the virtual reality of automotive marketing

For me, a tool which severs the user from the immediate world and elicits a sense of security in a false ‘reality’ will always belong firmly housed in Room 101. I am in no doubt that my archaic view predominantly hails from me being a cantankerous northerner rather than any kind of disdain for the technology itself. Khal recently wrote a piece on VR and its immense possibilities and current limitations within the context of personal leisure. We’re still waiting for the VR boom in marketing.

Facebook invested $3 billion acquiring Oculus VR back in 2014 – I’m no digital trend forecasting expert but Mark Zuckerberg seems to know what he’s talking about so I’m inclined to believe that VR really is the next big thing. Khal also identified VR technology at the moment as ‘commercially unviable’ within an ‘immature’ industry. What shape will the future of marketing adopt once we’re firmly in the age of VR? Specifically, in the case of automotive marketing – how could the impending surge in VR technology impact the way we buy, sell and market cars?

As far as I’m concerned, VR smacks of the dystopian visions of our future as depicted in much literature of the twentieth century, as well as Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror.

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However begrudgingly, we must all adapt to a world where being ‘social’ now implies ‘online’ and ‘most likely in a room by yourself, or otherwise ignoring those you’re sat next to.’

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I’m not being supercilious, I’m very much guilty of this too. I struggle to understand how VR could possibly have a place in the automotive marketing industry, when it seems to alienate the user from the immediate world, and any kind of genuine social interaction. Are traditional forms of marketing unbalanced by a move toward online channels? For how much longer will we employ radio, print, television and direct mail in our automotive marketing campaigns? Is guerrilla marketing now an antiquated approach to resonating with people? It’s certainly destabilised by online adverts where capacity to measure ROI is the first priority in most of our briefs. At the moment, a multi-channel approach is still the strongest option.

The subsidence of the showroom sale

Car buying trends are already changing as car purchasing is beginning to shift online and away from the showroom. In a recent article by the BBC, the ‘death of the [car] salesman’ was identified.

The benefits of buying a car online are problematic but nonetheless understandable: for the less-than-expert car purchaser, you can choose your new vehicle at your own pace, in the comfort of your own home. The fear of receiving a condescending snicker from the sales manager in response to your question, or being coerced into new finance plans, unnecessary extras or some form of drivers’ club membership: all gone! The sweaty palms and nervous laughter many associate with the stress of walking into a car dealership could be a thing of the past – you can google every question you’d be embarrassed to ask in the dealership. In his article, Brian Milligan writes that ‘our appetite for physical reconnaissance may be waning’. Perhaps this loss of appetite for physical experience (which I’ve taken to mean literal experience) is the opportunity for VR’s renaissance.

VR: a vision forwards or a step backwards?

Does virtual reality offer a platform to bridge the gap between those brave souls who can command a car forecourt, and the mere mortals who thrive in less pressured retail climes? It’s not too difficult to envisage a future where buying a car involves popping on a headset at home and employing an avatar to deal with the uncomfortable experience of committing the majority of the last three months’ pay cheques. As marketers, we have to realise that the automotive industry is moving away from a face-to-face experience, to one where many people may not even test drive a car before purchasing. Indeed, Volvo is the first automotive brand to offer a virtual reality test drive.


VR is beginning to creep into marketing campaigns. Others worth noting include Coca-Cola’s virtual reality sleigh ride and the McDonald’s Happy Meal box which transformed into a cardboard VR headset with its own skiing app.

happy-goggles-hed-2016.jpgIn campaigns a little closer to home, hps Jardine was tasked with creating a campaign to increase awareness of BMW’s futuristic ‘Next 100 Years’ experience at the Camden Roundhouse and to drive footfall to the event. Guests were invited to view the vision car through a VR headset. The campaign was so succesful that we recently received a highly commended award at The Drum Network Awards. Read our case study here.

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The reality is, VR is on its way into the marketing industry. At the moment, it’s new enough to be novel and novel is good. You can’t ignore VR in the same way as we all automatically avert our gaze from online pop-ups, and that ASOS remarketing ad of the new trainers we’re waiting until payday to get... It’s immersive. It’s memorable. As much as I hold a personal grudge against this kind of tech, the possibilities for utilising VR in the marketing industry should elicit excitement in even the most backward northerner!

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Account Administrator on the MINI campaign team. Lover of all things literature, blues music and food related.

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