Don't interrupt me: utility and branded content are the future of VR in marketing

Before VR becomes mainstream, marketers need to decide on their business model now, warns the chief creative officer at digital agency Zone.

It feels like VR has been hailed as being on the verge of 'going mainstream' for some time now. And, more than a year on from the launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the gaming market is finding its feet. But VR is yet to make its mark on the general public at large.

There are obvious reasons for this slow adoption curve: prohibitive cost, lack of content, a reluctance to cut oneself off from the real world. And I’ve written before about the baked-in gender bias and ableism in VR, from the software that causes nausea in women to the ill-fitting headsets that only come in one size. But that hasn’t stopped many chief marketing officers from declaring that VR can be a game-changer in marketing. Indeed, a survey found that 26% of CMOs believe that VR and AR will have the biggest impact on marketers by 2020.

I chaired a panel to discuss the future of VR and advertising at VRUK last week, and we all agreed that the most surefire way to kill a medium is with terrible marketing. There are plenty of examples of that from brands rushing to ‘do something with VR’. We talked about an FMCG company that launched a new breakfast cereal by inviting people into a virtual booth, then gave them a Rift headset and a virtual knife and fork (I guess there really is no spoon). But hey, the 360 video on Facebook got a million impressions so they felt vindicated, even though there was no real experience for the audience to take away. 

It was clear to the panel that interruptive advertising does not fit into VR – people will simply take the headset off if you invade their immersive experience. No, the future lies in two areas: utility and branded content. Two years ago it was an easy PR win for being first. Make a video of the experience, distribute it, wait for the awards to roll in. That luxury has gone now, so branded content has to be great to get attention.

And there is amazing content being made – for example Always by Stubhub (above), which uses VR to immerse viewers in the world of concertgoers. This shows the potential of VR – an empathic, truly compelling experience.

The flipside is content that provides utility – for example, experiential videos that train engineers to fix jumbo jets, or VR reconstructions of crime scenes for use in court cases. The B2B world is ripe for widespread adoption, as more and more businesses take advantage of VR’s ability to solve their logistical problems. 

So, what of ‘straight’ advertising? After all, broadcast television and the internet are paid for by advertising, and given that Facebook – primarily an ad platform – owns Oculus and is collecting its users’ data, it follows that VR cannot escape its clutches. But if interrupting the immersive world is a total no-no, the advertising model is unclear. Is it pre-roll? Product placement? Something daringly new to meet a new medium? 

The opportunities for brands over the next few years are huge. Yes, costs need to come down, and other issues such as headset size and wires need to be addressed. But marketers need to decide on their business model now, because with upcoming improvements in tech – 5G network, 4K displays, longer battery life and continued advances in smartphones – VR could finally step into the mainstream. 

Daniel Harvey is chief creative officer at Zone


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