Augmented Reality Is Having a Moment. Don't Miss Out

How to get involved in this exciting technology

Augmented reality has received much attention over the last few months as stores closed their doors and consumers sheltered in place.

AR brings the in-store buying experience into consumers’ homes. Shoppers can see how a new pair of glasses, cute summer dresses or freshly dropped sneakers look like on their own faces, bodies and feet, thereby increasing confidence when buying online. And even as physical stores reopen around the world, AR is a good solution for customers who worry about trying on items that have been touched by countless hands before them.

Augmented reality is clearly having a moment.

However, thinking about AR only in terms of an ecommerce play can badly backfire for brands. Helping customers gauge the dimensions and looks of products is important, but this is merely a very narrow slice of AR’s potential for marketing. As marketers, we not only want to reassure customers, we wish to excite them.

Creating experiences that excite customers is more important than ever. A recent survey showed that 84% of customers say that the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services.

The potential of augmented reality to create engaging experiences at scale is too often overlooked when AR’s use for marketing is confined to an ecommerce perspective. And that’s a shame because AR solves several problems that are inherent in experiential marketing. Experiential campaigns are often very limited in scope and reach, but brands can try to extend the reach by upping the stakes.

Thinking about AR only in terms of an ecommerce play can badly backfire for brands.

With over 1 billion highly capable AR devices already in consumers’ hands today, augmented reality can provide active and engaging experiences at scale. In each of the examples below, AR shines not because it helped consumers imagine how a product would look like but because it transported them into an experience.

Tim Hortons virtual fireworks

Even though Canada has done a great job in containing the novel coronavirus crisis—or maybe because they are doing such a great job—Canada Day parades and public fireworks displays were canceled for July 1.

Quintessential Canadian brand Tim Hortons sponsored virtual fireworks that were visible at 10 p.m. It utilized web AR to display traditional-looking fireworks into the night skies—with a twist. Some of the explosions took more complex forms, such as a beaver, hockey sticks and a maple leaf.

The Canada Day experience adopted the same format of actual fireworks to resonate with people. But it also used AR to do things fireworks’ displays could not do in the real world, such as adding Canadian symbols and a longer timeframe to witness the event.

Budweiser’s Fourth of July lens

For many years, Budweiser has positioned itself as an all-American brand. In 2016, Budweiser’s digital counterpart to an Independence Day campaign was a Snapchat lens that enabled consumers to transform themselves into Uncle Sam.

The Fourth of July AR lens is a self-serve experience that places each individual customer at the center of a cultural event. And since the lens was provided through a social platform, word of mouth was only one tab away.

Adidas’ For the Oceans

Adidas’ goal is to replace all virgin polyester with recycled marine waste by 2024. To this end, it has partnered with Parley for the Oceans, an activist group that raises awareness for the fragility of our oceans and takes actions to end their destruction.

An in-store AR experience on a custom-built mobile app transformed the store into an ocean. Consumers were able to get up close with whales but also saw a lot of plastic floating around these majestic creatures. It was an interactive experience that encouraged participation where consumers picked up the plastic to progress the experience and learn how a threat turns into thread (Adidas will use the marine plastic to create yarn for 11 million pairs of shoes this year).

This AR experience excels because it is deeply woven into an existing brand story of affecting change through sports and innovation. The AR experience also ties in with real-world experiential marketing campaigns. For World Oceans Day in June, Adidas hosted 5K runs in New York and other major cities, during which the streets were illuminated with blue lights to reflect undersea tones.

As an immersive medium, AR can provide visual experiences that are highly emotional and anchor new perspectives into consumers’ minds. In addition, the active nature of AR experiences can jumpstart behaviors by simulating actions. Picking up garbage in a virtual ocean may lead customers to pick up garbage at an actual beach.

United Way’s #Unignorable Tower

In the greater Toronto area, more than 116,000 individuals and families struggle to have a roof over their heads. It’s a faceless problem that seems removed from our everyday experience.

United Way created an app that displays an #Unignorable Tower into Toronto’s skyline. It is visible from every part of town and a powerful reminder that one in seven residents aren’t able to make ends meet. United Way created a powerful shift in consumers’ perspectives by transporting them into an alternative reality, not into an external world. While this campaign utilized a single AR object that was widely visible, other campaigns that take advantage of the emerging AR cloud can adopt much more distributed approaches.

As AR cloud technology rapidly matures, marketers have new opportunities to create AR experiences that are anchored in particular places. Apple recently announced location anchors in its iOS update. Combined with powerful depth sensors that already exist in the iPad (and will without a doubt come to the iPhone in 2020), our handheld devices will be able to make sense of their environment and emplace virtual things at specific locations. This enables marketers to create large-scale alternative realities whose power lies in transforming consumers’ perspectives within their familiar surroundings.

Bigger potential of AR

While conversions are important, they are the effect of larger branding efforts that focus on building emotional connections, trust, excitement and word of mouth. Rather than being focused on conversion, experiential AR is focused on brand building.

Consumers have embodied experiences they can enjoy flexibly and at scale. The fact that the water of Adidas’ For the Oceans app isn’t real is actually a good thing since it would be a hard ask to make shoppers dripping wet. And getting a permit to install a 2 million-gallon fish tank in your store isn’t easy, either.

At the same time, AR is better than using digital screens because it preserves the embodied component of the experience. AR can level-up experiences, whereas product visualizations have a natural ceiling (i.e., the real thing) they can never reach.

AR directly plays into consumer fantasies and excitement, and that’s what marketing is all about.