The Flawed, Bright Future of Virtual Reality and Content Marketing

In 2016, virtual reality got real; in fact, it got $1 billion real – and the reality is projected to reach $80 billion by 2025.

Agencies, brands, and publishers are placing big bets on the medium, opening VR studios, dedicated to making this content, and creating dedicated channels for VR content. They see VR’s immersive ability as a potentially powerful tool to sell products and experiences.

However, despite all the buzz, the reality is that the integration of virtual reality into our daily routines – and the daily routines of brands – will be a much slower progression.

VR & Branded Content: Until Now

As of today, VR is still in its early stages. VR Gear is only starting to become a fixture in people’s homes and still costs a lot of money to purchase. Additionally, as of now, the gear still requires users to go through the effort of downloading several apps to view the content. Finally, VR is still fairly expensive to produce.

As a result, many branded VR experiences, up until this point, have relied on staging their VR as a stunt and experiential event. This means that we’re often left watching YouTube recap videos of other people watching branded VR content and reacting, which is not always so exciting or meaningful.

However, as Google, Sony, and Apple work to make VR mainstream, it looks as though this may no longer be an issue in the near future. This leaves us with an even bigger hurdle – making sure that creators take VR beyond just its “gee whiz” factor and begin creating high-quality VR content.

Pong, Jar Jar Binks, Virtual Reality & Context

Remember Jar Jar Binks, probably the worst CGI character of all time?

Much like CGI in movies, today’s greatest threat to virtual reality is the quality of the story and characters. Because VR is still at a “gimmick” stage, the risk right now for its longevity are people executing VR poorly and cutting corners to be at the forefront of something they don’t understand.

Sure, it’s cool to strap on goggles and be projected into a fancy hotel room with a view of palm-strewn beaches, or speed through the Alps in a luxurious car, or fly on a burrito through deep space, but human beings still need context and meaning.

As of now, a quick survey of the VR spaces, reveals that many of the existing experiences are still totally meaningless. And even Pong, the lungfish of video games, created meaning through the drama of competition.

For VR to continue to succeed in the branded content space, marketers will need to find a way to integrate context into its technology. Marketers will need to remember the power of storytelling, or else risk giving birth to countless VR Jar Jar Binks in the coming years.

One might argue that VR creators should even look to an unlikely place for inspiration – writers.

VR and Versimiltude

If you think about it, writers learn early on that to compel readers to willingly suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in another world there must be versimilitude  –  a reality constructed through the five senses: touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste.

By offering a compelling story, dramatic conflict, sympathetic characters, and versimiltude, the writer can successfully hold a reader’s attention. Otherwise, the writer is wasting their time.

The same principle applies to virtual reality.

Five Virtual Reality campaigns that nailed storytelling

Unsurprisingly, VR and augmented reality efforts that prioritize telling a compelling story and feature dramatic conflict and authentic characters over selling someone something, are the ones that already resonate more deeply with consumers.

As VR technology becomes less expensive and more deeply assimilated into the ways people engage with information, brands and content managers should consider the five examples below as they build their own VR strategies.


UNICEF’s “Clouds Over Sidra” is an innovative interactive experience that allows users to witness the story of one child in a Syrian refugee camp in virtual reality using a smartphone and simple box-viewer. The storytelling helps participants empathize with the refugees’ circumstances, raises awareness, and bolsters fundraising efforts for UNICEF NZ.

The power of VR is the R part – the reality. Too often it is too easy for people to define their own realities in a context that legitimizes their decisions and places the world’s ugliness at an acceptable distance. In “Clouds Over Sidra” UNICEF closes that distance by contextualizing – without hyperbolizing – the plight of Sidra and juxtaposing the child’s innocence with the inhumanity of war. A very powerful use of VR, and storytelling.

Dreams of Dali

The “Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination” exhibit at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, uses the surreal experience of VR to extrapolate another layer of meaning from Salvador Dalí’s surreal art, specifically his 1935 painting Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus.” Every painting tells a story, and though thinking someone can add to the Spanish genius’s acclaimed work of the absurd is absurd in itself, this VR experience is beautiful, haunting, and respectful of the talent that created it.

The Dalí Museum, an organization with an artistic soul, understands the power of VR and how the human experience can not only be mesmerized by VR technology but challenged intellectually and spiritually by its content. By exploring Dalí’s painting in a 360-environment, the canvas is stretched and pulled like time itself, bending the very ideas of structure and context. The future of VR belongs to those with the strongest imaginations, and the vivid thinkers at the Dalí Museum have used their important platform to show the rest of us content marketers how impactful VR is done.

Patrón Tequila

Perhaps no other product on earth has generated more memorable (though often blurred) stories than tequila. Patrón Tequila’s VR experience titled “The Art of Patrón” begins with the classic storytelling platform “Every love story has a beginning…” and delves into the landscape, history, and processes that inform the taste and character of Patrón. All without a hangover.

This VR campaign offers an ethereal sensory experience as the viewer glides over, through, and around images of Mexican red clay, Weber blue agave, hot mason brick ovens, a rolling two-ton wheel of ancient volcanic rock, shiny copper pot stills, and a barrel room full of oak casks. As humans, we feel more connected to something when we understand the story of its origins and existence. This need for the context is hardwired into our DNA, and strongly defines our relationship with people and, yes, brands. By successfully using VR technologies to tell their story, Patrón has differentiated themselves from the competition and secured a powerful place in the psychology on viewers.

Michelle Obama 360

“Michelle Obama 360,” produced in collaboration with the Verge, tells a story on many levels as the First Lady explains the challenges, strategies, and motivations behind her attempts to reach young people and integrate technology into her health and fitness initiatives. Young people define what is cool, so reaching them where the psychologically and emotionally hang requires a level of earnestness and authenticity that cannot be faked. Thankfully, the First Lady respects this reality.

This project begins with a quick overview of technology in American politics – beginning 240 years ago with the stump speech and leading up to modern social media channels – before delving into the evolving ways young people interact with information and how important eating healthy and being active is to their well-being and happiness. “Michelle Obama 360” also uses engaging animations throughout the video to draw attention to certain points, illustrate larger concepts, or connect related ideas. The end result is a VR ad that is informative without being preachy, and tech-savvy enough to be impressive without being too proud of itself.


The Dutch National Opera & Ballet’s “Nightfall” is a groundbreaking combination of art and technology that has catapulted a form of expression often perceived as conservative and old-school into a new – and very modern – type of spotlight. Unlike other VR ads that showcase vibrant colors and flashy animations, the power of this VR project is its focus on the simplicity of the human form. By melding nuanced tones of black and white with the strings of violin music and the meticulous craft of dance, the Dutch National Opera & Ballet has managed to capture the essence of the art. 

Key Takeaways

All of these efforts underscore the importance of a brand, product, or organization knowing the core of its values and integrating those attributes into the parameters of VR technology. Successful branded VR content does not use the spectacle of modern technology to compensate for lack of substance, nor hyperbolize brand identity in an effort to match the magic of VR capabilities. Effective VR branded content offers an organic intersection of brand aesthetics and values with the lens – which can be twisted and turned like a prism through the technology.

Isn’t it an amazing time to be a content marketer?

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