Arctic Cat rides virtual reality for all-year marketing

Nicole Norfleet
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Minneapolis — It can’t snow in Minnesota all 12 months — and few would want that.

So what do you do in the warmer months when you still want people to get excited about snowmobiles? Arctic Cat is making its own winter experience in warmer months with the help of virtual reality.

It’s the latest marketing tool for the struggling snowmobile and all-terrain vehicles manufacturer.

Thrill-seeking enthusiasts can take part in the “Arctic Cat 360 experience,” the recently launched simulation that incorporates Samsung Gear virtual reality headsets to help consumers feel like they are riding a snowmobile or a side-by-side in a 360-degree virtual world.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, Arctic Cat has upped the ante on its marketing and promotional campaigns to increase awareness of its brand and spur sales.

Selling and marketing expenses totaled $43.7 million, or almost 41 percent of operating costs, in the company’s most recent fiscal year. That’s up from $39.6 million the year before.

“We know we have really cool products that users want to engage in, and we have this really passionate user base,” said Greg Williamson, who was hired by Arctic Cat as its first-ever chief marketing officer last year.

“Our pathway to success we feel is providing that experience getting people onto our machines and in front of our machines in every way possible,” he said. “When we looked at virtual reality, that just seemed like one more lever we could pull to do something that’s exciting and engaging and most importantly provide that ride experience.”

During a conference call after the announcement of the company’s earnings last month, CEO Christopher Metz told analysts one of Arctic Cat’s strategic initiatives was to turn the company into “a brand marketing powerhouse” and “activate sales through experiential marketing.”

Arctic Cat has been trying to stage a business turnaround. For the full fiscal year, which ended March 31, Arctic Cat reported a net loss of $9.2 million.

Arctic Cat’s 360 project was a brainchild of Minneapolis advertising agency Periscope, which has done work for the company since 1982.

Periscope began exploring how it could assist Arctic Cat in helping more people experience their products at trade shows, stores and other places where demonstrations on the real thing may not always be possible, said Matt Miller, vice president and experiential creative director at Periscope.

The setup: A participant usually sits on a side-by-side or snowmobile and then straps on the Samsung Gear virtual reality headset. The user does not actually control the direction or movement of the vehicle on the screen, but the headset allows for a panoramic view of the ride.

The virtual reality ride premiered in March at the company’s dealer meeting in Las Vegas. Last month, Arctic Cat announced a second virtual reality experience featuring racer Tony Stewart in a Wildcat exploring red Utah canyons. The company demonstrated the virtual reality rides at its recent investor day in May. Many Arctic Cat dealers have already started ordering virtual reality merchandise kits to add the 360 experience to their stores to translate into more sales.

Arctic Cat and Periscope are not the only ones to explore use of virtual reality. Marketers worldwide are helping clients experiment with the technology, seen as another avenue for brands to interact with customers.

“I can see (virtual reality) easily applying to a few other businesses we have. … A lot of brands are looking to create more intriguing, experiential content,” said Peter Nicholson, Periscope’s chief creative officer. “This is a big part of that.”

Last year, local advertising agency Space150 launched a promotion of Polaris’ Victory Motorcycles that used the Oculus Rift to give those at trade shows the chance to virtually ride through the Black Hills of South Dakota. The firm has gone on to develop more virtual reality experiences on other platforms including the HTC Vive.

While playing a big part, 360 video is not the only way that Arctic Cat is experimenting with marketing strategies. A couple of months ago, Arctic Cat rolled out a free snowmobile racing game for mobile users in an effort to reach a young demographic. Arctic Cat Extreme Snowmobile Racing has had over 1 million downloads.

Earlier this year, Arctic Cat announced it was the lead sponsor of the sprint car racing series that is now known as the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

Another extension of the company’s marketing will be its new Minneapolis headquarters, which it will move into this summer. The North Loop building will give the company the visibility that its old suburban offices didn’t allow — complete with two glass-enclosed, top floors.