Birchbox’s Monthly Deliveries Will Give Virtual Reality a Fascinating Test Run

Combining cutting-edge tech with direct mail

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Online beauty retailer Birchbox is the latest brand to take virtual reality for a spin. In August, subscribers to Birchbox Man, a monthly service providing grooming-product samples, will find a cardboard viewer in the box to watch four branded video clips.

It's the first time the e-tailer has experimented with virtual reality, and its monthly mailings could be a boon to the technology if the brand is able to consistently crank out new content. Instructions in the box prompt subscribers to download an iPhone or Android app to watch the clips.

Birchbox Man worked with VR company River to create four different experiences. In one scene, people surf inside a wave. In another, a virtual helicopter tour gives a bird's-eye view over mountains and a body of water.

"This is a way to get people to understand the technology in a different way and have an experience that's unique and memorable," said Brad Lande, general manager of Birchbox Man. "The juxtaposition between the Cardboard—which is a very basic technology—and how immersive this feels is a great opportunity to put in the box."

Each Birchbox Man box costs $20, but the e-tailer doesn't break out how many subscribers it has. Birchbox Man and Birchbox (the women's version that focuses on beauty products) have more than 1 million total subscribers.

Josh Payton, vp of user experience at Huge, guessed that the price of a viewer is roughly the same as the cost of the grooming products Birchbox Man mails.

"Birchbox is uniquely positioned to associate themselves with something as forward thinking and unique as Cardboard without it seeming like a crass gimmick," he said. "I think it's a brilliant and well-timed move."

Can Birchbox Pump Out VR?

Birchbox doesn't have any immediate plans to start churning out monthly VR content, but its business model lends itself well to building a library of video it can update regularly.

Brands like Mountain Dew are using a similar approach, but those efforts rely on Oculus Rift, meaning that someone has to go to an event that's offering a VR headset to play around with the technology.

"The advantage that Birchbox has is that now that all of their subscribers are guaranteed to own a Google Cardboard, the company can continue to offer VR content and test its relevance with this group, which can be extremely valuable," said Adrian Slobin, global innovation lead at SapientNitro.

Meanwhile, Birchbox is also ramping up its retail footprint, which could be an opportunity to put VR to other interesting uses. Yesterday, Birchbox announced plans to open two new brick-and-mortar stores, one of which will only sell men's products, after opening its first shop in New York last year.

Part of the reason for the stores is that Birchbox's subscription services that send product samples actually help boost sales for competitors like Sephora and Ulta. Using VR with e-commerce could help bolster the brand—imagine getting a virtual tour of the store or watching a shoppable tutorial video.

"Subscription-based e-retailers, especially ones with a business model like Birchbox where users can try luxury products without a commitment, will greatly benefit by giving consumers new ways to try their products and get connected to the brands they're promoting," Slobin said.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.