There’s little doubt that the pandemic has fuelled the adoption of virtual experiences across the retail sector. From clothing to eyewear, furniture to beauty, there are few categories that haven’t ventured into AR, VR, 3D, Gaming, Immersive Social Media and Virtual Content as a way to connect with consumers stranded at home and unable to access physical stores.
This wave of interest has been bolstered by advancements in technology such as WebAR – the ability to view AR experiences through internet browsers rather than apps – offering wider accessibility. And with reports that the global AR market alone is expected to increase by $77bn by 2024 [technavio], if your brand isn’t already exploring opportunities in this space, now is your moment.
For more creatively-minded brands – and particularly those with strong sustainability credentials – these immersive technologies offer a more natural way for consumers to interact with products and services. It can be a platform to tell their unique brand story through immersive experiences, a way to connect with new user groups, to excite and entertain existing consumers, and an opportunity to deliver something memorable.
So, what does this actually look like?
Try before you buy
The most prevalent use of AR is the ‘try before you buy’ approach. Brands like Adidas and Nike have been investing heavily in this area recently, offering try-ons that not only visualise products in real-life scenarios – like placing a pair of trainers on your feet – but deliver useful information, like measuring your feet to advise on exact sizing.
From a sustainability point of view, this approach has a huge potential impact. Once 3D assets are generated, they have a plethora of uses, from product shots to online listings and social media content – all from a single suite of 3D assets where previously brands would have to pay for costly photoshoots of each physical product.
Additionally, the option to test a product before committing or simply view it as a 3D model in your own home not only increases the chance of sale (Shopify reported an up to 250% increase in conversions for retailers implementing AR technologies), but it can also heavily reduce the volume of returns as people gain a much clearer understanding of what they’re investing in, so the expectation vs reality becomes much closer.
Direct to avatar market
Taking this one step further, the direct-to-avatar market is growing rapidly. The D2A economy enables brands to craft unique products that can be used, worn or owned by people’s online personas (or avatars). And from a sustainability point of view, these items don’t exist in real life, so the resources needed to create and sell them are much lower.
To give some context, the D2A economy is said to comprise of 3.5 billion ‘Digi-sapiens’ with more than 55% of total spending power [Kerry Murphy, The Fabricant]. And whilst this trend may have originated in gaming, there are growing opportunities for more mainstream brands. Last year, Snapchat launched a partnership with Ralph Lauren, enabling users to choose products from the brand’s collection to clothe their Bitmoji avatars, and tech company Genies announced a partnership with Gucci, with the luxury brand releasing a series of digital assets tied to real Gucci products.
There are also opportunities for standalone digital-only fashion houses such as The Fabricant, whose powerful brand message is ‘we waste nothing but data and exploit nothing but our imagination’. In this world of one-of-a-kind digital dresses backed by blockchain, items can be sold for thousands of dollars without ever having existed in the real world.
The desire for these rare, special and often unique pieces of online craftsmanship is evolving, and so too must the brands that deliver them. The Non-Fungible Token (NFT) market grew 299% in 2020 [nonfungible.com], with NFTs primed to become the leading emerging asset class for the Virtual Economy in the coming years.
NFTs essentially offer proof of ownership over a digital item, confirming that it is an original, highlighting its rarity, and driving up its perceived value. For brands, this brings a wealth of opportunities since digital assets and content can now be seen as valuable and collectible.
Whether creating digital collectables to go alongside a new pack – for example, a drinks brand could release 500 digital artworks, all with NFT to give them added status – or rewarding customers in new ways, offering online collectables that appreciate over time rather than physical products, the creative outputs driven by NFTs are almost endless.
Where the sector has come under fire is its environmental impact. The recent surge in interest has seen many high profile NFTs being created and traded on platforms that use vast quantities of power to create them, making the process highly unsustainable. But this shouldn't scare brands off as we’re now seeing the rise of alternative options that use much less power and provide a greener alternative.
The key thing to look out for is whether the platform operates on a Proof of Work or Proof of Stake mechanism, with the latter being around 99% more energy efficient.
Virtual pop-ups and launches
With the pandemic restrictions forcing brands to be increasingly creative in their launch events and experiential design, many are turning to virtual launches and pop-up shops – dropping a shop in front of anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. Using volumetric capture studios, brands can create 3D footage of performances – think Tinie Tempah on a Whopper for Burger King – fans can view the experience from any angle, as many times as they like and even capture content to share on their own social channels.
OnePlus launched its OnePlus Nord smartphone in 2020 via AR platform Blippar, with a 26-minute livestreamed event that included a digital avatar of Co-Founder Carl Pei who presented the new release to viewers. Then there’s Lamborghini, who released details of the Huracán EVO RWD Spyder online with a ‘See in AR’ feature, enabling viewers to view the new model in their own driveway, yard or wherever they pointed their iPad or iPhone.
By taking the virtual rather than physical event route, brands are able to deliver an engaging experience and reach a much wider audience with a greatly reduced environmental impact. No building materials, no travel to and from the event, no utilities. Just a powerful immersive experience.
Building pre- and post-purchase connections
Every brand has a story to tell. Whether it’s a dynamic young start-up with a strong purpose message or a heritage brand built on family ties and expertise. Immersive virtual experiences have the power to humanise this message, bringing it to life in new and exciting ways, and enabling consumers to better understand what they’re buying into.
In store, connected packaging can engage customers both pre-purchase – when considering which product to buy – and post-purchase – to add value to the experience, driving engagement and increasing awareness (for example, where to recycle after use), ultimately increasing sales. At home, immersive experiences can help consumers feel connected, building experiences and relationships that draw them into a wider brand world with interactions that fuel a mutually beneficial relationship.
So, whether its reducing returns to store, encouraging recycling of packaging or lowering energy consumption during the brand-consumer interaction, the adoption of immersive virtual experiences offers almost limitless possibilities for sustainability-focused brands.