In 2009, Oprah and Ashton Kutcher introduced the world to Twitter. This summer, Pokémon Go brought AR to the masses. Weirdly, Harry Potter got everyone to read a play script. Whenever a ground-breaking new technology comes into existence, it needs an equally ground-breaking work of art to usher in the critical mass that will let it catch on.
Nostalgia is a key ingredient in the emergent format recipe
For a trend to boost an emergent technology or format into the mainstream two conditions need to be met. Firstly, the trend must be genuinely worthwhile. Secondly, whatever is driving the trend needs to hinge on the unique qualities inherent to the new format.
The first condition is easy enough to defend: No one wants to jump on a bandwagon that has clearly been focus-grouped to within an inch of its life by a think tank of marketers and PR officials. The second condition can be seen in recent trends such as the rise of adult coloring books. In the US, sales of these books leapt from one to 12 million from 2014 to 2015. This pulled up print book sales overall — for the first time in four years — thanks to one simple fact: You can’t color in an eBook.
So how does nostalgia enter the picture? As the coloring book boom proves, not every audience-grabbing trend needs an IP, let alone one that’s well-established. But it doesn’t hurt. The best example by far of an emergent tech riding a trend is Pokémon Go, which launched in July 2016 and pulled in 45 million users by August, racking up over $500 million in revenue while boosting interest in consumer-driven AR. 1990s nostalgia played an obvious role.
Nostalgia is the best growth hack
Tech might be picking up something Hollywood has known for decades: Rehashing an IP is the fastest way to tap into a ready audience. The Magnificent Seven, a solidly performing 2016 blockbuster, is a remake of a 1960 film that spawned three sequels and a TV show but was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai. This labyrinthine history is only becoming more common, leading to a new term: the “soft reboot”. The two best multi-billion-dollar examples from last year, Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, constantly borrow moments and plot points from their respective franchise-spawning classics. Audiences got what they wanted, even if critics were appalled, which means that producers achieved their goal, a couple of the best box office returns in history.
Interestingly, the connection between brand nostalgia and success does not have to be a beat-for-beat replication of the previous IP. Pokémon Go proves this point. And while summer blockbusters use their unique value (big-screen explosions) to shackle audiences to a format nearing the end of its lifespan (the big screens), nostalgia could easily highlight the value in VR just as it has for AR.
The Walking Dead might hold the nostalgia that VR needs
Virtual Reality still hasn’t landed on a breakout product, though not for a lack of brand partnerships. Mr. Robot and Game of Thrones each created their own mini VR experiences. However, one brand has both the scale and unique fit needed to create the nostalgic trend VR needs: The Walking Dead.
There’s a reason the early VR games heavily skew towards horror: Virtual Reality is about an immersive experience, and horror as a genre is reliant on the visceral, can’t-look-away combination of suspense and violence. Reviewing the VR options for PlayStation, Joshua Rivera noted that “VR has the potential to be an incredible game-changing horror experience,” but admitted that he could not support this claim further because he couldn’t handle actually playing them.
In addition, a horror environment can be self-contained, letting players explore a simulated 1940s mental hospital or a derelict cargo ship rather than the massive sandbox world an action game might require. The number one show on television during its last season finale, Walking Dead has the massive audience to break VR into the mainstream.
In an interview several months ago, Jon Goldman, managing partner at Los Angeles entertainment company Skybound, the IP holders of the Walking Dead, mentioned the possibility of VR, saying: “For something like Walking Dead, as far as I can tell from all the demos and pitches I’ve seen, a lot of people seem to think that zombies are a good idea in VR.” Would it work? He’s of two minds, both agreeing that: “A known IP is an amazing way to rise above the noise,” and that “early adopters picking up these platforms want fresh, original stuff”.
Big brands, he explains, can afford to wait until they know if a partnership would really benefit them. Perhaps the future of tech trends powered by brand nostalgia, then, relies on knowing which brand is big enough to trigger a massive audience’s interest while still small enough to agree to serve as that trigger.
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