Virtual reality is taking off in product marketing. At North Face stores, it makes trying on a pair of hiking boots seem like a stroll through Yosemite.
At IKEA, customers use the interactive, computer-simulated environments to picture new furniture in their homes. And at Volvo, prospective buyers can “test drive” vehicles through a virtual experience.
“The largest companies in the world are starting to create virtual reality experiences for their customers,” says Andrew Perkins, professor of marketing at the Carson College of Business and director of the Center for Behavioral Business Research (CBBR).
Virtual reality in marketing is a cutting-edge area for academic research—and the CBBR is a leader in the effort, Perkins says. Over the past year, the center conducted a half-dozen virtual reality studies.
At the CBBR, researchers study retail brands and consumer experience. Past work has included branding for Cosmic Crisp apples and attitudes about natural Christmas trees. Recent equipment purchases allowed the center to move into the virtual realm.
“The big question for industry is whether what we know about consumer behavior applies in these virtual spaces,” Perkins says. “If it does, that’s really interesting. If not, it’s a whole new world for consumer behavior research.”
Virtual Experiences and Brand Affinity
High intensity experiences—where your heart pounds and your skin temperature increases—influence how people perceive brands, Perkins says. But can a high-intensity virtual experience produce the same type of brand affinity? For the marketing industry, that’s a multimillion dollar question.
In one of the CBBR’s initial virtual reality studies, participants donned a headset to experience a virtual art gallery. As participants moved through the gallery looking at paintings, avatars walked by.
Survey participants thought the art gallery’s temperature was slightly warmer when avatars were nearby compared to when survey participants were alone in the gallery.
“This is insane when you think about it,” Perkins says. “The physical room temperature hasn’t changed, and there isn’t anyone around you other than these nonreal avatars. Yet we’re getting this effect, and that’s why we’re so excited.”
In another virtual reality study, study participants were transported to beautiful places and asked to rate their feelings of awe.
“These sorts of awesome experiences change how you perceive your world,” Perkins says. Researchers want to know “how that kind of experience in a virtual setting influences your perceptions of the brands associated with it.”
For the generation of consumers who grew up playing video games, using virtual reality while shopping isn’t much of a leap, Perkins says.
At the CBBR, virtual reality studies are still in the initial phases. But given their importance to industry, “you can expect to see a lot more in the next few years,” he says.