How brands sell customers using something that isn’t there

Screenshots of H&M's augmented reality scavenger hunt campaign. (Image: Mashable)

The New York Times featured an article this week on Barnes & Noble’s use of a special iPhone app that allowed Brooklyn Decker, Esquire’s sexiest woman alive, to appear in the store aisles. Ms. Decker wasn’t actually there but by using GPS technology developed by GoldRun customers could see her in various poses in over 700 stores.¬†As exciting as this was for Barnes & Noble customers, what it portends for marketers is potentially staggering.

In the near future the virtual and real world will blend to an unprecedented degree enabled by augmented reality applications on smart phones. Here are a few possibilities:

1. BRANDING: ¬†Imagine GPS technologies allowing fashion shows (from Armani to Victoria’s Secret to GAP Kids) to take place anywhere at anytime when viewed through a smart phone. This could be a Cirque de Soleil performance in Central Park or a catwalk parade across your restaurant table.

2. PRODUCTS: Imagine being able to pick up a product in a store, say soap powder, and through your smart phone watch how the product was made, how that company treats its employees and what it does for the environment.

3. CAUSE MARKETING: Imagine strolling through a store whose purchases include a contribution to a charity such as charity : water. Before purchasing the product you can watch through your smart phone footage of your contribution at work in the building of a well in Africa.

4. POLITICS: Imagine strolling past a polling station and watching through your smart phone an appeal by a candidate in which he or she explains their policies, shows some personality and introduces his or her family.

While such ideas sound far-fetched, they are already being executed. Last November H&M used the same technology to allow customers to see their clothes on sidewalks outside their stores. Esquire magazine has a scavenger hunt planned in which players that collect photos of the seven letters in its name using geo-tagged information are entered in the draw to win prizes like a iPad.

The potential application of this technology is limitless for every location or product has a story to tell. Whether or not this dualistic shopping experience will be overwhelming for customers is hard to tell, but the ability to supplement services and products with geo-tagging information is a limitless canvas for brands.

Put to good use, this technology could make a powerful contribution to positive change as it allows brands to showcase their good work and invites consumers to show their support or to contribute to worthy causes. Tirelessly exploited, it will leave us swimming in a virtual ocean of geo-tagged spam that will quickly become ineffectual.

Let’s hope brands recognize that the true power of this technology is not its reach but its ability to communicate substance that adds meaning to our lives. Otherwise, brands will be investing in technology that consumers simply won’t buy.

Do you think geo-tagged marketing will be well received? If not, why?