In 1997, with the PlayStation embedded as the nation's gaming console of choice, Sony released a game called WipeOut 2097. A fast, futuristic racer with a theme track by well-known electronica and break beat artists, it offered players the chance to race anti-grav ships round futuristic race tracks. Futuristic, but also recognisable, with straights, corners, grandstands and - of course - advertising hoardings. What self-respecting racing circuit would do without them, even in 2097? But they didn't carry a made-up futuristic product. Instead, they were advertising Red Bull. The Austrian energy drink had projected themselves a hundred years into the future, advertising to gamers whilst they raced anti-grav ships and fired missiles at fellow racers.
What's interesting about this - apart from the fact that brands in games is not a new thing - is what Red Bull didn't do, not what it did. It could've plastered its livery over all the ships, it could've sprayed it over the finish line or even sponsored the game itself ("Red Bull Racing 2097" anyone?) Instead it placed its brand in the most authentic way possible, finding spaces that felt believable for Red Bull to be in, even in 2097. It showed a real understanding of itself, a self-awareness that guided it to place its brand in a game world in ways that felt acceptable and authentic.
It's this self-awareness, this understanding of what your brand is and isn't, that is arguably the secret to successfully placing it within a game.
So, should we be dragging advertising hoardings into the metaverse then? These days, there's no need to be so vulgar. Advertising in the metaverse is like product placement or embedded marketing. Again, here brand self-awareness is critical. Does the placement of the product feel clumsy or forced? Hackneyed and tired product placement has rightly been the butt of many jokes, but done well, product placement can be a lucrative endeavour. Just ask the brands queuing up to get their products into the next James Bond film.
"But in the metaverse, there's even more room to be creative. Yes, find your authentic place, but don't stop there. When reality is virtual it doesn't need to directly mirror the real world. Virtual avatars can look and dress in ways their real world owner would never dare to. They might demand a role in the creation of branded goods which they would never dream of doing if they were stood in a real shop just off Oxford Street. The opportunities are endless. Tail warmers for mermaid avatars? You're welcome Uniqlo."
— Adam Sefton, Digital Strategy Director, Superunion London
If this seems glib, it's not meant to. These virtual objects matter. Don't do people the disservice of assuming an item's virtual-ness makes it less important. After all, for a generation who have been trapped into renting their entire lives, their virtual home might be the only one they ever own. Brands need to treat the space with the same seriousness they would treat the real world. Something demonstrated by Gucci's recent partnership with Roblox. The Gucci Garden is only on the Roblox platform for 2 weeks, but it's clearly been years in the creation, it feels authentically both Gucci and Roblox and is a great example of a brand stepping into a metaverse space.
Branding in the metaverse, as with so many things, is a blend of the old and the new. Brands have long had a role in the gaming universe, and the best have succeeded by understanding the need for authenticity, both in the games they appear in, and where they appear within those games. Take that authentic self-awareness and then explode it creatively. Understand the possibilities that new technologies create and think imaginatively about how you can use them to express your brand in a way that connects with people. Know your place. And know how to dress it up with style.