According to NTT's 2020 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking Report, 81 per cent of organisations agree that delivering an outstanding customer experience provides a competitive advantage, with 58 per cent saying it’s their primary differentiator. The reason so many brands aspire to delivering first-class interactions is simple; it makes sound commercial sense. This is also supported by PWC, which found recently that 86 per cent of buyers are willing to pay more for great customer experience, and the more expensive the product or service, the more they are willing to pay.
Customer experience is defined as your customers' perception of their collective experience with your business or brand. It is the result of every interaction a customer has with you and is influenced by previous exchanges, as well as external factors, trends and shifts in customer attitudes more widely. The expectations of your audience are constantly growing and therefore meeting their demands requires an agile and integrated approach; one that leverages each relevant channel and technology, whilst finding new ways to ‘wow’ your customers and prospects with unique brand experiences.
Of the many new technologies being used by customer-focused brands to deliver stand-out customer experiences, virtual reality (VR) is perhaps one of the most exciting. According to research provider Marketsandmarkets.com, the global VR market is expected to grow from USD 7.9 billion in 2018 to USD 53.6 billion in 2025; driven by advancing technology and increased hardware penetration, with big names like Apple joining Samsung, Facebook and Sony in the battle.
Introduction to VR
To consider VR as ‘new’ is a little disingenuous. As a concept, it’s been around since the 1930s, when science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote about a pair of glasses that ‘make it so that you are in the story’. Later, in 1968, computer scientist, Ivan E. Sutherland revealed the first physical realisation of VR with a cumbersome head-mounted display. A number of people explored VR to varying degrees of success in the following decades but, fundamentally, a lack of computer processing and graphics power limited VR’s appeal. That changed in 2012 with the first look at what would become the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift. By 2016, the first round of consumer headsets had arrived. Each required a gaming console or high-power computer to run the software and it wasn’t until 2018 that we saw the first stand-alone VR headset that required neither.
VR may have got its commercial start in the world of gaming but, as the supporting technology matures and development costs fall, VR is expanding into other fields and industries with impressive results. It is already making a positive contribution across several sectors and is helping adopters create a point of difference and a way to demonstrate a competitive advantage.
Addressing the haters
VR and its merits are popular discussion topics online, and the current limitations of the technology are important to address. Many would argue that VR is still very much in its infancy, with the need for the customer to wear an expensive headset to achieve the premium experience a barrier to universal appeal.
This shortcoming is true, and if you are looking to leverage everything VR has to offer, you will have to work out how you intend to get these devices into your audience’s hands. However, there are also other more cost-effective options available for brands who wish to lead, so you shouldn’t dismiss the concept of VR on this basis alone.
For many people, you say VR and all they think of is a headset and the sight of someone flailing around seemingly trying to grapple with air. In reality, that is largely accurate, but only if we are solely discussing true VR. Virtual reality (small v and small r) applications are far broader. You’ve probably used online tools such as 360º tours, with fixed hotspots you can click to see a different physical perspective of a room or building. If that environment doesn’t actually exist in the real world, someone has built it using VR tools. And even if it does exist, VR tools were still used to stitch everything together. It may not be the immersive experience you naturally think of, but it is still an example of virtual reality in action.
A tool for business
While VR isn’t right for every brand, its appeal and potential application is broadening all the time. To get to the bottom of what works and what’s possible, it always helps to provide some examples and context to show how your brand can transport its customers and prospects into a digital space that delivers on their requirements and exceeds their expectations.
VR is well-suited for any high-value project where you want to create a personalised and immersive digital representation of a physical environment. VR is increasingly being used to visualise concepts in a way the customer finds almost indistinguishable from the real thing. This could refer to a new property development, single home, superyacht, commercial space, or even a new kitchen.
Customers across the board, and particularly HNWI audiences, now have a growing expectation of unique and personalised experiences from the brands they interact with. According to Accenture, almost 70 per cent of consumers want companies to personalise their brand experiences, and research by Epsilon highlights the value in doing so, revealing that 80 per cent of consumers are more likely to make a purchase when brands offer a personalised experience.
Buying a new home off-plan is certainly a more engaging prospect when you can ‘walk around’ the property before the first brick has been laid. Through VR you can show every worktop option available, compare paint and carpet colours, and even demonstrate how the light will fall in the drawing room at three in the afternoon. Convincing the customer that they need the optional ‘Belgravia package’ is surely easier when they can see the difference in the space and experience it from every angle.
At the lighter end of the spectrum, in response to the COVID-19 lockdown and the cancellation of boat shows around the world, we recently developed a virtual marina website for MTM client and luxury boatbuilder, Fairline. In this instance, the site was effectively a wrapper for the brand’s VR assets, allowing the user to access 360 tours of each yacht in the Fairline range. We combined the VR assets with a programme of live virtual events, tours and interviews, supported with a live-chat function to create an interactive hub for Fairline’s audience. You can see the project case study and results, here.
Tourism and hospitality
VR has similar applications and similar benefits for the world of travel and hospitality. From wedding venues to tropical islands, VR can do what no other medium can: transport the user to a different place and show them what it’s like in a way that feels immersive and real. Hotels and resorts can create virtual experiences to illustrate how customers will be looked after during their stay, the view from the lounge, or the journey from the honeymoon suite to the cove by water taxi. New properties can drive interest and excitement before completion with VR video experiences designed to show off the rooms and common spaces.
This type of application works best when combined with VR goggles, but a simplified version could also be used on your website or even through social media channels.
Engineering and manufacturing
VR has impressive potential to accelerate your R&D and reduce the need for physical product prototypes. Offering greater clarity of insight and increased flexibility, VR visualised assets let your team work iteratively, visualising design and functional changes on the fly – saving time and money.
However, for the audiences that like to see ‘under the hood’, and even for those less engineering-minded, there is something fascinating about understanding how something works or how an object is built. If you’re investing in VR as part of your R&D activities, don’t leave these assets hidden away. When possible, explore how you could adapt these models to support your communications and customer-relationship goals. This type of open approach builds trust with your audience and supports an authoritative expert-brand position, as well as helping with graduate recruitment and internal comms.
Sports, entertainment and membership
VR provides the opportunity to stand in someone else’s shoes and be immersed in a different environment. Whether that’s walking down the players’ tunnel at Old Trafford Stadium, watching Shakespeare from the best seats in the house or understanding what a trauma nurse endures during a shift, VR is able to transport the user and make them feel connected to their surroundings. This type of largely video-based experience is affordable to produce and flexible in terms of output so your investment can be leveraged across multiple channels and touchpoints. It is a fantastic way to reward your audience with something truly unique, create COVID-proof opportunities reach your audience or showcase your purpose.
Whilst it’s true that some industries are able to apply a higher and more immediate commercial value to their VR activities, every brand should be exploring how VR could be used to create superior customer experiences.
As your audience increasingly looks to understand what a brand represents and what it stands for, VR provides the unencumbered means to communicate your unique vision for the future, showcase your achievements, and highlight your history of innovation.
Equally, VR can be used to create a wide range of customer experiences, so long as it is authentic to the brand. In an older example from a few years ago, The North Face launched several VR experiences at its stores in the US and UK. Visitors could choose to experience Yosemite National Park or winter in Nepal. At the time, the brand received a large volume of positive coverage and helped support The North Face’s wider objective of elevating its experience across its retail stores, using the best available digital tools alongside in-store activities to create a seamless omnichannel campaign.
Another example of a simplified approach was provided by noughties fashion giant Topshop, which offered the public a unique front-row seat of their runway show during London Fashion Week. Using a 360º panoramic video stream, it provided the user with a single-seated position but with the ability to change their view independently, allowing them to feel the event’s atmosphere, follow a model down the runway, as well as access other brand content directly within the experience.
In the end…
There is no doubt that VR can add value to your customer experiences when aligned with your customer experience goals. Consider the technology as another powerful instrument in your marketing arsenal; a component of your communications strategy that is as suited to conveying your brand positioning as it is to driving tangible revenue growth.
VR, when done well, can offer excellent value but it does come at a price, so before you dive in, remember to always keep your customer experience goals in mind and know what you are looking to achieve. ROI may be difficult to calculate immediately so work with a professional agency partner that can extend the value of your investment, building a campaign and suitable KPIs around your VR activity and ensuring you can demonstrate what has been achieved.
By 2025, Facebook expects VR and immersive video to be the dominant forms of media on its platform. It might seem like a lot has to happen in the next five years to make that a reality, but Mr. Zuckerberg is right more often than not and I, for one, wouldn’t bet against him.