After a seven-year hiatus, Gorillaz — the virtual band formed by musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998 — wanted a blockbuster comeback. For the launch of its fifth full-length studio effort "Humanz" this past April, the group tapped agency B-Reel for a campaign that brought together augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree video under one roof — and one mobile app — all while fitting into Hewlett and Albarn's humorously bleak vision.
"What inspired this album more than anything is that the world is in sort of a strange place at the moment," Davor Kravac, executive creative director at B-Reel, told Mobile Marketer. "They imagined it to be some kind of interpretation of the party at the end of the world. That was a bit of a joke that developed into a concept which is a reflection of the time that we live in."
The app has users start in the real world, with virtual objects floating up to meet them that act as a gateway to the Gorillaz house, which can be interacted with room-by-room in a series of mixed reality (MR) experiences that feature the four cartoon avatars making up Gorillaz — 2D, Russel, Murdoc and Noodle. Downloaded 30,000 times in its first hour live and 130,000 times over the course of its first day, the app also snagged B-Reel three awards at Cannes Lions in June, including the Gold Lion for mobile apps.
Continued rave reviews on iTunes and Google Play, along with the addition of new brand partners like Jaguar, have transformed it into an ongoing project that points to how immersive mobile technologies can sustain user engagement and campaign shelf life — an important lesson for marketers weighing whether to experiment in the space.
"What's really interesting about bands — and I would say you could also apply the same to brands — is that they've sought to tell their stories in innovative ways, and there's always been a search for a much deeper emotional experience," Kravac said. "That's what you always want to do with your audience."
From early on in their ideation process, Kravac and his team knew AR/VR was going to factor prominently into the app, but delivering the experience free via mobile was the top priority in keeping with Gorillaz' M.O. of being a "democratic platform."
"It wasn't the case of 'let's make the most cutting-edge experience we can for the most powerful phones.' It was a case of 'how can we make the most cutting-edge experience for everybody?'" Kravac said.
Given all the technology involved, actually building the app wasn't without its hiccups. However, integrating those tech elements organically into the rich lore of Gorillaz was an even greater challenge.
"We knew very little about what they were doing," Kravac said of the project's early days. "It was all super, super top secret stuff, as you can imagine with any kind of pop band of that magnitude."
In that regard, marketing for Gorillaz served as an important lesson in learning to work with a client that has an incredibly particular artistic direction for its brand narrative — a story with a long history that takes time and careful consideration to build upon.
"We almost had to earn the right to play around with it," Kravac said. "Once we got to that level where we felt confident, we immersed ourselves into [Gorillaz's] kind of universe and let it inhabit our creative process [...] that's where things really clicked creatively, and we quite quickly went into production."
Around the holiday season last year, a clearer picture of what "Humanz" was going to be emerged, providing a blueprint for the marketing of its release. B-Reel pitched Hewlett on the core app experience and its rollout, and, over the course of just three months, the virtual house started to take shape.
Burning down the house
An album launch from a band like Gorillaz called not just for a standalone app, but also a major marketing event to build hype on a global scale.
"Once we realized that the whole experience was essentially going to be a mixed reality approach, we ideated all the stuff around the AR house party and album release mechanics that were going to be geolocated," Kravac said. "We wanted to have the world's largest geolocated listening party — that was our North Star."
When "Humanz" dropped on April 28, the app prompted users around the world to find specific "house party" locations in a manner similar to Pokemon Go gyms, where the full album could then be listened to in-app with the accompaniment of some flashy virtual effects and pop-up installations. B-Reel and Gorillaz hit their goal of creating the biggest geo-specific listening experience ever, according to a release made available to Mobile Marketer. It engaged users across 146 countries and 500 locations, which helped propel "Humanz" to the top of the music charts in 30 countries.
"All of the sudden, it felt like the digital world was finally crossing over into the real world — that's a really interesting point both for brands and very much so for bands as well," Kravac said of the app. "In my opinion, AR and [...] mixed reality is the next big opportunity in kind of realizing that level of engagement."
The campaign's success, beyond pointing to broad consumer interest in participating in geolocation events via smartphones, also touched on marketers' shifting strategies in developing mobile efforts, especially in regards to apps.
"We've seen brands kind of step away from creating campaign apps and actually focusing on creating digital products and services," Kravac said.
"With AR, you've got an opportunity there to look at it from a slightly different angle and actually look at it as a delivery of storytelling that's meaningful and engaging," he added. "It's not something glib that sits on your four-inch screen; it's something that can enable you to interact between the brand world and the user's world."
'A storytelling platform for the future'
Though the Gorillaz app is now three months old, it's continued to develop its narrative by opening up new "rooms" in the house over time. In June, B-Reel partnered with Jaguar Land Rover to provide 360-degree access to the garage — the house's most interactive component, per Kravac — where the app showcases the automotive brand's I-PACE all-electric concept car with the help of Noodle.
Noodle, Gorillaz' guitarist and Jaguar's virtual brand ambassador, matured from a child into a young adult in the timeline for "Humanz," and the Jaguar initiative doubled as an opportunity for her to recruit more young female talent into the STEM field. The garage integration is paired with a series of alternate reality games (ARG) and coding puzzles that, when cracked, open up an invitation to apply for a job or apprenticeship in a Jaguar software department.
"There are bits of the challenge that play out via email, there are bits on Github and on Soundcloud, and bits where you had to download images and unpack them in image editing software to find hidden stuff," Kravac said, explaining how the initiative expanded well beyond the app. B-Reel soon noticed that threads were popping up on websites and online forums like Reddit to try and figure out solutions to the puzzles in a new wave of engagement.
While he declined to get into specifics, Kravac suggested that the success of the Jaguar Land Rover partnership points to how the Gorillaz app is anything but a one-off, instead serving as a sort of living document that will continue to evolve over time.
"In terms of the lifecycle of the app, we conceived it as a storytelling platform for the future," Kravac said. "Although it initially played out as a campaign, especially with this Jaguar update, it gives it a little bit of flavor as to where we're going with it."