Augmented reality has received much attention over the last few month as stores closed their doors and consumers sheltered in place. AR brings the in-store buying experience into consumers’ homes: Shoppers can see how a new pair of glasses, cute summer dresses, or freshly dropped sneakers look like on their own faces, bodies, and feet, thereby increasing their confidence when buying online. And even as physical stores reopen around the world, AR is a good solution for customers who worry about trying on items that have been touched by countless hands before them.
Augmented reality is clearly having a moment.
However, thinking about AR only in terms of an e-commerce play can badly backfire for brands. Helping customers gauge the dimensions and looks of products is important, no doubt, but this is merely a very narrow slice of AR’s potential for marketing. Because as marketers, we not only want to reassure customers… we wish to excite them.
Creating experiences that excite customers is more important than ever. A recent survey showed that 84% of customers say that the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. Brands thus turn to experiential marketing campaigns in order to create memorable moments for customers and connect with them in emotionally charged ways.
The potential of augmented reality to create engaging experiences at scale is too often overlooked when AR’s use for marketing is confined to an e-commerce perspective. And that’s a shame, because AR solves several problems that are inherent in experiential marketing.
Experiential campaigns are often very limited in scope. Thus, while they produce strong emotional effects for those who are lucky enough to witness the experience first-hand, their efficacy is limited by the small reach. Brands can try to extend the reach by upping the stakes. Red Bull’s stratosphere jump was live streamed via YouTube and attracted millions of eyeballs. However, the experience here was a passively consumed one, rather than an active and embodied experience.
With over a Billion highly capable AR devices already in consumers’ hands today, augmented reality can provide active and engaging experiences at scale. In each of the examples below, AR shines not because it helped consumers imagine how a product would look like but because it transported them into an experience.
Tim Hortons Virtual Fireworks
Canadians celebrate their national holiday on July 1 every year. And even though the country has done a great job in containing the coronavirus crisis, or maybe because they are doing such a great job, Canada Day parades and public fireworks displays were cancelled for 2020.
That was a huge opportunity for Tim Horton’s. A quintessential Canadian brand, Tim Hortons sponsored a virtual fireworks that was visible at 10 PM local time on July 1. It utilized web AR to display traditional looking fireworks into the night skies. But it added a twist: some of the explosions took more complex forms such as a beaver, hockey sticks, and a maple leaf. Never change, Canada!
Like a normal fireworks display, the show was over in about three minutes. The experience was available throughout the night but went offline at 5 AM the next morning.
Takeaway #1: AR Experiences are timely, but not old-timely
The Canada Day Virtual Fireworks experience adopted the same format of actual fireworks to resonate with people. But it also used AR to do things fireworks displays could not do in the real world, such as adding Canadian symbols and a longer timeframe to witness the event. Yet, was still the urgency associated with live experiences. The webpage announced the show would go live at 10PM and offered an easy option to add the event to one’s calendar.
Budweiser’s 4th of July Lens
South of the boarder, Budweiser has for many years positioned itself as an all-American brand. In 2016, Budweiser’s ’America’ campaign even changed its product packaging to read ‘America’ instead of the brand name to celebrate Independence Day. A digital counter-part to this campaign was a Snapchat lens that enabled consumers to transform themselves into Uncle Sam.
Budweiser is no stranger to experiential marketing. In 2014, it leveraged a Super Bowl ad and live experiences in its ‘Up for whatever’ campaign, and in 2020 it invited over 200 influencers to its BUDX hotel. However, in order to be part of these experiences, consumers have to be either extremely lucky or half-famous.
The 4th of July AR lens is made for people like you and me. It’s self-serve experience that places each individual customer at the center of a cultural event. And since the lens was provided through social platform, word of mouth was only one tab away.
Takeaway #2: Use AR Experiences to place consumers into well-told brand stories
Budweiser has for years cultivated its all-American brand image. So when the Snapchat filter came along, consumers were able to put themselves not only at the center of a national holiday but a well-established brand narrative.
Experiences are a great way to create a personal and emotional connection to a brand. But maybe especially with the self-serve experiences that AR affords at scale, having a strong brand established is vital for success. As a thought experiment, watch the ‘Up for whatever’ video above and imagine the whole experience was created by a completely unknown brand… let’s say, Chuckliner. It would still work, because the dude is living his best life, beating Arnold Schwarzenegger in table tennis. However, an Uncle Sam AR lens for July 4 would look a lot more opportunistic it it was sponsored by Chuckliner rather than Budweiser.
Adidas For The Oceans
Adidas also used an AR experience to connect consumers with their brand. The company’s goal is to replace all virgin polyester with recycled marine waste by 2024. To this end, it has partnered with ‘Parley for the Oceans’, an activist group that raises awareness for the fragility of our oceans and takes actions to end their destruction.
An in-store AR experience, run on a custom-built mobile app, transformed the store into an ocean. Consumers were able to get up close with whales but also saw a lot of plastic floating around these majestic creatures. It was an interactive experience that encouraged participation: Consumers picked up the plastic to progress the experience and learn how a threat turns into thread: Adidas uses the marine plastic to create yarn for 11 million pairs of shoes this year.
Similar to the Budweiser example above, this AR experience excels because it is deeply woven into an existing brand story of affecting change through sports and innovation.
In addition, the AR experience also ties in with real-world experiential marketing campaigns. For example for World Oceans Day, Adidas has hosted 5K runs in New York and other major cities during which the streets were illuminated with blue lights to reflect undersea tones.
Takeaway #3: Experiential AR Marketing is about shifting perspectives
Experiential AR marketing requires marketers to adopt a mindset that is fundamentally different from using AR for e-commerce. When displaying products via AR, a key concern is to make the visualizations look as real as possible so that they blend into consumers’ everyday realities almost unquestioned. That’s why textures, reflections, shadows, and the right scaling is so important.
In contrast, AR experiences work best when they transport consumers into completely different worlds. As an immersive medium, AR can provide visual experiences that are highly emotional and anchor new perspectives into consumers’ minds. In addition, the active nature of AR experiences can jumpstart behaviors through simulating actions. For example, picking up garbage in a virtual oceans may lead customers to pick up garbage at an actual beach.
United Way’s #Unignorable Tower
We all live busy lives, which makes it easy to ignore the hardship that exists right around us. In the Greater Toronto Area, for example, more than 116,000 individuals and families struggle to have a roof over their head. But like so many problems, it’s a faceless problem that seems removed from our everyday experience.
This is why United Way created an app that displays an #Unignorable Tower into Toronto’s skyline. Standing at over 2.5 times the height of the CN Tower, it is visible from every part of town and a powerful reminder that 1 in 7 residents aren’t always able to make ends meet. As United Way puts it: “This tower isn’t real. The problem it represents is.”
Takeaway #4: AR Experiences are spatial, but not other-worldly
As AR cloud technology is rapidly maturing, marketers have new opportunities to create AR experiences that are anchored in particular places. Apple recently announced Location Anchors in its iOS update. Combined with powerful depth sensors that already exist in the iPad (and will without a doubt come to the iPhone in 2020), our handheld devices will be able to make sense of their environment and emplace virtual things at specific locations.
This enables marketers to create large-scale alternative realities whose power lies in transforming consumers’ perspectives within their familiar surroundings. Other visual media, including virtual reality, transport viewers away from their actual world into a fictional world. Like something that happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Research on narrative transportation has shown that being immersed in external brand world does affect consumers’ ideas and actions. The interesting question is: Would that effect be stronger if consumers experienced these alternate realities emplaced in their familiar surroundings?
We don’t have a definitive answer for this, yet. However, based on my ongoing research on Pokémon Go players, the effect of verisimilitude (i.e., how real something feels) that has been demonstrated for traditional media, and the recent popularity of alternate history shows (e.g., Watchmen, The Plot Against America), I am pretty sure the answer is ‘yes’.
United Way created a powerful shift in consumers’ perspectives by transporting them into an alternative reality, not into an external world. While this campaign utilized a single AR object that was widely visible, other campaigns that take advantage of the emerging AR cloud can adopt much more distributed approaches. For example, certain street corners could host experiences that need to be discovered by consumers.
Early experimentations by Nike already demonstrated the potential these kinds of under-cover experiences have for hyping sneakers. The AR cloud allows to create these scavenger hunts at a larger scale and in more visual ways. I expect this use case of AR become much more prevalent over the next few years.
Imagine the Bigger Potential of AR
Augmented reality certainly provides radical new opportunities for e-commerce. However, it would be a mistake to pigeon-hole AR into the basic formula that imagining a product leads to more buyer’s confidence, which in turn increases conversion and reduces returns.
Experiential AR marketing follows a different trajectory. Rather than being focused on conversion, it is focused on brand building. And rather than creating a single virtual object that is embedded into physical space in ways that don’t change consumers’ perceived realities, experiential AR meaningfully transforms consumers’ subjective worlds through potentially emplacing thousands of distributed AR objects.
There are two reasons why it is important to recognize AR’s potential for experiential marketing, and why it might be the even the more important one for marketers: The first has to do with our modern understanding of marketing. While conversions are of course important, they are the effect of larger branding efforts that focus on building emotional connections, trust, excitement, and word of mouth. The statistic at the top of this article makes clear that consumers long for experiences, and each of the examples discussed above is a lot more likely to be shared on social than the perfect rendering of a handbag.
‘Create customers who create more customers’ is a central axiom of digital marketing. Experiential AR does exactly that, and it is enabled by recent developments like web AR and cloud AR. Once AR glasses become more available in the next three to five years, this train becomes unstoppable.
A second reason is inherent to AR’s media qualities and their relationship to the alternatives that exist for shopping and engaging in experiences. No matter how well a product visualization is rendered, it will always lack the material properties that are associated with the actual product. An AR handbag might have very intricate textures, but it lacks the rich smell of leather (at least for now) or any indication of its weight. This doesn’t mean that AR product visualizations are useless; it just means that marketers need to be acutely aware of the weaknesses and strengths of this format.
AR experiences also lack some of the materiality that makes experiential marketing successful. However, the more dominating aspect is that consumers have embodied experiences they can enjoy flexibly and at scale. The fact that the water of Adidas’ For the Oceans app isn’t real is actually a good thing, since it would be a hard ask to make shoppers dripping wet. And getting a permit to install a 2 Million gallon fish tank in your store isn’t easy either. At the same time, AR is better than using digital screens because it preserves the embodied component of the experience (i.e., consumers twist, turn, and move their entire bodies to explore the ocean, not just their eyeballs).
And that’s the key difference to e-commerce use cases: AR can level-up experiences, whereas product visualizations have a natural ceiling (i.e., the real thing) they can never reach.
AR directly plays into consumer fantasies and excitement, and that’s what marketing is all about.