Brands plan to bridge physical, digital worlds with 3D printing

Some cutting-edge marketers are connecting social media promotions with the physical world using 3D printers.

It's no secret that brands are spending significant time and money fine-tuning their digital and social media strategies. Yet some cutting-edge marketers are planning for the day when they can connect social promotions with the physical world using 3D printers.

Forward-leading brands are currently using 3D printers to engage media, consumers, and online developers and designers. From 3D-printed athletic shoe cleats to mobile phone cases, companies are adopting 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, to be more efficient in their manufacturing process. The printers – a hot topic at this year's South by Southwest Interactive festival – can make three-dimensional physical objects from a digital file.

In media relations campaigns, brands give 3D-printed prototypes of new products to journalists, explains Nadra Angerman, president of Angerman Communications Group. The firm promotes businesses in the 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and additive manufacturing industries.

“[Giving] media a sneak preview of a product not yet in production with a 3D-printed prototype would allow journalists to develop stories with photos,” says Angerman.

While companies are generally reticent to share prototypes due to competitive concerns, she adds, “I suspect there will be a shift as many companies see opportunities to promote their brand via this new buzz around 3D printing.”

Earlier this month, shoe manufacturer New Balance said it started using 3D printing to customize spike plates on footwear for professional athletes. Katherine Petrecca, manager of studio innovation at New Balance, says the company's eventual goal is to bring a similar offering to every customer. 

“Although we are far away from a consumer solution, putting the word out that this is something we are working on was an open-source strategy for us to attract resources and accelerate the project. We're already getting queries from different companies and consumers,” she explains. “We feel [going public early] will also help us be recognized as a leader in this space that companies want to partner with.”

A number of 3D printer manufacturers have released simplified consumer desktop versions priced as low as about $1,200, which presents an opportunity for brands to engage consumers who own the printers.

Chad Latz, president of Cohn & Wolfe's global digital practice, says brands could design limited-edition products and share the digital file so consumers could print on demand.

“The products could be used to generate publicity and socialize a campaign on social media,” he adds.

Earlier this year, Nokia released the 3D design specifications of its Lumia smartphone so 3D printer owners could make their own cases. Through the creation of a 3D-printing development kit (3DK), Nokia also recommended the materials for use and included best practices.

John Kneeland, community and developer marketing manager at Nokia, says the “3DK experiment was more successful than even our most optimistic assumptions,” in terms of interest from developers, consumers, and other partners. Yet he noted the “technical limitations of 3D printing technology – especially for the printers that can be deployed at home or in the field.”

“For now, the best companies to start using 3D printing in PR and marketing efforts are very forward-thinking, cutting-edge technology companies that have a tech-savvy, early adopter segment among their target audience,” explains Kneeland. “For these brands, the promotional potential is very exciting.”

Joshua Reynolds, EVP and co-led of the global technology practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, predicts brands will use 3D printers as a bridge between the virtual and digital worlds as 3D printers become more common. Online games, for example, could be extended into the physical world by enabling a player to print a 3D version of his avatar.

Like the “gamifaction” of interactive digital ads, he adds that brands could turn 3D-printed marketing collateral into interactive games.

“A 3D-printable Rubik's Cube, for example, could reveal a promo code or brand message when you solve it,” says Reynolds. “In an age where everything is pixilated, digital, and on a flat screen, physical objects become a novelty for consumers. If part of your brand is communicating a real-world experience, there are some wonderful opportunities for brands to demonstrate that they are also useful in the real world.”

Despite its promise as a marketing tool, there are many challenges for brands beyond developing the technology itself. There are concerns that products' digital files could fall victim to piracy, so brands will need to protect their property while encouraging consumer engagement.

“We have been working with our legal team to ensure we are enabling our customers and developers to do exciting things with their Nokias while still protecting our brand and our rights,” adds Kneeland. “Every other business should do the same.”

Brands should also ensure they are giving consumers printable materials that they actually want, instead of just object they can print for the sake of it, says LeeAnn Manon, senior product marketing manager for 3D design software company Autodesk, via email.

“There's certainly a lot of potential for brands to enable customers to use digital assets to create physical items that are true to the brand, but also personal to the individual, potentially building tighter brand affinity or reach new markets,” she explains. “But it will be important to make sure that the process of creating the object to be 3D printed, and of receiving the print, is tailored to appeal to the brand's target market and delivers on the brand promise.”

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