When German science and technology company Merck launched its rebrand campaign, it set up a Virtual Reality Branding Dome where visitors could ‘touch’ microbes, cells and strings. Following his appearance at last month’s EACD Debate in Munich, Communication Director spoke to Merck Group Communications’ Head of Corporate Branding and Strategic Communication Projects Axel Löber on integrating virtual reality into communications, the limitations of this powerful new technology, and how to match the medium with the message.

How does a 350-year old company decide on virtual reality in its new branding communications?

You have to see that in the broader context of the rebranding of this company. We launched a completely new brand strategy and brand identity at the end of 2015, coming from being a classical pharmaceuticals and chemicals company and representing ourselves in that way to the outside world – a sea of sameness of industry conventions. We have changed that completely, and our new brand identity is quite a radical step, not only for a company such as ours but also for the whole industry. We had the question “how do we communicate this?” It’s a completely new positioning and the signals you send with your communication are very important. The quote form Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message”, was exactly the idea behind it. At the point where we thought we needed a room where people can feel and experience the brand, it was a very small step to go for virtual reality. If you position yourself as a vibrant science and technology company and if you want to be very progressive in your brand communications, it is natural to go for this technology. It’s still new, so it has its challenges, but the opportunities we expected and fulfilled were that you can immerse yourself in a brand identity. Our brand identity is fairly unique, very strong and we learned that there was a perfect match between brand identity and the technology.

The virtual reality element of your rebrand was a hit with your employees. But what in your experience are the challenges of using virtual reality at work?

The technology is very powerful, and if you’re in that experience, you see and feel rather than read, so it’s very difficult to bring across your messages and tell your story. We started by trying to take our messages and stories and transporting them into the virtual reality world, but that didn’t quite work because the physical experience was so overwhelming that people were not capable of recognising or remembering messages. So we had to step back and tailor the messages in a way that suited the technology. You have to think differently. For example, if you do a print product, or website, you have a blank canvass that you fill with content. In the case of virtual reality, you have a technology that you can’t simply fill with content but you create content that goes hand in hand with the very special requirement of that technology, namely that it is quite overwhelming from a visual point of view.

Could you give me a concrete example of a change to your messages that you had to make in view of virtual reality?

We started with content first, because it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the possibilities of technology. You end up with very exciting experience but you don’t learn anything. So we asked ourselves, “what do we want to bring across and what are our brand messages?”, and we looked at what the technology offers us. It offers an experience of movement, an experience of sound, an experience of shapes, of colours, and we tried then to bring that in in a way we had to restrict ourselves. For example, movement: we have one experience where it’s a bit like a roller-coaster, where you follow a path and a certain messages come across. We had to be very careful with the speed of that: if it goes too fast and if you have too many elements coming across, the user is easily distracted: it’s simply too much. So we had to reduce that, make it leaner and cleaner, so that the messages were in the right balance with the visual element.

The benefits of using virtual reality in a project designed to make a splash such as rebrand launch are clear: but what happens with virtual reality one the initial “wow-factor” fades? Does Merck have plans to integrate it into its business beyond this type of eye-catching event?

Our businesses are working with virtual reality right now. For example, our Performance Materials business develops materials which can be used in cars – displays, smart antennae, and so on, and they are already working with virtual reality on a business level. But the VR room we created is still a new technology in the context of communications, and I was surprised how few people had experienced virtual reality before. I don’t think in the short term we will see this technology commoditised. But I’m pretty sure it will happen as soon as the technology evolves – at the moment, it’s still rather clunky hardware.

So what are the criteria to make virtual reality more readily usable?
Two things. Making it cheaper, more affordable and much more practical for normal people to use. And the other is to find a way to create a group experience, maybe by connecting devices. At the moment it is still an experience you have on your own. As soon as other criteria are fulfilled I think we will see a much broader distribution of the technology.

Axel Löber is Head of Corporate Branding and Strategic Communication Projects of German science and technology company Merck. He led the company’s transformational rebranding in 2015 and is responsible for the current global brand campaign #catchcurious. Before joining Merck in 2011, Axel held corporate and financial communication positions at pharmaceutical wholesaler and pharmacy operator Celesio and strategic communications consultancy Hering Schuppener.

Interview by Dafydd Phillips