We've been hearing about the coming age of virtual reality for what feels like a lifetime (I remember playing with a crude VR headset at an arcade back in the early 90s).

But while it may have taken a few decades longer than predicted, the promise of VR is finally catching up with the hype. Facebook acquired VR headset developer Oculus Rift in 2014. Sony announced it would be launching its VR device Project Morpheus in 2016, and Google made VR accessible to anyone with a smart phone with Google Cardboard--a rudimentary headset that's available for as low as $15.

That so many customers will soon have access to VR (not just those who can afford $600 headsets) has marketers sitting up, taking notice--and  contemplating their investment in virtual reality content.

Leaders in certain verticals--fashion, auto, travel--are already taking the plunge into VR content production, leveraging the technology to dazzle their customers, make headlines, and gain a competitive advantage over their more cautious corporate counterparts. 

It stands to reason that larger brands with deeper pockets are among the first to debut campaigns that deliver an immersive VR experience--but as the technology becomes even more mainstream, smaller, more niche brands are sure to follow. Check out how four major brands are testing the limits of virtual reality marketing--and decide if VR warrants a line item in your own marketing budget.

Driving Reality With Volvo

Want to get customers excited about a car that's not even in showrooms yet? Offer them a test drive from the comfort of their own homes. That's what Volvo did to drum up excitement for its XC90 SUV. The brand created its own VR with the "Volvo Reality" app, which immerses consumers in a VR test drive. Shot on a 60-mile stretch of road, this first-ever fully immersive virtual reality test drive blends a CG build of the interior of the car with footage shot on a 60-mile stretch of road in Vancouver, and can be viewed with or without Google Cardboard.

"We wanted for many people to experience the joy we feel around this car," Volvo North America EVP Bodil Erikkson explained in a statement. "It's simple, it's playful, and also grown ups should be able to play a little." 

Why It Works Volvo used VR to solve a problem - specifically getting people behind the wheel of a car that would not be in showrooms for several months - and not as a substitute for a real test drive.

Fashionable Access With TopShop and  Dior

If you look at the front row of just about any show during Fashion Week, it's a who's who of celebrity, fashion, music, and media influencers. Though this exclusivity is a part of the shows' cachet, it leaves the majority of consumers without direct access to the major marketing events we call runway shows.

Without opening up the shows to the masses, fashion brands TopShop and Dior granted consumers virtual front row access to these exclusive events using VR headsets. Pioneering this trend in 2014 was TopShop, who presented "The Catwalk Experience" --an immersive livestream show presented through Oculus Rifts--to contest winners, at the brand's flagship in London. Dior jumped on the trend in 2015, when it premiered its own virtual reality headsets--Dior Eyes--that allow customers to view immersive backstage footage from the brand's fashion shows when they visit Dior stores.

Why It Works When physical access isn't feasible, virtual reality gives consumers a true insiders' point of view. If your brand has an interesting behind-the-scenes story waiting to be shared, virtual reality may be able to help with that narrative.

Take a Hike With  Merrell

When outdoor brand Merrell wanted to break through the noise at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, it opted for TrailScape - a VR first. In conjunction with Rolling Stone, Merrell premiered the first-ever commercial in-motion virtual reality experience--meaning consumers walked around a specially designed physical landscape to complement the immersive experience on the Oculus Rift. The seemingly treacherous (yet completely safe) experience dazzled activation visitors, and generated buzz in a crowded marketing landscape.

Why It Works This isn't any marketer's favorite advice to hear, but Merrell spent the money needed for a high quality activation. The brand worked with effects company Framestore--known for it effects work on Gravity--to ensure the experience looked and felt real.