How VR is changing automotive marketing

By December 5, 2016Uncategorized

At this year’s SXSW, Accenture Interactive managing director Abram Sirignano co-presented a talk called “Car Shopping: The Final Frontier of Ecommerce”. Together with AutoNation’s Famous Rhodes, he surveyed the shifting world of automotive marketing, what customers now expect and how OEMs would have to adapt.

We learned that 80% of people seeking to buy a car use some form of digital process according to the Accenture Global survey, while 75% of car buyers would consider taking the entire purchasing process online, subsequently raising questions about the future of the dealership. Perhaps the most poignant thought came when Sirignano called for brands to get out of the way and let customers fall in love with the car.

This felt like a profound and timely piece of advice, particularly in the US where, as he put it, “the car is still an expression of ourselves”. Sirignano was basically saying that even in ‘m-commerce age’, purchasing a car should still be a pleasurable and tactile experience. It should stir something in the customer.

But how do you achieve that when so much of the car-buying process now happens online, as we covered in part one of this series? The answer is in the problem – technology. One area that’s caused much excitement in the past few years, and a smidgeon of skepticism admittedly, is virtual reality.

VR headsets are becoming everyday items

Let’s start with the numbers. Goldman Sachs predicts that virtual reality in branded content will be worth $80 billion by 2025. Prices range from under £10 for a basic Google Cardboard headset to £770 for an HTC Vive. And although Strategy Analytics predicts that only two million Brits will get one this year, by 2019 one in four will own a headset. CCS Insight expects a whopping 24 billion devices to be sold worldwide by 2018. This technology is poised to go mainstream and now is the time to start testing and learning.

Much as been written about the benefits of virtual reality to the gaming and entertainment industries. Automotive design departments are clearly having fun, there’s lots of potential around enriching the in-car experience (Honda has a patent on this) and Toyota has been using it to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving among teens.

But what can it do for OEM marketing managers further up the customer journey? Here at Scorch, we often talk about the value of hero content, when a consumer is in browsing mode. That content should be engaging and raise awareness of your product or service. So how does virtual reality do that? Here comes the science part.

It’s not about presenting “actual reality via a virtual setting” as some cynics claim. Virtual reality creates this feeling of immersion, giving customers a heightened sense of presence in a constructed world. The deeper the sense of immersion, the greater their emotional response will be. The entry level is 360-degree video, which allows viewers to control what they see with a simple tilt of their smartphone or click of the mouse. These videos are quite popular on YouTube and Facebook, as we discovered during our Volley Interactive 360 campaign for Pepsi Max. They are also great value as CPM is significantly lower than more sophisticated technology such as Unity VR, while CTR is much better.

pepsi volley 360 vr ad agency

Which fits best?

Not all headsets are created equal; you get what you pay for. Strategy Analytics’ David MacQueen described the gulf in quality like this: “The experience of a Google Cardboard versus an HTC Vive is as different as listening to a car stereo versus being in the front row of a concert.” And quality costs. The graphics card needed to power top-of-the-range VR can reach £10,000 and above.

The more immersive the level of virtual reality though, the better the feel your customer will have for the car. In turn, they’ll be more likely to choose your dealership. Virtual reality can create a very positive shopping experience in an industry where test drives of the latest vehicles aren’t always possible and customers are trying to save themselves a little legwork.

However, the more costly the level of immersion, the smaller your reach is likely to be. It’s a question of what’s affordable to your core customer. So think about where you sit on the chart. What are your goals for that particular car model? Research by Greenlight VR shows that virtual reality can have a sizeable impact on brand perception, with 53% of respondents saying they would be more likely to purchase from a company that uses VR than from one that doesn’t. But investment is key.

Brands such as Jaguar Land Rover UK have tasted success by experimenting with virtual reality to preview models such as the F Type, F-Pace and Discovery Sport. As Robert Herd, head of communications, noted, there is now a lack of fear among consumers when trying new technology. “VR is incredibly successful for driving purchases. Initially consumers think it is gimmick but they quickly convert and it is driving a lot of additional car sales for us.”

Making VR part of the plan

So, we know that virtual reality is an increasingly influential part of automotive marketing. The next question is when and how should you use it? Honda’s Civic music video featuring Moses Sumney has generated more than one million views but it’s too easy to dismiss as 360-degree product placement and nothing more. You need something deeper that’s rooted in the core campaign idea or product.

One powerful application is test drives. Make a new car feel like my new car … before I even own it. Bring the test drive to me or transport me to my dream drive location, one that brings out the best in the vehicle. As mentioned in part oneVolvo was one of the first brands to do this, using the full-immersion capabilities of Unity VR to create a first-person, cross-platform app for their luxury XC90. We’ve been experimenting with 360 VR since 2013 and recently created a first-person experience to showcase the Renault Mégane GT using our custom-built rig and workflow.

renault megane 360 test drive creative agency

It’s important to make customers feel a sense of excitement about a car, and then allow them to share that. Ford did this to great effect with their Virtual Ford Mustang app, which creates a life-like image of the car wherever the user is. That person can then inspect and interact with it, hear the engine’s noise, configure and then share images of their dream model.

Better yet, why not give them the chance to share the test drive itself? For Mitsubishi’s Night Drive campaign, customers could tackle a racing track at midnight. They are shown a few features and can try “hill start assist”. At the end of the experience, everyone gets a highlight reel, which they can post as a GIF on social media. This also provides a hook to compel users to stay till the end. Result? Deeper engagement.

The customer need not drive alone, either. Fiat combined photo-realistic CGI with real-life footage and the magic of Dynamo to create buzz around their crossover 500X. Infiniti had similar success at their Q50 test drive events by using Oculus Rift to give Indy 500 fans the chance to race beside Indiana Pacers’ Jalen Rose. Apparently, 50% of people signed up for future communications – a much better return than at non-VR events.

Beyond the test drive 

Virtual reality can also lift the car configurator experience as Audi has done with the RS3, pioneered by Gateshead-based Zerolight. Allowing customers to make choices in 3D and explore a vehicle with complete freedom has proven very popular (attracting an impressive 66% more interactions compared to the 2D version).

Brochures can only go so far in conveying the full spectrum of colours and textures on offer. And sensory pleasure is everything at the luxury end of the spectrum, offering moments of interaction and personalisation. That’s why the likes of Lexus have been experimenting with augmented reality and virtual reality since 2015.

Clearly, brands can use virtual reality whenever it enhances a particular point in the customer journey – from the more experiential and immersive to the more business end of things. But where does it leave the dealership? Given the pace and degree of digitisation in this industry, how long before customers simply log on, choose a model, customise it, strap on a headset, test-drive it, click and buy?

The reality is that some car buyers will still want to sit in an actual car, have a friendly and knowledgeable person walk them through the key features, answer their questions and generally provide a high level of service. The showroom is simply becoming more of an amorphous, ephemeral concept.

The power of virtual reality is that it can inject excitement early on in the customer journey, making sure people come to the dealership more informed, enthused and focused on a particular model configuration. The dealership will then provide “the opportunity to verify that and make a final decision” as Saatchi & Saatchi director of 3D Michael Wilken put it.

But more on that in part four…

If you are curious about virtual reality and how it could boost your marketing campaign, request a Scorch consultation now.