Ben & Jerry’s: How a Big Brand Explores Augmented Reality

As we have mentioned previously, the success of augmented reality depends partly on its exposure through major mainstream brands. Late last week, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream empire took its first steps into the world of AR by adding the functionality to its iPhone app – but not in the way you might immediately assume. Today, I had the opportunity to chat with Katie O’Brien from Ben & Jerry’s about the app and how a large brand approaches unique and niche emerging technologies.

Usually when a large brand experiments with mobile AR, they immediately think to provide the heads-up navigator that helps people find store locations. We saw this earlier this year when the popular sandwich chain Quiznos partnered with Layar to provide this exact functionality, but the company peppered in a bit of its own brand of fun as well.

The AR Decision

Ben & Jerry’s, a brand with hundreds of shops around the world, could have easily followed a similar path, but instead it has taken things a bit further. Katie O’Brien, manager of Ben & Jerry’s global digital marketing initiatives, says the company first became excited about AR when it was “blown away” by General Electric’s Smart Grid Web-based AR campaign. “Wow, one day we should do something like that,” O’Brien remembered thinking.

Earlier this year, that day came. Ben & Jerry’s began planning for a campaign that highlighted the fact that many of its ingredients come from small family farms. The campaign, named “It’s what’s inside that counts,” was to feature rich visualizations and was the perfect opportunity for the company to finally jump into AR, O’Brien says.

New Tech, New Opportunities

Taking what it had seen from GE, the company originally began planning for a Web-based experience, but shifted to mobile when it learned that iOS 4.0 would allow for natural feature tracking within AR apps. The company originally struggled with the idea of how to get a special AR marker onto its existing ice cream carton designs, but the shift to mobile natural feature tracking (which could have also been accomplished on the desktop) eliminated the need for these markers.

Right now, Ben & Jerry’s fans can download the company’s official iPhone app and use what it calls “Moo Vision” to unlock 3D AR experiences launched by the carton lid designs. With one of four flavors of ice cream, users can view different virtual dioramas that display scenes from small family farms where ingredients originate. By unlocking all four, users can access special Ben & Jerry’s iPhone background images – a small token that encourages participation.

Looking Back on the Process

Ben & Jerry’s worked with its PR firm, Edelman, and “imaginative tech” development shop Circ.us, which used metaio’s Unifeye Mobile SDK to roll out natural feature tracking on the iPhone. O’Brien says the company had a very positive overall experience working AR into its campaign – a process that only took two months from start to finish, with many changes and revisions along the way.

One lessons she and the company took away from the process was to remain flexible when implementing AR or any emerging technology. The project began as a print campaign, that eventually moved to the Web and then to mobile. The AR shifted from marker-based to natural feature tracking, all making for a frantic last couple of months, she said.

It was certainly worth it, as Ben & Jerry’s is now the first major brand to sport natural feature tracking on the iPhone. So much for pointing people to scoop shop locations.

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