Honda is making virtual reality branded videos

Honda is launching its first-ever bit of branded VR content.

The brand will debut online videos that will let viewers experience what it would feel like to drive the ultra-fast Honda-powered, Dallara car. Their release is set to coincide with the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

Created with Gannett, the experience will live online on flagship USA Today and its 92 local newspaper sites as well as on an app, called VR Stories By USA Today Network. They’ll also live on RaceWithHonda.com as well as a couple of other Honda properties, said Ernie Kelsey, senior manager of regional media and marketing at Honda. The partners have not yet decided how to get viewing devices into people’s hands, but The New York Times famously included the Google Cardboard VR viewer along with its newspaper to millions of subscribers when it launched its NYT VR.

The Honda car is usually driven by pro-driver Mario Andretti (the driver has long appeared in sweepstakes and contests and other bits of marketing for the company), Kelsey said. “We’ve long looked for ways to extend our reach and engagement, and get more people excited about racing.” The brand had been talking about using 360-degree video and virtual reality in its marketing, so when its media agency, MediaVest, approached it about doing something with Gannett, it was intrigued, said Kelsey.

The Honda VR ad is the first by Gannett’s new branded-content division, GET Creative, that the publisher officially launched in March. The division is focusing on virtual reality as a point of difference, as well as the ability to give advertisers distribution across its footprint of 110 million unique visitors. The offering builds on editorial experience Gannett already has, having produced more than 40 VR videos for its newsrooms.

Gannett’s creative team and Honda are testing the ability to reproduce the racetrack sounds in 360-degree audio, too. The videos will be labeled “VR story by Honda” to make it clear to the viewer that the video is an ad. Honda agency RPA was also involved in the campaign. A knowledgeable source said the videos were part of a seven-figure campaign.

VR has generated a lot of interest among buyers in the last few months as publishers have begun to offer branded-content options. But most buyers say that the big challenge remains going beyond the novelty factor into becoming an everyday part of consumers’ lives. Headsets are expensive and not yet in wide distribution, and even getting the relatively inexpensive Google Cardboard viewers in people’s hands adds up. For that reason, Gannett expects that most of the Honda ad-viewing to be in the form of 360-degree videos, which can be seen on the site without the aid of a viewing device.

“If we can use VR to put more people in the race or in the pit, we can drive a very powerful experience,” said Kevin Gentzel, CRO for Gannett. He added that based on advertiser demand and Gannett’s ability to target people based on their behavior and editorial context, he sees potential for the studio producing “dozens” more such VR campaigns this year.

Honda also has been ahead on the VR trend in the R&D division for a couple of years: Last year, it received a patent for a VR device for inside the car — a way to entertain passengers and help the driver out in certain cases. Kelsey said VR is inside Honda in many different departments: “We have a group here looking 20 years into the future to see how we can implement this inside the cars,” he said. “But from a marketing standpoint, we can actually do a lot of this and use this tech right now.”

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