Lancôme executives experiment with Cardboard, a virtual reality headset from Google, during a BrandLab workshop in New York.
Lancôme executives experiment with Cardboard, a virtual reality headset from Google, during a BrandLab workshop in New York. - 
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A bunch of Lancôme executives are sitting around a table, pressing cardboard goggles to their faces, craning their heads left and right — and generally having their minds blown.

“What?” one exclaims. “We’ve just flown across the world.”

They’re demo-ing a new Google offering called Cardboard, a cheap virtual reality headset. It’s part of a workshop in Google’s new BrandLab space in New York, which looks a bit like a cave surrounded by video sound stages. BrandLab is meant to teach companies how to have a better digital presence.

The Google team spent more than a month preparing for this one-day workshop, creating a custom curriculum for Lancôme — and they’ve done it all for free. But when it comes creating a digital strategy, it’s not as though Lancôme is starting from scratch. It was one of the first companies to partner with a YouTube star, Michelle Phan, who has a huge following for her makeup tutorials.

Many companies are turning to social media "power users" to help them pitch their products. So Lancôme is wondering what to do next. “What are we going to do differently tomorrow?” asks Xavier Vey, president of Lancôme U.S. “Michelle Phan was years ago already.”

Lancôme wants to be more accessible, to encourage customers to share and build on the company’s video and other digital content. “Before [luxury] was just about scarcity,” says Vey. “It was just about being inaccessible.” Vey also wants to target millennials without alienating the rest of his customers. 

And Google wants to help Lancôme achieve all these goals, free of charge — but the service isn’t completely altruistic. “It’s free because we get a lot out of it,” says Kim Larson, global director of BrandLab. “There’s a huge amount of relationship building that we want to do, we want to invest in our top brands. We think it’s that important.”

BrandLab has partnered with a cable channel that wanted help launching a new series and a beer maker looking to promote its Super Bowl ads online. The tech giant opened two new BrandLab offices last year, including one in New York to be near Madison Avenue advertisers and the country’s biggest brands.

Google, like Lancôme, is trying to figure out what’s next.

BrandLab is supposed to help them answer some questions of their own: How are companies thinking about digital? How are their strategies shaking out? What kind of insights and opportunities are there? How can Google develop better products and tools to service their needs?

Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, thinks these corporate tutorials can also help Google answer another question: How can its divisions like YouTube make more money? “As dominant a platform as YouTube is, it’s undermonetized,” says Galloway. “At some point, tomorrow needs to be today – it needs to be a more meaningful part of the revenue stream.”

Galloway says Google still derives much of its income from the ads that appear alongside search results. Google wants BrandLab to help it diversify, and Galloway thinks it just might work. “Advertising, even in a digital age, is largely relationship-driven,” he says, adding that BrandLab will help companies create better videos and stories, which might draw more eyes to YouTube.

Galloway also thinks the more comfortable a company like Lancôme is with Google’s products, the more likely it might be to spend money on them down the road. 

Follow Tracey Samuelson at @tdsamuelson