Mark Ritson: Before falling over backwards to use virtual reality, get the basic tenets of marketing right

There is a hugely depressing article this month in The Marketer, the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s magazine. The article describes the latest advances in augmented reality and virtual reality and concludes, rather breathlessly, that both technologies ‘offer promising results for marketers’ looking to ‘bridge the gap between consumer and product and close the online-offline divide’.

Ritson featured image

Your humble columnist was unconvinced. Attaching what appears to be a large tablet connected to a diver’s mask to your face appears to be a bit of a stretch when it comes to persuading consumers to do anything.

But I am very much in the minority when it comes to virtual reality and its potential. Every marketing magazine on the planet is now saturated with inane articles ruminating on the enormous game changing implications of the aforementioned digital frog masks for our profession. The very nature of our discipline is that anything new that most people have not heard of will instantly become feted as the next big thing for marketers, irrespective of how unlikely or unrealistic the item might actually be.

We have a long and illustrious track record of being inanely attracted to the latest flashing knobs of technology. Before virtual reality it was 3D printing. Last year you could not breathe without running into a jock from some tech start-up peering menacingly from behind a giant machine that was taking 36 hours to produce a very dodgy-looking yellow thing and a headline proclaiming ‘Why 3D Printing Changes Everything for Marketers’.

Go back even further and it was Neuroscience. Marketers were agog at the potential of insights derived from burying consumers inside giant technological sarcophagi and studying their brain responses to various marketing stimuli. Five years ago we were told that these new ‘neuromarketers’ were going to change the game completely and that companies were using neuroscience to develop amazing new insights into their consumers and how to influence them. The coverage was so extensive that we even started to see a counter movement opposed to the ominous new capabilities that neuromarketing conferred on the corporations who did it. The Huffington Post, for example, asked: ‘Who wouldn’t be concerned about a global corporation spending millions on “neuromarketing consultants” and appropriating the innocent toys of childhood in a high-tech scheme to change kids’ food preferences?’
It was all total bollocks of course. These amazing new insights largely consisted of very ambiguous brain scans that purportedly showed that when consumers thought about their favourite brands their brains (sometimes) showed slightly different activity compared to their response when they thought about orphaned puppies.

And who can forget Second Life? That was vintage marketing horseshit of the highest grade. Try and get marketers to go out and do some ethnographic research on real consumers in real settings and you got a flood of excuses. But offer those same marketers a chance to create an Elvis avatar and go online with half a dozen highly pixelated perverts who come from countries where your brand is not sold and who keep interrupting your ‘interview’ with proposals of cybersex and marketers lined up around the block. Second Life as the future of consumer insight. Remember?

What makes marketers’ obsession with spangly new shit so annoying is that our discipline does the basics so badly. We can be so easily diverted into incredibly pointless new stuff with the flick of a glittery switch while failing to follow even the most basic tenets of marketing competence. The general quality of the marketing plans I see from big brands is terrible. No qualitative research driving a good quant survey.

No segmentation of any kind and certainly no explicit targeting. No buying path. No smart objectives. No IMC. No bottom up budget. The basics of marketing are usually missing. But my only hope to get marketers interested in doing their job properly is calling the standard approach to marketing strategy a ‘thwackometer 4000’ and presenting it exclusively to marketers via a virtual reality app made on a 3D printer that was originally promoted on Vine.

The title of the article in The Marketer gave it all away last week. It was called ‘The battle of the realities: which one will prevail for marketing?’ Readers were meant to opt for augmented or virtual reality by the end of the piece. How about another alternative? How about Actual Reality instead?