I’m coming to the end of the first year of my British Academy Postdoctoral Research project on Immersive Promotional Media (IPM). This is a 3-year project which will use interviews, focus group and analysis of immersive marketing campaigns to paint a clearer picture of what immersive promotional media is, how it is being used within marketing strategies, and what value it provides to audiences and producers.
‘Immersive’ experiences are becoming increasingly hard to avoid. Facebook continues its mission to get 1bn people into VR headsets, Playstation’s latest VR release Blood and Truth tops UK games sales charts and Harry Potter fans await the release of the AR location-based game Wizards Unite, based on Niantic’s previous success Pokemon, Go!. Beyond gaming, the ‘immersive’ label has been attached to theatre, cinema, art exhibitions, dining experiences and, most recently, an immersive music album.
Marketers have been experimenting with these kinds of experiences for some time. With large budgets at their disposal and brands desperate to reach consumers through a haze of digital noise, Gilmore & Pine’s (1999) Experience Economy seems to be reaching its zenith with the emergence of the Immersive Economy. Films, games, TV series and consumer products as diverse as cider and electric cars have been promoted using immersive techniques and technologies. Yet very little research addresses how these experiences function in marketing contexts.
This project attempts to get a better understanding of IPM, how it works and who it benefits by looking at the following key research questions:
- What is immersive promotional media? As more technologies and marketing strategies start to emerge, the terminology becomes increasingly vague. What does immersive marketing encompass and what does it exclude?
- Do these strategies establish significantly new aesthetic, narrative and affective experiences and relationships between consumers, brands and marketers?
- If so, what is the nature of these new relationships and how are they established?
- What value does this hold for consumers and producers? Who benefits from these new configurations of texts and experiences, and in what way?
- What is at stake when we invite audiences to become ‘immersed’ not only in a piece of storytelling or narrative world but in something which is (explicitly or otherwise) a piece of branded content? What are the textual, ethical, financial and regulatory implications of this mode of address?
This past year I have mostly been preoccupied with the initial question, which has proved more challenging than I anticipated! The term ‘immersive’ is significantly overused, to the point that many have bemoaned its lack of meaning as an analytical tool (Calleja 2011; White 2011). As a result, the quest to define ‘immersive’ promotional media, is necessary to this project but also a highly frustrating endeavour!
Immerse UK’s 2018 report into the Immersive Economy in the UK defines the Immersive Economy in specifically technological terms, encompassing virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and haptic technologies. It describes a young but rapidly growing sector that spans industries as diverse as entertainment, manufacturing, engineering and healthcare. Much as this growth presents new creative possibilities, these are also framed as important economic opportunities for the UK’s creative economy. The government’s 2018 Industrial Strategy investment of £33m into the research and development of immersive content aims to double Britain’s share of a global market which is expected to be worth over £30 billion by 2025. Clearly, the economic stakes are high.
But this focus on tech tends to exclude non-digital immersive promotional experiences. High-profile immersive theatre producers Punchdrunk have been involved with several corporate projects for brands including Sony, Heineken and Stella Artois, providing in-depth branded storytelling experiences in physical spaces. However, in marketing-speak, this kind of campaign is more readily described as ‘experiential marketing’, whereby which enable personal, usually face to face interactions with or between consumers in real life settings. ‘Immersive marketing’ tends to describe campaigns which use immersive technologies like VR or AR. Yet the distinction between the two is blurry and both seem to work towards similar goals of consumer-centered, experience-focussed events and/or content. The two are not mutually exclusive and often combine in what some marketers describe as ‘phygital’ (physical + digital) approaches.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
This installation at London’s King’s Cross station encompassed a giant T-Rex statue, gyroscopes manned by ‘park rangers’ encouraging children to clamber inside for instagrammable photo ops, and theme music which played as travellers exited trains on selected platforms. Finally, an ominously branded shipping container appeared outside the station. Despite its appearance, it was not housing angry dinosaurs but a less threatening handful of plastic chairs and Oculus VR headsets. Curious commuters were treated to the short VR film Jurassic World: Blue, in which they were guided across the doomed Islar Nublar by beginnings of the volcanic eruption that is the focus of the start of the film.
Giggs Big Bad album launch (2019)
An AR mural in Shoreditch designed to promote the London rapper’s recent album launch. Prompted by a QR code on the wall, passers-by could activate an AR app on their phone which, when held up to the wall brought the mural to life.
Absolut Silverpoint (2016)
This collaboration between Punchdrunk, Absolut Vodka, Somethin Else and the Andy Warhol Foundation devised a mobile app game based on Warhol’s lesser-known Silverpoint sketches. Players who reached the latter levels of the game then became embroiled in a live performance that took place across streets, cafes and bars in London.
Immersion here is not about technology so much as the nature of the audience’s experience. Calleja’s 6 ‘dimensions of involvement’ (2011), might provide a more useful framework for conceptualising the ‘I’ in IPM as a spectrum of audience experiences connected by several shared characteristics.
These campaigns offer an idea of what ‘immersive’ marketing looks like beyond individual technologies. Whether they are really establishing radical new forms of brand storytelling and audience/brand relationships are yet to be seen. It is still unclear precisely what kind of value IPM holds for stakeholders as varied as brands, agencies, technology providers and audiences themselves. Future work on the project will investigate this further using interviews and focus groups with people who both make and consume immersive promotional media.