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Is augmented reality the future of brand storytelling?

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Should you be using augmented reality (AR) for your next brand campaign? With a projected $590 billion to be spent on advertising worldwide in 2018, companies are making important decisions as to where their money is best served. AR, having long promised to be an effective way for brands to engage their audiences, may finally be having its moment. But standing in its way are a number of considerations, such as the technology to use (headset versus mobile) and the type of AR (marker-based versus markerless).

Brands are trying to reach an increasingly fickle audience no longer willing to sit through a 30-second, or even 15-second, advertisement on TV. Companies have begun experimenting with six-second spots. Six seconds, however, is not a lot of time to tell a story or deepen the connection between the brand and the consumer. A major appeal of AR for brand campaigns has been its immersive nature, playful capabilities, and gateway to greater product information. Glen Glenday, the Chief revenue Officer at Shazam—a company that recently released its own AR platform—calls AR a “stickier piece of creative” for brands.

“AR has the capability to bring a product to life,” states Annie Eaton, CEO and co-founder of the Atlanta-based future technologies company Futurus. The firm creates custom AR programming for clients, along with virtual reality and 360° capture projects. Eaton believes that AR benefits not just the consumer, who may be gaining a deeper understanding of a product before purchasing, but also benefits the brand by enhancing its ability to tell a story. “The brand now has a direct avenue to tell their story to the consumer,” she continues. “So much of today’s brand awareness is fueled by brand storytelling. Consumers want to know where their products come from, and with the AR medium, brands now have the ability to control the narrative in an immersive way.” For example, an AR-enabled print ad in last November’s Esquire magazine for a new blend of Macallan Whiskey featured the magazine’s iconic mascot, Esky, pouring a glass of whiskey.

Moving away from hard selling and towards telling a story matches with the expectations of the coveted Millennials, who desire experience and interactivity. With a generational buying power that is predicted to be $1.4T by the year 2020, there is a lot at stake. And with Millennials seeking a two-way conversation with a brand instead of being “talked at,” AR may allow for a more engaging relationship. “Millennials are looking to connect with products that they buy on a deeper level than prior generations,” Eaton continues. She believes that brands looking to reach a younger demographic can benefit from activating a technology-based marketing campaign. The ever-important brand loyalty can be tied in with AR experiences that require multiple visits. In addition, Eaton mentions the alternative packaging that can be created to unlock different AR experiences as a method of keeping engagement levels high.

Predicting AR to be a boon for brand campaigns is nothing new, of course. Long before the Pokemon Go craze of 2016, media outlets have been making bold pronouncements about the expected impact of AR on advertising and as a widely-used medium. From the perspective of many of the experts I spoke with, AR is like many trends that depend on a confluence of factors to align for mainstream adoption. It relies on advancing smartphones (i.e. Depth-sensing cameras) and the eventual move towards headsets, along with an increasing level of quality AR content that creates a virtuous cycle of adoption. The past examples of AR for advertising have shown the technology’s potential, but have failed to live up to its promise.

“The brands got their returns, but it was underwhelming,” says Philippe Lewicki of AfterNow, speaking about the overall reception of earlier AR brand campaigns. “You couldn’t build a real story around it.” The LA-based agency, which specializes in mixed reality, has worked with companies such as Marvel, Disney, and Warner Brothers. According to Lewicki, much of the problem stems from thinking of AR only as marker-based AR—as opposed to the more nimble markerless AR. Marker-based AR utilizes a visual marker, such as a QR code, as opposed to markerless AR that is based on GPS location and often utilizes a smartphones’ velocity meter, digital compass, and accelerometer when displaying content. Many of the experts I spoke with, including Lewicki, were optimistic that the transition to more marker-less AR and less marker-based AR would be better for the overall user experience and reputation of AR. While markerless AR often has difficulty showing an accurate representation of space, newer smartphones with depth-sensing capabilities will erase this downside.

”That didn’t really deliver the full promise of AR,” says Lewicki, speaking about marker-based AR like scannable QR codes that would augment a user’s view with additional info or content. While this earlier iteration of AR with branding may have failed to live up to the hype, Lewicki is sensing renewed interest and excitement. In particular, he (and others I talked with) believes that Apple’s new iOS 11 mobile operating system, which includes the ARKit tool kit for AR app developers, as well as Google’s new ARCore, are indications of a sea change with acceptance and use. In addition, Microsoft recently announced an update to Windows 10 (starting October 17) that will incorporate better AR capabilities. “We are seeing a renewed interest to reboot the story with AR,” says Lewicki. His agency is getting a lot of requests around live entertainment events where sponsors are incorporated into the festival happenings.

Similar to the opinion of other AR experts I spoke with, Lewicki is counting on an eventual transition towards headsets in order to truly capitalize on the potential of AR with brand campaigns. Microsoft’s Hololens has had a lot of success on the enterprise level, but is seen as less appropriate for large AR brand campaigns. Lewicki mentions that every major company, such as Facebook, has been actively pursuing a headset future. The size and price, however, would have to come down considerably to promote mainstream adoption. Mobile will still be limited over the coming months, says Lewicki, “…but you can start seeing the possibilities.” He recommends that brands jump into AR and start experimenting. Lewicki saw this level of experimentation firsthand at a brand activation that AfterNow setup at the VRLA conference in April, where 500 participants went through a playful futuristic easter egg hunt while wearing Hololens. Designed to feel like you were inside a computer game, participants ended the experience in a photo booth with the virtual characters for shareable social content. The potential is there. “We are going to get into a renaissance with AR,” says Lewicki.

Will Li echos Lewicki’s excitement about the potential of AR with brand campaigns. “This is the next big thing after the mobile Internet movement,” he says. Li is the co-founder of Apollo Box, an e-commerce startup based in Santa Clara, CA that has been incorporating AR into its marketplace. Apollo Box is one of the first companies to build AR into the online shopping experience, where users can interact with certain virtual 3D products in their home environment by utilizing their markerless AR app. ”With a marker [marker-based AR], you feel the direct sell,” says Li. “With a markerless, it is just embedded.”

Li calls marker-based AR “AR 1.0,” and believes that society is now transitioning into the 2.0 stage. Given the advancing tools for developers, along with smartphones better equipped to offer realistic immersive experiences, Li feel that the next year or two will see a large increase in brand campaigns utilizing markerless AR. At the same time, similar to the sentiments expressed by other experts, just using AR is never enough. “The campaign is not going to be successful just because it is using AR,” says Li, who recommends a more strategic approach. He mentions the similar situation where companies raced to Facebook a few years ago, assuming that their mere presence on the platform was enough. It was not, of course.

“The brand marketer should instead focus on applications where they can connect AR to their core brand values/meaning and delivering value to their consumers/stakeholders with these technologies,” says Dogu Taskiran, CEO of Vancouver-based Stambol Studios. Stambol Studios recently launched an AR app that helped bring the Vancouver Turkish Film Festival’s posters and brochures to life. After aiming one’s smartphone at any one of the film festival posters throughout Vancouver, users were transported into a 3D movie theater to watch trailers and buy tickets. According to Taskiran, they saw increased engagement as the audience kept coming back to be able to view the augmented content through the physical posters.

“I believe they should leverage the unique abilities of AR (and VR) and place consumers in situations where they can engage them in ways that weren’t previously attainable but also have a certain level of emotional familiarity,” he says.

So far for Will Li and Apollo Box, the results have also been promising. According to the company, the products in their ecommerce platform that utilize markerless AR have received a 25% conversion boost. Li also noted that non-AR users on the ecommerce site spent 6 minutes per session while AR users spent 16 minutes. The more time one spends on a site, the more apt they are to make a purchase.

“We are entering the new area of product delivery,” says Mark Cheben, discussing the potential of AR to assist brands. Cheben is the Global Marketing Director for EON Reality, a global AR/VR company that has been working with AR (and virtual reality) since 1999. The company has worked with retail brands at shopping malls to create fashion installations to increase customer engagement by virtually trying-on clothes from brands like Kate Spade and Guess.

Cheben likes to think short-term, medium-term, and long-term with AR and brand campaigns. In the short-term, Cheben believes we are stuck with using a smartphone as opposed to a headset. In addition, he predicts that marker-based will still be the fallback AR until around 2020 (given the evolution of smartphone advancements). Similar to the other experts I spoke with, Cheben states that the handset and headset will eventually merge—and it’s through the headset that the full potential of AR campaigns can be realized. While the earlier iteration and failure of Google Glass as an AR headset may indicate a skeptical public when it comes to using a heads-up display, all the experts I spoke with appeared optimistic with the eventual transition from a smartphone to a wearable head display.

Until that point of when (or if) we fully transition to a heads-up display, agencies working with AR typically align the hardware to be used in the campaign with the overall goals of the brand. When Cheben is working with AR brand campaigns, he first likes to “suss out the value they are going for.” If the brand is looking to influence a few key decision-makers, an AR experience utilizing a headset such as Hololens would be appropriate. On the other hand, for a large-scale brand campaign that needs to reach 10k plus, a mobile application would be best. One campaign Cheben was proud of recently was an AR experience on behalf of the government of Singapore, where users were able to envision Singapore as a smart city. Envisioning the future is often a difficult concept to explain. “We communicated difficult ideas in smart ways,” says Cheben, about the benefits of AR.

Ultimately the future with AR and brand campaigns is closely tied to headset adoption and the evolution of smartphone capabilities. Brands are seeing the potential to target consumers increasingly weary of direct sales, or more in line with immersive experiences that are indirectly selling. While the outrageous success of Pokemon Go finally put AR into the public consciousness, experts are adamant about the need for brand storytelling and utility as opposed to the wowness of the tech. The goal of a brand campaign using AR, says Cheben, should be “to add value and not just being new and cool.”

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