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#Next Christmas, I give you VR…

Christmas might be that one time of year when we don’t mind ads interrupting our TV viewing. In fact, in some cases you might even say it’s the TV show that interrupts the adverts and that festive feeling they bring. In today’s day and age, where much of our viewing is streamed ad-free on Netflix, Amazon Prime or online, we’re even turning to YouTube to actively seek out these adverts from well-known brands – that is, if you haven’t already seen them trending on Twitter.

But how did it get to be the case that adverts aren’t intrinsically regarded as invasive, rather – we’re actively seeking them out? And how did we get to the stage, where some marketers are held in the same esteem as the producers behind our best loved shows? I guess for marketers Christmas feels like, well, like Christmas came early.

This partly lies in the fact that these adverts have gone from being product-led, to driving emotional responses. And, it’s not just about the advert, it’s the entire marketing campaign that goes along with it – from in-store experiences, to themed products based on the Christmas characters and giving to good causes. With brand after brand investing time and money into campaigns that pull at the heart strings, these marketing campaigns are now inextricably linked to our own experience at Christmas.

But with every brand and its dog (quite literally in John Lewis’ sake) vying for the Christmas marketing mantle, might it be the case that these ads have now gotten a little stale? And, as all things inevitably evolve, could it be time for these festive campaigns to be reinvented so as to add an element of meaning and serendipity?

Here at Goldsmiths, in partnership with Adobe, we’ve been researching what Christmas campaigns can tell us about the future of consumer experiences with brands in 2017 and beyond.  Which is why we sought to answer this by asking consumers from across the UK the exact same thing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems we are after VR, AR and AI driven experiences from our favourite brands, with 68% of consumers admitting brands that use these emerging technologies have a competitive edge.

But, many organisations are falling short of these expectations, with a third of marketers (32%) in the UK saying that they aren’t ready to use emerging technologies. But if brands can’t embrace VR, AR and AI, how might it affect Christmas spend next year? And what would successful implementation of these technologies within Christmas campaigns actually look like?

A VR Christmas

Some brands are already making waves with emerging technologies, and incorporating them into their Christmas campaigns. We’re seeing VR and AR drawing people in to publicly engage with and share their seasonal experiences, or using AI-driven chatbots to enable consistent, empathetic and adaptive experiences in their very own home.

Look at London’s Covent Garden for example – Christmas shoppers can point their phone at a giant Christmas tree in the midst of it, and be directed to where all the best Christmas shopping destinations are in the area. Shoppers are also encouraged to find virtual reindeers with augmented reality in a Pokemon GO-like manner, creating more of a festive experience that combines technology and reality.

John Lewis has taken on VR, enabling consumers to enjoy a Buster the Boxer experience both instore and at home on Google Cardboard. The retailer turned to AR too, creating a Snapchat filter in which users could turn themselves into Buster and share the pictures with their friends.

Using technology to enhance real world experiences in a similar vein, Coca Cola has deployed a chatbot that leverages AI to help consumers find out when the Coca Cola van is going to be with them next. And, have an AI ‘Elf Help’ gift service that encourages consumers to purchase the ideal gifts from independent retailers. Likewise, eBay’s ShopBot works in Facebook Messenger, searching for the perfect presents amongst their vast catalogue.

These technologies are in their early phases, but in the future we might expect these technologies to devise the perfect gift list for us (and order it) or create virtual viewings of stores that allow us to side step the Christmas shopping dash.

Preserves of the big brands

The issue lies in that at present, these emerging technologies are the preserve of the big brands, as evidenced by trail blazers John Lewis and Coca Cola. It’s clear to see why, as implementing these technologies, and navigating such uncertain territory successfully comes with a hefty price tag attached.

As the big brands look to shake up the ways in which they encourage us to shop with them next Christmas, consumers will become increasingly expectant of experiences that engage them emotionally via technology. Brands have set a precedent that they now have to meet. With this in mind, the next few years will be interesting in terms of how smaller brands keep up with the pace.

It might be up to marketers to let us know when the ‘holidays are coming’, but if they can’t create innovative and emotional experiences at Christmas time, then the customers might not be…

Dr Chris Brauer is director of innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London