#69: Ryan Pulliam on creating immersive marketing narratives with virtual reality and the future of experiential advertising campaigns

Ryan Pulliam is the Chief Marketing Officer of Specular Theory, which is a digital agency focused on creating augmented and virtual reality experiences that was co-founded with Morris May. She talks about how virtual reality is starting to be used in marketing and advertising campaigns, and the potential for telling engaging stories and immersing the audience into a unique and otherwise impossible experience.

ryan-pulliam2Virtual Reality will enable brands to create experiences that allow the audience to play a role in the story ranging from being professional race car driver, professional athlete or rock star on a music stage. Interactive stories up to this point have been seen through a screen where the audience feels more like a spectator, but VR can immerse someone within an experience.

Ryan talks about the lessons from the Games of Thrones Ascend the Wall VR experience by Framestore, and the Top Shop campaign during London Fashion week. She also mentions the Rift Coaster and Dumpy as being inspiring VR experiences as to what’s possible.

Finally, she talks about connecting a VR experience to a brand and the future of using VR as a try before you buy for things like Ikea furniture or driving a car. Immersive technologies can provide new ways to emotionally connect and audience to your brand’s story. In the end, it’s less about the VR technology, and more about providing an fully immersive experience that goes beyond what’s possible with observing experiences through a 2D screen.


  • 0:00 – CMO & co-founded Specular Theory with Morris May. Marketing and storytelling and reaching people in new ways with emerging technologies
  • 0:34 – Marketing is about storytelling and reaching your audience in a new way. Sharing content through a screen where they’re spectating. Experiential campaigns are limited by not fully being a part of a brand’s story. Making the impossible possible. Allowing them to be a play a role and not just be inspired by it like being a professional race car driver, a sports star or a rock star on stage at a music festival.
  • 1:57 – Which industries get virtual reality. Car companies stay up with technology and make interactive stories. Brands with a lot of marketing budget. Game of Thrones VR experience.
  • 2:46 – Connecting a VR experience to a brand. Depends on the brand. Brands who sponsor an event, and food and drink sponsor music festivals for example. Try not be gimmicky, but if you go that route, then give the best experience possible. Be a part of a brand. Try before you buy shopping experience either with furniture or a car will be pretty big. Gloves to pick up objects. Ikea shopping virtually to avoid driving there. Cool to bring really awesome things to your fans. It may be an extreme experience, but as long as it’s connected to your brand of adventure, enthusiasm or sports
  • 4:55 – VR demos that provide some inspiration for a marketing context. Top Shop campaign during London Fashion week where they did a contest to use a Rift during a fashion show. Been impressed by a lot of experiences on the Oculus Share site. Connects dots
  • 6:58 – Rift Coaster. Dumpy. Would be great to experience Dinosaurs
  • 7:52 – Game of Thrones demo. Fully immersed within a scene.
  • 8:31 – Scale and huge wall in the demo. People experiencing vertigo. Had a museum exhibit while waiting for the #GOTExhibit experience
  • 9:30 – Future of VR and marketing. Less about marketing and advertising and more about the story and the narrative. Less about the technology, and more about the experience. Immersion and being a part of a story and being emotionally connected to a story, and to be wowed. It’s about trying to be awesome and effective, and can now actually provide an experience rather than just seeing an experience

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.975] Ryan Pulliam: My name's Ryan Pulliam, and I'm the CMO of Specular Theory. So I work with Morris May. We started this company, and I've got kind of a background in marketing and working for brands and agencies. So I come from both sides. And at the end of the day, it's all about storytelling and reaching consumers in new ways. And I've always been fascinated by the more emerging technologies. That's my passion right now for Specular Theory and what we're creating with virtual reality.

[00:00:34.553] Kent Bye: And so what is it about the immersive element of virtual reality that you find compelling from a marketing perspective?

[00:00:41.635] Ryan Pulliam: I think it's everything. I think, you know, marketing is all about storytelling and who has the best story and how they're reaching their consumers to get them involved. So, you know, the internet is great. Viral videos are awesome. And there's been, you know, a lot that's happened with mobile marketing and social media and curating a lot of great content. But you're still sharing content through a screen that someone more or less is spectating. And there are more interactive, you know, experiential type marketing campaigns. But it's still somewhat limiting, so you can't actually be part of a brand's story in some circumstances. You know, for me, it's about taking these impossible things and making them possible. So if you're a brand or a product that, let's say, is in action sports or some other great content driven campaign. Everyone can watch something on TV or see a really cool video on YouTube, but they're never going to be a professional race car driver. They're never going to be in the NFL or whatever maybe your brand is sponsoring, or they're not going to actually be that rock star on stage at a music festival. So I think this is an opportunity where now for the first time consumers can actually play that role and not just be inspired by that role. And they can really get the sensation and the feeling of what it's like to be on stage, you know, to be in that Formula One car, to fly in the air or, you know, go kite surfing. It could be anything.

[00:01:56.985] Kent Bye: And so what are some of the industries that you've interacted with that you find just get it?

[00:02:03.003] Ryan Pulliam: I mean, I would definitely say the car companies are up there. I've been really impressed with just how they've used technology and they're always staying ahead of the curve. And I know a lot of that is competitor driven, but they're constantly, you know, looking for new ways to sell their cars and make that more interactive and tell a better story. I think a lot of, you know, the bigger brands that just straight up have bigger marketing budgets are doing a really great job, but I can't really say. I mean, there haven't been that many examples yet, really, for the virtual reality. I mean, I saw the Game of Thrones with HBO. I thought that was a great thing, especially at South by Southwest, which, again, is why this makes a great sort of experiential activation, considering the headsets aren't available to consumers right now. And everybody always wants the best booth at a trade show, the longest line at a music festival, whatever it is that they're interacting with.

[00:02:47.100] Kent Bye: Yeah, it seems like that there is the potential to create a lot of buzz of an experience. The question I would have is, how do you make that experience connected to the product? Or is it this stage just a spectacle to kind of draw attention, but it's not really connected to a larger story like a roller coaster ride at a trade show isn't necessarily going to connect them to the product.

[00:03:08.835] Ryan Pulliam: True. Yeah, so it really, it definitely depends on the brand. There's brands that, you know, sponsor certain events or they sponsor certain things by association. So music is a great example. There's tons of sort of consumer packaged goods companies, right? Food and drink that want to sponsor music festivals to reach and tap into that loyal audience. So I think as long as it's relevant, I think either I hate to make marketing campaigns that are too gimmicky. I really am about having something be relevant so they really are a part of something. But if it's going to be gimmicky, then you might as well bring them the coolest, best experience you can. If you're at a music festival, it's great because you can still immerse, I guess, the fans into the experience through the musicians. So it does relate. I mean, I think too, if you also have brands like car companies, for example, or products, you know, that you can be a part of or, you know, furniture in your house, you know, or if you're buying a new car, then, you know, you can put these headsets on and you can literally be sitting in that car. So I think that whole try before you buy and the virtual shopping experience and just retail activation alone. I mean, they are making things now with the accessories, you know, with gloves where you can pick up virtual objects or move around them. So I think You know, there are a lot of things in our daily lives that we shop for that require, you know, maybe you drive somewhere and have to buy it, like IKEA is a great example. You know, and especially if you live somewhere like LA, you really want to avoid driving as much as possible, so I think circumstances like that where you can really get the scalability of something, especially if it's a bigger object or, you know, it's different if you're buying a couch versus you just need a nutrition bar or something, like a granola bar. So I think it's great for that. And then the other side of it is I just think it's a cool thing to bring something to your fans that's really awesome. So as long as the content relates to them, it might be an extreme experience that isn't relatable to real life. But if it relates to your brand that is all about adventure and enthusiasm or sports, whatever it is, it makes sense.

[00:04:56.717] Kent Bye: And have there been any virtual reality experience demos that you've seen that have provided any specific inspiration for what types of things that you're trying to create in the work that you're doing?

[00:05:08.142] Ryan Pulliam: Yes, absolutely. Again, there haven't been that many case studies with brands with the exception of, you know, the Game of Thrones, which I thought was great. I did think Topshop did a great campaign for London Fashion Week. So what was cool about that was just how they integrated it overall. So they basically did a contest for social media fans to win the experience of using the Rift during the live fashion show. So they were actually streaming it live and they could tap into that. So to sort of build up that anticipation, they had obviously the viral buzz on social media, and then the, I think it was four winners they chose, went to the flagship store in London, and so they set up a really cool station with, you know, it was very clean and white, kind of Apple Store-esque, with just the white chairs, and you could see the screens, but they were in front of the window display. Not only are they giving their core fans, you know, an opportunity of a lifetime and to be the first to do something and to stream live to their most coveted event, then you also had sort of the public bystanders in the background that are on the sidewalk peering into the window to watch them, which is building, you know, a huge line outside. So I just thought they did a really great job of really using this as a medium that can be integrated into an overall marketing strategy and initiative. I think sometimes when you talk to brands or you have meetings they don't They think it's really cool, but they're trying to see the bigger picture of, well, which department does this relate to and how can I use this for the mobile and the live events and all these other things that we've already planned out for fourth quarter or whatever it is. I thought that was really cool. So there's been a lot. I've mostly just been impressed with just going on the share site. So it's not necessarily the campaigns, but it's been people creating experiences that maybe offered a different point of view that I hadn't thought of or I just thought was really cool and interesting. And so for me, you know, someone my background, I'm constantly connecting the dots. So I see something on the share site that I think is a really good use of the rift and then I can immediately connect the dots to apply that to whichever brand that I'm working with.

[00:06:57.995] Kent Bye: And what were some of those demos on the share site?

[00:07:00.931] Ryan Pulliam: There was a few. I mean, I'll never forget the first time I tried the Rift Coaster. I just thought that was amazing. And then, you know, there was one I tried the other day that was Dumping Elephant. I might have the title wrong, but I thought it was a really cool use. I mean, it's, you know, it's very cartoony and more animated than others, but I thought it was a really good point of view. I mean, because you have this trunk, like you're looking out and the trunk is swinging. And so you're turning your head and you're trying to knock over items. But I thought it was a different point of view than just being a human even. It's like, oh, well, this opens up a whole new industry of animals and what can we do with animals and you know what kind of senses do they have or special you know I thought about something the other day with dinosaurs you know because like you can't bring back dinosaurs and I've always been fascinated by dinosaurs so you know something with this technology where you can really scale the size of t-rex or brontosaurus or something and make it cool or or be one of them looking at another whatever dinosaur

[00:07:51.643] Kent Bye: And did you have an opportunity to actually experience the Game of Thrones demo within the Oculus Rift at South by Southwest or elsewhere?

[00:07:58.324] Ryan Pulliam: I did not because I unfortunately was not at South by Southwest this year. I have read a lot about it and I've saw, you know, the YouTube clips and just because I work with technology, I can, I can imagine it pretty well of what it was like. But yeah, I thought it was a really great integration and, and obviously something with film and TV alone. I mean, there's so much you can do there. I mean, cause you're, You're constantly trying to wow the audience anyway, but you're still wowing them from the screen. And even if you're talking about IMAX or 3D, then I think it's an augmented version of film, but you're still not fully immersed. You know, everybody wants to be in the scene.

[00:08:30.368] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think the thing that I've seen in virtual reality is that there's a sense of scale, like the Titans of Space, and you see huge planets and relative scale between them, but also, I guess in the Game of Thrones, that huge wall. I haven't heard much of what specifically was happening in the demo. Do you know what the narrative or what they were kind of showing within that?

[00:08:49.525] Ryan Pulliam: I just know people, yeah, were experiencing vertigo almost, so I know it was really effective. I know that it involved ascending, I forget how high the wall was supposed to be, and then you get to the very top, and I can't remember exactly what happens at the top, but yeah, I mean, people were freaking out, and I thought it was really cool too, and that was actually another campaign that they did a good job of of not just having a standalone Rift experience. You know, they basically took in costumes from the show and kind of made this museum exhibit out of it. And even though there was a really lengthy line on the outside, like a two and a half hour wait for, you know, what appeared to be like a 30 second experience, you know, they still had you walk through as if it was an entire exhibit and an entire experience that, you know, touched other parts of their marketing, so.

[00:09:28.867] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the potential for what virtual reality can do with creating either marketing messages or virtual reality experiences and where you see this going?

[00:09:39.279] Ryan Pulliam: I'm like, the possibilities are endless. I think it's another just great driver of making it less about marketing and advertising and more about the story and the narrative. Just like, you know, when you create a great experience on the Rift, people end up talking about the experience and they don't talk about the technology as much. And I think that's always a win-win, especially with brands and consumers, because at the end of the day, I mean, people don't like advertising, but I obviously am passionate about brands because for me, it's a win-win. I mean, they do have bigger budgets and they do pay for things in the same way that they team up and collaborate with indie musicians. You know what I mean? It's like, well, now they don't need a record label. They're actually, you know, helping these people's careers and doing amazing things. So I think for me, and virtual reality and brands is just the fact that it's just that immersion, like the fact you can be part of the story. And I think everybody wants to be emotionally connected to something. Everybody wants to be wild and At the end of the day, your marketing messaging, whether it's on social media or mobile or a TV commercial, whatever it is, is always about trying to be awesome or effective. And I think there's no other way to be effective than to actually have that experience and not just see something about an experience.

[00:10:43.996] Kent Bye: Great. Well, thank you so much.

[00:10:45.317] Ryan Pulliam: Thank you.

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