Are the NYT’s Virtual Reality Films for Brands the Next Big Thing?

When The New York Times Magazine ushered in a new era of virtual reality publishing last Friday, there weren’t any high-tech devices or intimidating gadgets. Instead, those who wanted to see the future of content just had to look into a cardboard box.

Over the weekend, the Times distributed more than a million Google Cardboard VR viewing devices so its subscribers could see “The Displaced,” a short film that examines children affected by the global refugee crisis. The story is a remarkable and ambitious multimedia project that combines text, video, and VR clips.

It’s also a precursor to a new era of high-quality content marketing, because as part of the app’s rollout, the Times partnered with General Electric and MINI to release a pair of branded VR videos.

In the marketing crusade to engage consumers with content, virtual reality has thus far been a golden egg: idolized, but largely out of reach. The VR goggles and headsets needed to experience the tech—like the upcoming Sony PlayStation VR and Facebook-owned Oculus Rift—aren’t yet mainstream, creating a roadblock for brands. Some studies estimate that 11 percent of American adults have tried VR to date, but that 30 percent would like to.

Many are about to get their chance. But in bringing VR to consumers, The New York Times is also allowing marketers to leverage the technology by providing both the hardware and the creative. Called NYT VR, the initiative uses original VR films to pull readers deeper into editorial and provide “a unique sense of empathic connection to people and events.”

For “The Displaced,” the Times collaborated with Vrse, a VR company, for the video content, and started getting the word out about the NYT VR mobile app, which was built by virtual reality studio IM360. Viewers will also have access to a film that chronicles the making of the magazine’s “Walking New York” cover, which launched in April.

“We’re taking advantage of the biggest canvas we’ve ever had to work with, and the creative briefs are some of our most adventurous yet,” said Sebastian Tomich, SVP of advertising and innovation at the Times and head of T Brand Studio, the company’s custom content shop. Tomich hinted at an imminent virtual reality product when he spoke with Contently back in May. At the time, he referred to VR storytelling as “the next frontier.”

GE and Mini are the first brands to experiment with the format, and both were wooed not just by the Times‘s expansive VR viewer distribution system, but also by the power of virtual reality itself. “The ability to tell multiple stories at once, transport a reader into the story, and interact with the footage are just some of the many benefits,” Tomich said. “The possibilities are endless.”

GE’s film, titled “From Nature to Machine,” was developed by T Brand Studio and the VR arm of Framestore. It’s a two-minute exploration of biomimicry, or how design and technology draw inspiration from nature. When brainstorming angles for the project, T Brand Studio presented GE and its agency with a series of concepts to choose from, after which Framestore developed storyboards and animated demos for approval. The film aligns with a recent science section story published by the Times and will eventually be released along with a 2D version and a related T Brand Studio paid post.

“For us it was never about ‘Let’s make an ad and make it VR,'” said Andy Goldberg, GE’s chief creative officer. “It had to be a story that the Times would naturally write about and that we could build off of.” Biomimicry was a good topic because it allowed GE to illustrate nature’s role in the brand’s technology, like how bird wings helped inform the design of its jet engine blades.

“It’s about GE, but you learn something,” Goldberg said.

“If it’s good, authentic VR, someone can walk away with a profound experience—a memory, even,” said Christine Cattano, executive producer of Framestore’s VR studio. “If I were a brand, I would want to harness that ability to make a deep, emotional connection.”

“From Nature to Machine” isn’t GE’s first foray into virtual reality. A few months ago the company used it to explore the human brain and highlight its work in neuroscience. GE also uses VR to showcase its subsea oil technology, R&D labs, and facilities.

“The way we look at it,” Goldberg said, “VR is another storytelling channel. But we’re telling the stories in a unique way. We’re giving a wide berth to where VR can take us.”

While GE invested in original content for NYT VR’s debut, Mini came to the Times with its immersive videos fully formed. The company had been experimenting with the technology, and in September it released two brand films—”Backwater” and “Real Memories“—developed with creative agency KKLD and production company Unit9. Both videos let the viewer experience a 360-degree narrative, and consumers can watch the films on their smartphones through YouTube, use Mini’s free virtual reality cardboard viewer, or, as of this past weekend, operate the device provided by the Times. They are also being promoted on Fast Company and through YouTube’s homepage masthead ad.

“If you look at all of the communication channels out there and how people are being marketed to, it’s very hard to gain their attention and really encourage them to focus and engage,” said Lee Nadler, Mini’s marketing communications manager. In contrast, VR demands the user’s complete attention while also being interactive. “You can control part of how the story is being exposed to you by moving the phone or headset to look at different angles. That’s a very difficult thing to achieve in other mediums.”

Nadler noted that while, to date, most advertisers have used VR for product demos, Mini’s films focus on narratives, one about a man with amnesia and the second about an epic heist. That said, on a microsite created to promote the films, the brand does call attention to Mini Connected, an in-car feature it hopes the videos will help promote.

“As people engage with the VR content, they will potentially want to learn more about Mini and Mini Connected, and understand that Mini has amazing innovations and technologies,” Nadler said.

For now, T Brand Studio plans to offer one advertiser video for every editorial film in the app, though Tomich confessed that may change. “There’s been a significant amount of interest from T Brand Studio advertisers, and now that we’ve solved the distribution question with our [Google Cardboard] partnership, we expect to see more,” he said.

Meanwhile, brands will wait to see if that interest can extend to the consumers they’re keen to captivate. GE and Mini are betting big that their shared hope for more immersive brand storytelling will become a reality.

Image by nmedia/

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