Augmented reality produces real results for Ally

During commercial breaks, Super Bowl viewers in 2018 could use their smartphones to conjure images of dollar bills floating onto their real-life floors and furniture. The next year, Monopoly board game fans in six cities could bring the moustachioed Mr. Monopoly to life while roaming the streets. Last month, consumers could scan a dollar bill with their phone in the hopes of seeing a prize flash across their screen.

These are all promotional campaigns Ally Financial has created using augmented reality, an immersive technology that superimposes digital images in the real world, typically on screens of mobile devices.

Even as efforts to incorporate AR into ATM finders or car-buying apps at other banks in the U.S. have fizzled, Ally has embraced augmented reality as one way to catch the eye of prospective customers and bolster its reputation as a financial services company on the leading edge of technology. Depending on the campaign, the goals vary from acquiring email addresses for marketing purposes to building positive buzz around the brand.

The Detroit company is pleased with the results, including thousands of social media engagements during the Super Bowl despite not buying an ad, hundreds of thousands of players for its Monopoly game and new deposit accounts with higher-than-average opening balances.

“The bottom line is, it’s worked for us,” said Andrea Brimmer, the chief marketing and public relations officer at the $182 billion-asset Ally. “Augmented reality and gamification have been pivotal to our success and growth.”

The tactic is gaining traction globally. A 2020 survey by Forrester Research of 3,628 global mobility decision-makers at banks (people who focus on mobile devices, services and apps) found that 43% were adopting AR, 18% are planning to adopt it in the next 12 months, and 36% are holding back. The top use cases banks cited for AR were customer service and data analytics.

A separate survey that identified the top emerging technologies in banking in 2021 named augmented reality as an “on-the-radar” initiative, meaning there was a legitimate but limited, near-term interest.

“We are seeing banks use this technology in an effective way, but at the same time it has not yet reached the mainstream,” said Jost Hoppermann, a principal analyst at Forrester.

Ally’s first foray into augmented reality was the interactive mobile game Ally Big Save. During the Super Bowl in 2018, participants could download a dedicated app, enter a savings goal and through augmented reality collect money “piling up” in their homes to earn points for a contest.

Twitter recognized Ally as one of the top campaigns during the Super Bowl. It was the brand without a national TV spot that drove the highest percentage of brand conversation. In the days leading up to and including the Super Bowl, Ally experienced more than 6,300 social engagements with 89% expressing positive or neutral sentiments, a total of 69,000 app downloads, an average of 24,000 active players per commercial break and a total of 31,000 contest submissions.

In October 2019, it launched its version of Monopoly. Residents in six cities could embark on a scavenger hunt where game tokens and property spaces materialized in the real world. Players could win prizes, as well as raise money for charity by landing on the (virtual) Community Chest square.

As of January 2020, the game was played more than 1 million times by 354,000 unique players, eventually leading to 128 new deposit accounts funded with an average initial balance of $25,000. The company says this is 17% higher than average balances generated through its business-as-usual marketing efforts to new prospects.

Its latest effort, Digital Dollar, ran during the last week of April 2021. Brimmer points out that this campaign demonstrates another advantage of AR as an engagement tool: It’s available to anyone with a smartphone, even when they are stuck at home. Users would train their smartphone cameras on a QR code and scan a bill to reveal a spinning cube with logos from brands such as Adidas, Amazon and Hulu. They would enter their email address to find out if they won a prize from participating merchants or the grand prize of $50,000.

As a charitable tie-in, Ally delivered gifts to health care workers at mass vaccination sites that same week in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Detroit.

The objectives vary based on the campaign. Sometimes it’s about collecting email addresses, which the user supplies to unlock the game.

At the same time, “We are really careful and try to be good stewards when someone gives their email address,” said Brimmer.

If players ignore the first few marketing emails, Ally takes the hint.

“You have to be smart around how you reach out to the consumer post their interaction with your brand,” Brimmer said. “We’re not going to bat a thousand coming out of all these games.”

Other times, scoring new accounts is not the expectation.

In early April, Ally released a second book, “Emma and the Cosmo Phone,” in its Adventures with Money series for children. Downloading an app and scanning a QR code unleashes characters from the book through augmented reality.

“That’s more about us being a good citizen of the world and doing our part to teach financial literacy,” said Brimmer.

Practice with AR has paid off. Brimmer recalls that the Big Save program took five months to develop. In contrast, her team developed the AR piece for Digital Dollar within a month and a half.

The ideas typically emanate from Ally’s creative agencies, namely Anomaly and R/GA. Ally may use a mix of external partners such as 8th Wall and internal employees to develop the AR and test the games ahead of time. To promote these efforts, Ally will spread the word on social media, through email and via its influencers.

A number of banks in the U.S. have experimented with AR over the past several years, typically through pilot projects.

In 2011, PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh launched an app that located ATMs and branches using AR. U.S. Bancorp in Minneapolis tested its own app in 2012 that did something similar.

USAA in San Antonio piloted a car-buying app in 2019 where customers can point their phone at a vehicle and get an augmented reality overlay with the make, model and year of the car, as well as its price range and quotes for insurance.

Wells Fargo included Argo, an augmented reality-focused company, in its Wells Fargo Startup Accelerator in 2019 to better understand its technology and how it could fit into financial services at scale.

But these pilots have all ended, and the banks are not actively working on AR initiatives.

“It is perplexing to me why so many marketers have started and puttered out, but for us, it’s something we’ve had a lot of success in,” Brimmer said. “Like anything else, you have to be persistent.”

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