Once Considered Gimmicky, Branded AR Is Having Its Moment

The tech has come into its own as a marketing tool

a baby shooting lasers from it eyes on the left and the right says baby laser tag
Amazon Prime Video is just one brand that's delved into AR to substitute for real-life activations. Amazon Prime Video

Before the world went into quarantine, sunglasses maker Bollé had a simple and reliable tactic for sales success: have the customer try on a product with a sales assistant present. More than half the time, boom, a sale was made.

But when Covid-19 sapped the appeal of physical shopping—much less putting a communal pair of sunglasses on your face—in-store sales plummeted. The brand had to get creative.

That’s why the company has more recently turned to augmented reality—specifically, a customizable Instagram filter—that lets customers see how the sunglasses look. Users from Bollé’s 25- to 44-year-old audience would spend an average of 14 seconds playing with the tool, according to the digital agency behind it, M7 Innovations.

Experts say pandemic-specific use cases like Bollé’s and the ease of building AR tools in social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram have led to a new surge in popularity. And other brands have also recently turned to AR campaigns as a way around gaps in their ability to engage with consumers during quarantine.

Uses range from engaging alternatives to physical events or activations from brands such as Amazon’s Prime Video and Tribeca Film Festival to virtual fitting rooms or showroom demos from the likes of Ford and Kendra Scott jewelry. The goal is to keep brands top of mind with consumers when in-person interactions are largely impossible.

According to eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson, companies are realizing that “this might be actually a good way for us to still market to consumers when they’re not able to get out and go to stores or be out in their environment as much.” 


Brands have been exploring new uses for AR as quarantine measures force them to get creative with virtual interactive content:

With its trademark large-scale activations off the table, Prime Video created an AR shooter game called Baby Laser Tag to promote its series The Boys.

Ford produced a series of documentary-like AR segments on its Mustang Mach-E electric vehicle in Instagram Stories.

The Tribeca Film Festival created an AR feature that let users place dancing avatars in videos to keep people engaged with filmmaking after the event was postponed.

The trend is helping AR tech graduate from a bell-and-whistle novelty to a practical, everyday marketing tool in its own right. It’s even one that Apple CEO Tim Cook recently predicted will come to “pervade our entire lives.”

“With AR, it was always this bolted-on novelty [for brands] to be like, ‘We did it!’ But it wasn’t really aligned with a brand’s other marketing efforts,” said Matt Maher, founder of M7 Innovations. “What we like about the clients we work with—like Bollé, Panera and Chanel—is that it’s in their marketing plans.”

Williamson noted Snapchat in particular deserves credit for having set the foundation. But the company doubled down on AR during the pandemic, with a host of new features that both expand the tech’s capabilities and make it easier for brands to use.

For instance, Snapchat recently launched a new shoppable AR feature in partnership with Gucci, which kicked off what the luxury brand claims is the first branded AR shoe try-on feature to ever hit the platform. The tool allowed users to click a “Buy now” button on the image of the product.

Instagram’s AR studio can’t match Snapchat in performance, experts say, but it offers more potential audience and reach. Instagram parent Facebook also announced a new generation of AR-enabled headsets, and TikTok rolled out a Branded Effects feature similar to Snapchat and Instagram filters.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@patrickkulp patrick.kulp@adweek.com Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.