won’t solve your problems

Poorly executed AR campaigns can be as useless as producing another jingle. As a marketer, you need to know how to use augmented reality effectively. You need a campaign that will produce more than just a temporary novelty effect.

In a research article that I recently published in Business Horizons, me and my coauthor sum up AR’s unique potential as follows:

“Integrating augmented reality into your marketing mix allows you to create novel experiences that drive sales, boost word-of-mouth, foster brand relationships, and increase the value of your products.”

We give a lot more details on how to create engaging campaigns in the journal article. In this post, however, I want to boil it down to one simple truth:

A great augmented reality campaign is more than just a flashy, visually appealing experience. The strongest AR campaigns connect to your brand’s core story. They help bring that story to life.

National Geographic brings back dinosaurs

National Geographic did exactly that when it crafted a one-of-a-kind augmented reality campaign at the Rotterdam central train station. Animals, astronauts and other natural forces were “brought to life” as they appeared seemingly right next to consumers who waited for their trains.

Nat Geo’s campaign intrigued consumers by bringing a sense of playfulness and awe to the train station. It lightened up the commute for the few people who passed through the terminal on that day. In addition, many more potential customers were reached when commuters shared their experience via social media from the train, or verbally with their loved ones at home.

It is this sharing of experiences what helps your brand story spread.

But consumers won’t share a boring brand experience. So what worked out for National Geographic?

Sure, the campaign was technically sophisticated and visually impressive. More importantly through, it also leveraged Nat Geo’s core brand story.

By showing content that is iconic for the brand — dinosaurs, astronauts and wildlife — the AR campaign was aligned with National Geographic’s brand as a whole. After all, these are the things people associate with Nat Geo in the first place.

So the first thing you have to keep in mind in order to create thrilling brand experiences via augmented reality: Maintaining a close connection between AR content and brand meaning is the best way to take advantage of this emerging technology.

How to build AR brand experiences the right way

You can achieve similar success for your company by using content that captures your own brand story. Finding the “right” AR content is a matter of leveraging existing brand meanings, which are different for each brand.

But there is more: When developing content you should also keep in mind some general best-practices that can boost the effect of your AR campaign. One of these principles is to make sure you facilitate different types of engagement.

For example, National Geographic’s campaign has high levels of user-brand engagement. This type of engagement measures an individual’s response to a brand’s product, service or experience.

In addition, the campaign also facilitates some user-bystander engagement – though it could have done more (see below). This lesser known type of engagement describes the interactions between those who participate in the AR experience, and those who are (currently) unaware of your AR campaign.

Help your customers share their experience

Marketers can use “artifacts” to increase user-bystander engagement. Artifacts are any visible evidence – for people who are not participating in the AR experience – that someone else did something in an AR environment. Examples of artifacts include posts on social media, photos, or other online content.

Creating interesting artifacts is an important strategy to boost the effectiveness of AR-driven brand experiences. And the best part is: It is relatively easy to do!

National Geographic, for example, could have brought interaction and impressions to a whole new level by creating artifacts for the commuters, and then make them available to share on social media. All it would take is two simple steps:

  1. Install a high resolution camera to take photos of the interactions consumers have with the AR content.
  2. Set up a kiosk where viewers can see, download, and post their already hashtagged / branded photos.

Offering consumers interesting artifacts to share would expand the reach of the campaign. Sometimes it could even prompt friends to check out the AR installment themselves! This in turn would increase overall impressions and create larger awareness for the campaign and National Geographic as a whole.

How AR-enabled brand experiences can fall flat

A well-calculated brand experience leaves a customer wanting more. But if the campaign is not executed properly, it provides your customers with only surface-level reactions.

Take Guinness, for example. The popular beer brand served up an augmented reality game that allowed consumers to digitally decorate their pint glasses for the holidays.

The campaign didn’t leverage any aspects of Guinness’ brand story. As a result, the campaign felt like a gimmicky use of augmented reality.

How can you avoid falling flat like a two-days old Guinness? Think about the experience first, before you rush into spending money on AR.

According to our Business Horizons article, “Augmented reality initiatives should be consumer-experience driven rather than technology driven.”

Think about the experience first, before you rush into spending money on AR.

This is what National Geographic did.

National geographic creates brand experiences with augmented reality.
National Geographic brought its product to life with AR.

The campaign worked so well because it’s a playful experience for consumers. It leveraged Nat Geo’s brand story by integrating elements that consumers would already associate with the brand. And most importantly, it didn’t lean solely on complex AR technology.

Remember, AR alone won’t provide enough glitter to directly reach and impress your brand’s customers. You need to create an experience that connects to the core brand story.

The right AR content will create thrilling brand experiences

It is true: Augmented reality allows marketers to create visually stunning campaigns. But this will not guarantee that your investment will pay off.

AR does not create exciting brand experiences just because it is a new technology, or because you poured a lot of money into it.

AR is only a tool. It is better than many of the old ones in your tool box. It is more capable of bringing your brand story to life through a thrilling experiences. But it can only amplify a great experience – not produce it on its own.

So first, you have to come up with brand experiences that are meaningful. For your brand as well as for consumers. Something that enhances people’s lives and creates long-lasting relationships.

Then you can incorporate AR to add the extra kick: Use the element of confusion or surprise, and stir up emotions. Create awe. Add dinosaurs – if you can!

Whatever you do, however, make sure you always keep the focus on connecting the experience to your brand story.

In short: Don’t count on AR to do the work for you.

Instead of relying on AR technology to create something flashy, use it to bring your brand to life. Create brand experiences that seamlessly integrate your brand’s essence into your customers’ physical world.

If you liked this article, please share this post with other marketing professionals. To learn more about the opportunities and trends in augmented reality, subscribe to for upcoming articles on the latest and greatest AR campaigns.

The author thanks Charlotte Crelly-Byers and John Degesero for their contributions to an earlier version of this article.
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