Nearly every day brings news of another use of augmented reality (AR) by brands across every major vertical, including retail, beauty, fashion, entertainment, food and liquor. Most ad agency creatives say the tech is an integral part of their work, and a majority are seeing increased client demand for it.
But despite this growth, some of the campaigns don't pass the smell test. Are marketers using AR because it's the flashy new toy, or are brands finding ways to derive real value from an emerging technology? AR experts interviewed by Mobile Marketer pointed to several recent campaigns that used the technology effectively, and some that missed the mark.
"Marketers have fed into this underwhelming array of use cases by using AR for shallow, entertainment-based promotions and not truly connecting the online and offline world to help meet a consumer need or lower decision stress," Thomas Husson, VP and principal analyst of marketing and strategy at Forrester, told Mobile Marketer via email.
Those underwhelming cases could come from a crucial flaw in marketer thinking.
"The mistake brands make when they move into the AR space is only thinking about what they're trying to sell or trying push upon the customer," Quynh Mai, founder of creative agency Moving Image & Content, told Mobile Marketer.
"They have to think just like a technologist or engineer — What are the customer pain points? What are the real world issues that I'm trying to solve? — and go from that vantage point first, rather than a brand marketing standpoint," Mai said.
Helping to solve consumer pain points
Unlike similar mobile-focused tech innovations such as virtual reality (VR) and QR codes, AR has appeared to better help to solve consumer pain points, like trying on goods or seeing a product in the room before purchasing.
"The more that brands bring in actual functionality through the AR executions, the more engagement they're going to get," Jeremiah Johnson, creative technology lead at creative agency Barbarian, told Mobile Marketer.
"Instead of having to go through a shop and try-on glasses in person, consumers could virtually try on glasses — a natural extension of their earlier explorations in the mobile space," Johnson said of Warby Parker.
While AR hasn't been effective as a distribution channel to get brands to market, it can convert to sales because it helps consumers have a better experience with products before purchasing and has become a key customer conversion tool, according to Mai.
"Marketers have fed into this underwhelming array of use cases by using AR for shallow, entertainment-based promotions and not truly connecting the online and offline world..."
VP and Principal Analyst, Forrester
This has been particularly true in the skincare and beauty industry, where consumers face a cluttered marketplace, but have been primed for AR by offerings like Snapchat lenses, Instagram filters and apps like Facetune — all of which make shoppers comfortable with what Mai calls "the augmented self." But not all beauty brand AR activations are created equally.
"The apps that have succeeded are the ones that help consumers curate different brands, and it becomes a rich experience, not a mono-brand solution," Mai said. "In the makeup space, nobody buys from one brand."
In this way, Sephora's AR activation with virtual makeup artists is a better use of AR than Lancôme's use of AR to find a foundation shade — a one-time, one-transaction experience.
Consumers are the new protagonists
When customer conversion isn't the goal of AR, the campaigns that have used the technology well put it in the context of social media. With the rise of Stories, from Snapchat to Instagram, and now the video-sharing platform TikTok, consumers are the protagonists of every campaign.
"They're not just hawking a brand experience to their friends," Mai said.
For brands to effectively use AR in this changing social media landscape, the tech must all be consumer-focused. Mai points to Pepsi's #Summergram, a recently launched campaign with hundreds of summer-themed custom Instagram AR filters that people can use to amp up their summer stories.
"You may live in a walk-up apartment in a big city, but you can put an AR swimming pool in your apartment to show that you're dying for a dip in the pool," Mai said.
In Pepsi's case, the brand is able to supplement the consumer's personal narrative, not the other way around.
"Brands who use [AR] as a selfish marketing tool, i.e. 'I'm going to get my brand in front of your face,' have failed pretty miserably," Mai said. "Brands that are integrating it into personal experiences will be successful."
The end of gimmickry is near
The time for AR activations that don't address consumers' pain points or personal narratives seems to have passed. Marketers must beware of AR activations that are fun diversions, easily forgotten and disposed of.
"We're getting pretty close to the end or past the end of where having AR integration as a novelty or gimmick is enough," Barbarian's Johnson said.
That latter category would seem to include countless liquor brand activations that attempt to shoehorn a brand story into AR, or AR that brings Chiquita bananas, children's party supplies or games of desktop basketball to life, to name just a few.
"We're getting pretty close to the end or past the end of where having AR integration as a novelty or gimmick is enough."
Creative Technology Lead, Barbarian
Perhaps on the edge of gimmick and consumer use would be Burger King's "Burn That Ad" campaign, which rolled out in-app in Brazil earlier this year. The effort let consumers "burn" the ads of Burger King's rivals to reveal a coupon for a free Whopper.
"That one is on the edge for me," Johnson admitted. "This is pretty clever and funny, and suits the voice of the brand well enough. It's definitely a better execution than we've seen from its competitors."
Where AR will live
Even when a brand has developed an AR activation that satisfies consumer needs, there's still a tech lift that must be considered. A quarter of ad agency creatives said they faced technical challenges when crafting AR, according to a Unity Technologies survey. Marketers must consider adding to their own apps, building something with Google ARCore or Apple's ARKit, or partnering with Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook. So which is the way to go?
"The choice of the platform primarily depends on the audience you want to reach. Web-based AR ad campaign will enable you to reach a broader audience, while in-app is ideal for a more engaged audience especially if you want to promote 3D ad product placement within gaming experiences, and Snapchat Lens sponsoring is a way to engage a younger audience," said Forrester's Husson.
However, some creatives think that AR in branded apps might not be long for this world. That doesn't mean that AR in marketing is going anywhere, just that marketers will need to deliver AR in ways consumers have grown accustomed to.
"Brand apps will probably slowly disintegrate and die as consumers get more comfortable going to brands on an as-needed basis through the browser," Mai said. "Consumers have gotten so spoiled with big social platforms making it so easy for them."
"I have a lot of interest in web-based approaches to AR applications [because] it reduces friction for engagement," Johnson agreed. "If someone can just click on a link in a Twitter post or Instagram post and be driven to a web page that is an AR application, they can do that a lot more easily than downloading and installing an app or having Magic Leap."