How VR has taken customer experience to the next level at MSA

Safety product and equipment supplier MSA is using the power of virtual reality to put customers in dangerous situations in the comfort of their office. Paul Snell spoke to marketer Evelyn Webb to find out more

How do you demonstrate products that keep people safe without putting people in harm’s way?

It’s a question that marketers at MSA – a $1.2 billion manufacturer of safety products and equipment – have had to tackle since the company’s foundation as Mine Safety Appliances in 1914.

Now, thanks to the power of virtual reality, MSA can put its customers on top of a building or upon an aeroplane’s fuselage without them having to leave the comfort of their office.

“What we always find in safety products is it’s always very difficult to demonstrate how they operate without taking someone into a truly hazardous situation – which is never something you want to do. Virtual reality really offers us that opportunity,” Evelyn Webb, global customer marketing communications manager at MSA, tells B2B Marketing.

Webb says the use of VR was something the company had seen applied in other industries, but had not been introduced in the safety sector, and prompted discussion as to how it could be adapted in its own marketing.

Building scenarios for core markets

MSA construction VR scenario image

MSA’s VR experience offers two scenarios for customers to experience. The ‘construction’ set-up involves choosing personal equipment, climbing a ladder and performing a maintenance task on an air conditioning unit, and then experiencing a ‘fall arrest’, where a falling person is safely stopped, and descended to the ground.

The second scenario is a ‘confined space experience’, which involves working underground, and features MSA’s gas protection, PPE and rescue solution equipment and products.

“We looked at creating scenarios for our core markets. Industrial and construction are key markets, so it made sense for us to focus on those,” says Webb. The scenarios don’t focus on the products themselves, the names are not mentioned and they just form part of the task. “It’s about leading with a representative real-life scenario and our products fitting around and accommodating the user – just like in real life,” she adds.

MSA worked with agency Render Media, whom already do 3D modelling for MSA’s products. In fact, these VR scenarios came as a result of discussions of what else could be done with these 3D models.

Customer experience you can’t achieve through PowerPoint

HTC Vive headset image

The scenarios can be accessed in two ways. Customers can use HTC Vive headsets that are taken to customers, used at trade shows, and at roadshows the company hosts. They can also be accessed on a mobile through an app on both iOS and Android.

Webb says: “The good thing we found with HTC Vive is that it’s easy to set up, so once you’ve got the hardware in place then our sales team have really responded positively to it. It’s really helped them move away from the standard PowerPoint presentation to a really immersive experience with the customer, so they’ve really welcomed the technology.”

Customer feedback has been very positive too. “It shakes it up and takes the experience to a whole new level you can’t achieve through a PowerPoint presentation,” she adds.

Webb says it’s hard to attach a direct ROI to this activity, so it forms part of a larger brand awareness exercise. “What it’s allowed us to do is reach customers who are not able to come to our facility, but really want to understand the complete MSA portfolio. It’s an additional tool a salesperson can use to really understand the product, it’s really a way of bringing the catalogue to life. The business case is the additional reach it’s enabled us to achieve.”

The company is now looking to introduce new scenarios – the next will feature the customer moving across an aeroplane fuselage featuring the firm’s WinGrip technology – and to see how else VR can be applied across the business.

Webb adds: “From MSA’s perspective it was understanding the gaps we had that VR could support us with. VR really bridges the gap to enable people to experience our products in a genuine environment. For any B2B company that has an experience, product or environment they can’t accurately repeat elsewhere without posing a hazard or it’s just not practical, virtual reality really opens that door."

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