INFLUENCER: Stuart Waplington, CEO of Happy Finish, on the emotional addition that virtual reality offers
I have always been interested in Virtual Reality. I played my first computer game by typing it out, line by line, in the BASIC coding language into a Spectrum ZX81. Virtual Reality made a brief appearance in amusement arcades in the late 1980s and then disappeared again due to latency, reliability and expense. Since then I could hardly wait for the full immersive experience and it has been a long time coming.
So fast forward to 2012 and I find myself running a company called Happy Finish where we produce a lot of imagery and computer generated animations for global brand advertising, and finally the Oculus Rift appears on Kickstarter, and Virtual Reality is about to emerge from its long hibernation in university research departments and back into the commercial arena.
Of course as a company we saw the potential for its use in product advertising, marketing and sales immediately, but when we received our Kickstarter dev kit in May 2013 the experience had a profound effect and we realised that this could be a tool of a CMO’s dreams.
It was an overcast day in East London in the offices of Happy Finish. The Oculus DK1 had just arrived and was shipped with a Tuscan villa experience, where you could wander around the interior and gardens in the middle of summer. As a sun worshipper and lover of all things Italian, when I took the headset off I felt an emotional pang. My heart sank just a little which was odd considering consciously I never left overcast East London. This was when I realised that the experience had spoken directly to my emotional brain as well as to my conscious logical brain.
This was when Happy Finish went ‘all in’ on VR, which has proven to be a very good decision in hindsight. In the 1960s brand advertising stopped focusing purely on features and benefits, and started to work on creating emotional connections between the brand and the user, understanding that purchase is rarely a purely rational experience. ‘Sell the sizzle, not the sausage’ as the saying goes. So is VR the ultimate tool for doing this?
Let's look at some hard evidence for this.
Numerous university studies have shown that virtual reality can improve irrational anxiety triggered by phobias by giving people virtual experiences of the thing they are scared of; spiders, heights, public speaking, flying to name just a few. The methodology goes that the subject learns to experience the phobic trigger and not feel anxiety in a safe environment using VR, and it has been repeatedly shown that when they get back into the real situation, measurable anxiety levels reduce by 20 – 60 per cent depending on the study.
Why would this be? Why does VR have an effect on people’s emotions far more than just telling them their fears are irrational? You can tell someone verbally you are more likely to win the lottery than experience a commercial aviation accident but it makes little difference to them when they get onto a plane and it’s hurtling down the runway making disturbing loud noises! So VR is talking to the brain in a different way altogether, and that is why it is so valuable to CMOs and brand managers.
So is the effect of VR just limited to the fear of emotion? No it isn’t. Numerous other university studies have shown VR can create long term effects on confidence, empathy, memory, stress, compassion and happiness. So it’s a really powerful tool, so much so that some people are already calling for regulation on how it is used and I would say that when we truly realise how powerful it is, regulation is inevitable and desirable.
So what's the takeaway for CMOs, Brand Managers and Brand Strategists? How does this translate into an actionable advantage for brands?
As for all conventional non-immersive marketing, it’s all in the execution, but the main take away is that the power of the medium goes beyond anything that exists currently. Ultimately consumers are not driven to consume a physical product, rather they seek out the emotional experience that the product gives them. VR can give them the emotional sensation of the consumption experience before they have even bought it, creating emotional memories of consumption prior to purchase.
In short, VR is Inception for brands. Use wisely.
 For example, VR in empathy treatment: D. C. Krawczyk et. al. 2012, University of Texas, Texas Southwestern Medical Centre
 The role of virtual experience in consumer learning. Journal of Consumer Psychology. Li, H. R., Daugherty, T., & Biocca, F. (2003).
Stuart Waplington is CEO of Happy Finish