Expanding Customer Engagement: Case Studies of VR as Storyteller and Skill Builder


As virtual reality technologies improve and become more accessible, organizations are finding increasingly meaningful ways to use VR to educate and engage their customers. When an exciting VR experience is carefully built around an immersive brand story and useful content, VR can take customer engagement to the next level. Here’s how two very different companies are each using VR to unify storytelling and skill development.

Lowe’s Holoroom How To: Immersing customers in home improvement learning

U.S. hardware chain Lowe’s is one of the first retailers to use VR to teach customers practical home improvement skills. Since 2014, Lowe’s Holoroom How To experience has gradually transitioned from a tool for customers to visualize what a bathroom or kitchen renovation could look like, to a platform for DIY skills training. The focus is on exploring real-life applications of VR “to directly help our customers solve everyday problems”, according to Kyle Nel, Executive Director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs.

In 2017, the six-month pilot of the Holoroom How To skills clinic is available to customers at two Lowe’s stores in the U.S. (Framingham, MA and Burlington, ON) and one RONA store in Canada (Beloeil, Québec). Wearing a VR headset, customers act on instructions from a video to practice skills such as installing shelves, painting a fence or tiling a shower. Tactile responses on the handheld equipment give customers the sensation of actually holding a drill or other hardware tool. The immersive nature of the technology makes it a valuable experiential learning platform and a source of useful insights into customer knowledge, recall and motivation.

Lowe’s asserts that people who participate in the Holoroom How To demonstrate increased motivation to take on DIY projects and better recall of the steps involved. “We believe innovations like Holoroom How To will soon enable instantaneous learning moments and massively scalable training opportunities that empower both customers and employees around the world,” says Nel.

CommBank’s Start Smart VR pilot: Fostering financial education

In a different take on customer education, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia is incorporating VR for school children into its Start Smart corporate responsibility program. CommBank partnered with Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky to create a picture book, Sammy the Space Koala, that teaches children about financial decision-making, saving and investing. The book is made interactive by a VR headset, ‘The Teleporter’, developed by M&C Saatchi’s innovation lab Tricky Jigsaw.

The picture books and VR headsets were distributed to around 1500 students from 24 Australian primary schools during late 2016. The students were encouraged to take the VR experience home to revisit key concepts about financial literacy with their parents or carers, who were asked to provide feedback on the experience. According to Stuart Tucker, GM of brand, sponsorship and marketing operations at CommBank, one parent reported their child learned more in a 10-minute VR journey in outer space than they had in five years on Earth.

Using VR “teleports” kids into a “richer learning experience”, says Michael Canning, M&C Saatchi Australia’s Executive Creative Director. “VR is everywhere at the moment, but the reason that VR is relevant is because it becomes an active decision-making tool – if you’re just reading the book you can’t choose the items you buy. It’s hard to do that in a passive medium but VR turned it into immersive storytelling.”

Making the most of VR in PR

One of the key advantages that VR has over other mediums is that there are no distractions for the customer. This has significant implications for PR, as Alex Halls observes in a blog post for Wolfstar consultancy:

“The best PR campaigns have the power to grip the consumer but the weaker campaigns are often filtered out among the many news stories we see day to day. VR’s advantage is once the headset is on, you are completely immersed in the media, you choose where you look and what to focus on. Every part of it, every turn of the head, can be intricately planned for the best results and the biggest impact.”

Nonetheless, an effective use of VR must be closely connected to brand narrative and customer engagement to avoid “the gimmick factor” and ensure “that it’s still story first and technology second”, says Ian Shying, UX and Design Director at Edelman Australia. The way forward for PR, then, is to use VR as a strategic tool for meaningful storytelling and customer education.

Virtual Reality is Here To Stay, Now What to Do With It


A recent communication trend study released by Hotwire PR, indicates virtual reality (VR) could begin playing a more significant role in the coming year as companies use it to bridge the pervasiveness of increasing amounts of data with the desire by customers to experience a brand before buying. While the study identified several other trends – for instance, how advertising will be forced to change with the popularity of ad blocking and how Millennials can no longer be treated as a single demographic – its point of view on VR was the most interesting.

For the uninitiated, VR didn’t recently come to fruition with Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift or the popularity of role playing games. Jaron Lanier, considered one of the earlier pioneers of VR, gained notoriety in the 80s and 90s by introducing the first VR gloves and goggles. But the company he had co-founded to commercialize VR products eventually went bankrupt. The patents for the products Lanier helped develop were eventually bought by Sun Microsystems, and Sun was eventually bought by Oracle. Lanier now works for Microsoft. Who knows what Oracle has done with his patents today?

Since then, VR has continued to have fits and starts. More recently, 3D TV was supposed to give us a more immersive experience. How many people watch 3D TV. But the Hotwire study points out that the hardware issues that have stood in the way of greater mass adoption of VR seem to be rapidly working themselves out. Entertainment and gaming are what will evidently drive the pervasiveness of the hardware.

But as the study points out, there will be more to VR than play. The travel industry is already experimenting with ways to use it to provide travelers with a virtual look at a destination, a hotel or even a mode of transport. Earlier this year, Marriott experimented with a 4D experience that allowed travelers to be able to see, hear and even feel what it would be like to be in various destinations.

The non-profit industry is another potential VR adopter. With prospective donors suffering from “donation request fatigue,” non-profits are being forced to find more ways to move people to give.  According to the Hotwire report, Amnesty International used VR to give people a more realistic experience of the crisis situation in Syria. The result was not only an increase in donations, but also an uptick in online chatter about the experience and the crisis.

What’s evidently driving all of this is not an increased fascination with VR, but the fact that companies are finally seeing the potential for VR to bridge the daily onslaught of data with the desire to experience a brand before committing to it. In other words, developing emotional connections in the absence of physical presence.

There’s a slippery slope here, though, because just as social media has been targeted as being as much a bane as a boon for society, VR is bound to be at the receiving end of an even greater potential backlash. After all, it is removing the end user even further from the physical present than a text, post or shared photo ever will. Communicators and content creators who contemplate using VR will need to keep this in mind and not treat it as one more communication tool to tick off a list of others that have come before.

For the public relations industry, this also means getting even more comfortable with the idea that emotional connections are driven by providing consumers with immersive experiences. The more immersive the better. Any type of service or product demo is essentially an immersive experience and an opportunity to bond with a prospective customer.

What VR can deliver are experiences that are even more immersive and reveal aspects of a company, service or product in ways that have never before been available. In an age when consumers are also demanding even greater transparency to go with their immersion, this can only be a good thing for everyone involved.

5 Lessons on High-impact Storytelling from General Electric


A lot has been written over the last couple of years about the preponderance of storytelling and its place in content creation.  A couple of weeks ago, Adweek ran an interview with Linda Boff, CMO of General Electric about this topic and how this 125-year old company was approaching storytelling in this digital era.

The idea of GE being an adopter of digital media may seem a bit out of sync for those who may not realize how pervasive innovation is at this legacy brand. As Boff says in the article, “staying modern, contemporary and relevant is something we think about every single day.”

She goes on to point out that innovation and being first has led them to be an early adopter with both existing and emerging social and digital platforms like Snapchat, Vine and Instagram.

They’re also beginning to look at how to use virtual reality as a storytelling tool. The result is that this multinational conglomerate has become a leading voice in branded content.

Image from General Electric’s Vine page.

Image from General Electric’s Instagram page.

Smaller companies with less resources and far fewer years of legacy brand building under their belts may be tempted to conclude that GE can afford such experimentation because they have the resources to do so. They can afford to try and fail, and try again.

While that may be true, no one forced GE to be an early adopter of anything, but a legacy of innovation left them open to doing so. Consequently, there are some inherent learnings companies of all sizes can glean from GE’s approach to both storytelling and digital media.

  1. Consistently challenge yourself to stay modern and contemporary but without losing sight of who you are.  In other words, don’t change the core elements of your brand story, but bring it up-to-date to appeal to a current audience.
  2. Know who you are and what audiences share your passion, rather than try to appeal to all people. This means that you tell your story consistently over time rather than look for ways to change it to fit the broadest audience possible. It’s about being authentic.
  3. Be willing to embrace the new as soon as it is new. This isn’t about checking off a box, you’ve tried SnapChat now that’s done. It’s about not being afraid to try a new outlet and fully embracing it when it makes sense to do so. There’s a level of immediate commitment necessary because of how quickly adoption can become saturated and how easy it is for users to sniff out companies who are just experimenting.
  4. Be as creative as possible in how you tell your story. Do it in unexpected ways.  If you’re company’s become used to using video, rather than post more videos to YouTube, try doing more life videos with Periscope or Meerkat.
  5. Look at how to take the old and make it new.  What GE is doing with their classic Adventures in Electricity comic books from the ‘40s and ‘50s is a good example. They’ve created a social network for stories called Wattpad and invited the Wattpad community of writers to create science-fiction stories relative to GE’s history. That’s both unexpected but firmly in keeping with GE’s legacy.

Image from General Electric’s Wattpad.

While not all companies may have the available content that a company like GE has, every company has the permission to take their storytelling to a new level in this digital era. It requires both commitment and creativity, but the end result can only be of benefit to the company of any size who chooses to do so.

Images: All images from General Electric