Example of CGI in Ikea's catalog

The CGI Revolution in Product Marketing

Recently, I’ve been quite impressed discovering that 60-75% of products in IKEA’s catalog are in fact computer-generated images (CGI), not traditional photographs. In a very interesting interview on CGSociety (“Building 3D with IKEA”, CGSociety, June 2014), Martin Enthed explains how successful developments in software (in particular how ray-tracers manage light) and cross-fertilization and teamwork between experienced photographers and 3D artists made the transition possible. These improvements have been able to overcome negative bias present in marketing teams that still regarded computer graphics as something for video games, beautiful but unrealistic animations or, at best, expensive Hollywood productions. Nowadays, in IKEA computer generated imagery is simply considered yet another tool in the hands of communication teams, equivalent to traditional photography.

Upon closer look, one understands that computer graphics have long entered the marketing and advertising worlds. If initially photo-retouching played a big part in enhancing traditional photographs, later CGI was thrown in to expand creative content and produce renditions limited only by the imagination (“All Hail the Renaissance”, Computer Graphics World, August 2008). CGI is now used systematically to fully render products and entire catalogs: just as examples, a very large portion of cars, phones, tablets, cameras, watches, toys marketed online and on physical media have never undergone a photo-shooting session (“Hyper-Realistic CGI Is Killing Photographers, Thrilling Product Designers”, WIRED, March 2013). Even more impressive, fashion models might soon be out of job if innovative agencies such as the one working for H&M replace them with a range of virtual dummies, digitized and dressed for the occasion (“Retailers Conjure Virtual Models”, WSJ, January 2013).

Moreover, the automotive sector I currently work for was an early adopter of CGI. Lured by cost savings in an impossibly expensive and long design process, auto OEMs have been leveraging for quite some time CAD datasets to produce 3D prototypes and visualizations. From there, moving to CGI-based advertising and marketing was easy to imagine (and today 3D car renderings are all around us). Recently, the concept moved into dealers with virtual showrooms such as the one developed by Jaguar Land Rover with IBM. JLR’s Virtual Experience puts in front of a customer, through a full-size perfectly photo-realistic interactive display, the entire range of models in all possible configurations… something hardly possible with physical vehicles in a traditional dealership setting.

This CGI revolution, made possible by increasingly realistic, performing and cost-efficient technologies, is rapidly conquering minds in marketing and communication departments all over the world thanks to very solid and effective benefits. Letting aside the ones related to the creative and artistic process, I like to consider the following:

  • early product display (products can be launched and presented well before the first one exits the factory)
  • easy management of complex and varied product catalogs (products can be updated on-the-fly following design modifications, product variants can be displayed easily and selectively, catalogs can be easily customized for different markets)
  • personalized customer selling experience (entire range of products can be put in front of the customer, products can be configured on-the-fly to adapt to customer wishes)
  • overcoming physical limitations of retail spaces (no more need to have extensive inventories in stores and showrooms, especially for big expensive products)
  • cost-efficient image rendering (no more need for expensive photo-shooting, without logistic hassles and human-related drama)
  • asset reuse (possibility to leverage engineering datasets, creation of a product asset library, leveraging of existing renderings for product updates, effective support to a multi-channel online/offline strategy)

Finally, once these digital assets are actively used in the sales process, the quantity of data that can be gathered, analyzed and fed back to marketing, product portfolio management and engineering teams is priceless (for example, think customer preferences from interaction with 3D cars in a virtual dealer). Interesting times for photographers, 3D artists, marketers… and IT guys!

Photo by Ikea (C)