How digital virtual experiences reinforce the physical environment
Photo by iStock.com
By Bryan Laing, vice president, client services, IDL Worldwide
Industry observers continue to sound the death knell for retail, citing increasing growth in online sales, the shuttering of many a brick-and-mortar chain, and changing consumer shopping behaviors. They've got it all wrong, though: Retail and online operations are not at all at odds with each other. In fact, the digital and physical spaces can and should augment each other.
There is an opportunity in retail today that is largely unrealized: that of telling powerful stories through the retail environment and reinforcing them in the virtual one. Smart companies are recognizing this opportunity to elevate how consumers experience the brand. These organizations are leveraging meaningful experiences to make authentic connections with customers — ones that spark an awakening, memory or desire. They're doing so with rich interactions that start in the physical environment and are amplified in the virtual one. Social media has allowed for everyday influencers to broadcast their own reality shows, and powerful brand experiences in the physical world provide a great set and backdrop for storytelling in the virtual world.
Storytelling in the physical world is about bringing your brand to life. For a performance brand, that might mean leveraging a story behind the technology used, such as the fibers in a jacket. A lifestyle brand might bring emotive experiences to life in the physical world.
The best storytellers bring the digital into the physical in a meaningful way that reinforces the story and adds value to a customer's experience. Marketers are increasingly using virtual reality and augmented reality to accomplish this. No longer a novelty, brands are innovating by integrating VR and AR in new, more usable ways.
At South by Southwest 2018, Sony mixed the real world and the virtual across its week-long SXSW interaction. Visitors took shots, using a real-world soccer ball, on a virtual goalie in its WOW Studio. Guests at Sony's "Lost in Music" SXSW event put on PlayStation VR headsets and were guided through an immersive sound experience that included 576 speakers and a light installation. Visitors then shared the experience they had via their social channels, fueling a campaign that went far beyond the experience itself.
This tactic taps into consumer behavior itself. When something is special, people tend to want to share it. Millennials, for example, are a socially driven generation who have grown up with and expect high quality experiences. Shopping for this group, which has surpassed the Baby Boomers as the largest living generation, is more socially connected than ever. That's why even 81 percent of millennials' dollars are still spent in stores, not online, according to NPD Group.
Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are looking to share experiences with their family and friends, and some brands are tapping into that by creating events that bring the whole family together. Brands that tell stories, invite interaction, and encourage sharing can attract and convert consumers into purchasers.
The physical world offers a powerful storytelling experience because it appeals to each of the five senses. Consumers physically feel the brand story — feeling the softness of a sweater or inhaling the new-leather smell of a jacket.
The best of the best take it a step further, connecting that story by hitting on different emotions. Nike's #RISEABOVE tour did that by targeting inner-city communities that were rarely the focus of large brand marketing efforts. The tour consisted of a custom truck that allowed youths — many of whom were of a generation that had never seen Michael Jordan play — to test out new Jordan performance footwear. The truck featured a digital vertical leap test (a tie-in to Jordan's legendary four-foot vertical leap), with players sharing their results on a nationwide competition tracked on social media. The event prompted impromptu block parties as families rallied around the truck to try on shoes and talk to Nike's brand ambassadors.
There is, however, a major challenge to storytelling through physical and digital experiences: It requires a shift in thinking. A handful of brands do it really well — Kith, Burberry, Warby Parker, Nike and Under Armour are a few. A company solely focused on direct ROI, however, will find it hard to embrace spending its entire budget for a campaign on a single store in New York City, or a handful of stores in key markets. The campaign isn't likely to drive a lot of sales at those locations, although the impact on purchasing of real-world events is trending up. Rather, they are going to realize a massive return through influencers who experience the brand and tell others about it.
Experience is everything. Connecting with consumers on a deeper, more personal level through physical storytelling reinforced by digital experiences can help brands differentiate themselves from the increasingly commoditized shopping experience offered by Amazon and other digital marketplaces — and bring their brands to life.