A New Reality for Brands

By James Watson-Krips

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have become can’t miss buzzwords all over the world, and China – with its reputation for fast moving, tech-savvy consumers – is understandably no exception. In fact, “Virtual Reality” emerged as the most popular tech-related keyword on Baidu’s search engine in 2016, beating out other newsmakers such as AlphaGo and autonomous vehicles. And while China has so far missed out on the massive Pokémon GO craze (the app remains unavailable to mobile users without a VPN), that hasn’t stopped established players and start-ups alike from finding their own unique ways to leverage these technologies at the intersection of business and culture.

Take Alibaba and Tencent for example. Each year, both tech giants try to outdo one another by creating new ways for people to send and receive hongbao – money-filled red envelopes traditionally given as gifts during the Spring Festival holiday. But this past January, the annual competition was taken to new (albeit virtual) heights, with AR and GPS technologies allowing for a more interactive approach than ever before. On both Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s QQ platforms, users were able to use real-time location in order to hide hongbao for friends and family, as well as uncover nearby envelopes hidden by other users, participating sponsor brands, and Alibaba and Tencent themselves.

03_hongbao
Image source: Alibaba

Other AR/VR players have come from less expected places, such as the famed Forbidden City Palace Museum in Beijing. While most often associated with China’s imperial past, the museum has quietly become an innovative force, partnering with Xiamen/Beijing-based AR start-up Qiantech for a number of intriguing AR-driven initiatives. These include a new collectible calendar, which uses a special scanner to bring some of the museum’s most famous works of art to life on your smart phone. Bridging past, present, and future, it is just one way AR has made the Palace Museum relevant for a new generation.

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Image source: Qiantech

Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering why this matters, and what the push towards AR and VR means for brand builders here in China. Well, quite simply, it means that we can no longer think about brands – or even the Chinese market – in quite the same way. Whereas in the past, building a brand meant laying the foundation for success in a very tangible marketplace, today, strategists must increasingly think about the intangible, as well. A brand’s positioning, vision, and values must now stand as strongly in the real world as they do in the virtual one, while still maintaining credibility and relevance with stakeholders and customers alike. This is especially important in China, where a combination of rapid economic growth, societal change, and an increasingly discerning customer base has forced brands to remain more flexible, more vigilant, and more authentic than they might in other markets.

But this is not a bad thing. Even though AR and VR have indeed added a new layer of complexity in an already complex market, they have also opened up new opportunities. Brands can now extend their customer experiences to another realm of interaction – a place where they can dream bigger, think more creatively, and ultimately refine and/or redefine what makes their brand unique. In other words, we have entered a new reality, and with its penchant for change, you can bet China will have a say in shaping it.

James Watson-Krips is a senior brand consultant at MetaDesign Beijing. 

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