The metaverse has gone mainstream.
Forced to stay home during the pandemic, people around the world connected virtually instead, meeting up in Animal Crossing or around the campfire in Red Dead Redemption. And these connections will only multiply.
The advent of 5G and advances in VR and other technologies are making the metaverse quicker, cheaper and easier to access. South Korea has already created a 'metaverse alliance' to establish a national ecosystem and prevent a company establishing a monopoly of this digital world. Facebook's recent rebrand to Meta is a clear statement of intent in the opposite direction.
But what is the metaverse? For many the word conjures up notions of a dystopian future, where reality is experienced online via avatars. Of course, the metaverse has existed in some shape or form for some time, as any former Neopet owner knows. In essence it's likely to become an immersive virtual realm composed of multiple platforms - today, these are mostly massively multiplayer online games, but these may become decentralised or connected.
While its exact future state may be unclear, it is clear that there's money to be made. The high-profile growth of blockchain and NFTs has already given rise to a virtual items market worth $50 billion annually, according to Wired. And beyond financial considerations, the borderless, virtual nature of the metaverse is cause for optimism, bringing with it the potential for better social interaction, greater accessibility and even advances in sustainability.
Brands on the bandwagon
As a result, brands are starting to get involved in the metaverse as it exists today. Some are a natural fit for virtual activations and experiences - especially those in fashion, music and entertainment - with games providing the platform. The same examples come up time and again - the Travis Scott concert in Fortnite, the Gucci Garden in Roblox, Balenciaga's immersive game Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow.
However, a sense of trial and error remains, with exciting one-off activations leaving audiences asking 'cool, but now what?', and brands from non-adjacent categories wondering how to get a foot in the virtual door.
Many have opted to create a virtual replica of their offline experience as a first step - but carbon copies of brick-and-mortar stores or real-world events will likely seem quaint and unimaginative in the future. In fact, the metaverse opens the door to a whole new level of creativity for brands.
Understanding the metaverse opportunity
Opportunities for brand building in the metaverse are literally limitless, its users freed from the constraints of time, place and even the laws of physics. What's more, we'll most likely experience the metaverse via avatars, which could mean greater anonymity. This will mean a paradigm shift for brands, meaning they need to create something that people want to be part of, rather than forcing it on a particular 'demographic'. For the time being, they'll also need to work alongside existing platforms, meaning less control over the experience, how it looks and how people interact with it.
If you're feeling lost, you're not alone. There are still so many unanswered questions as people and brands race to understand and tap into the potential of the metaverse.
The next leap for brands
There's no time like the present for brands that want to take a leap into the metaverse, with some key considerations:
Think outside the box:
What kind of touchpoints might your brand own in the metaverse? Think beyond traditional touchpoints - retail doesn't have to look like a shop, products don't need packaging, fashion need not stick to the runway. The only limit is the imagination.
Dream big, start small:
The great thing about digital experiences is that they're easier to adapt, change, test and scale, which enables small-scale experimentation. Brands can use existing platforms as training wheels and make a large impact with low investment by creating organic in-game activations (like Wendy's viral 'Keeping Fortnite Fresh'), before taking the plunge and building their own branded world, like SKII City.
Encourage more sustainable consumption:
The metaverse 'dematerialises' consumption since it isn't dependent on manufacturing and shipping. Its crypto foundations are being made less energy-intensive too, meaning the metaverse could bring about a revolution in sustainable consumption. Physical products could be tested virtually, as NFTs - allowing brands to gauge interest before launching for real, producing only to meet demand.
Explore new dimensions:
Companies need to think about multi-dimensional branding for a virtual world that may be experienced in a highly immersive way through VR, AR etc. Now's the time to think not only about how your brand looks in 3D, but how it moves, sounds (voice assistant, music, sound effects...) - even smells? There's no harm in starting early - get thinking now.
Find your people online:
While some brands are a natural fit for the metaverse, it's slightly harder for others (FMCG, for example). But even they can create on-brand experiences and content, by identifying games or platforms that align with where the brand appears in the real world. For example, Stella Artois sponsors Zed Run digital horse racing, since its parent company AB InBev is already big in sports sponsorship. The key is to find your community where they already are, and create interactions based on your values and associations, not just your product.
Be ready to relinquish control:
Brands need to create experiences that people want to be part of, that align with the spirit of the platform they're using. In most cases, brands don't own the platform and so need to relinquish some control. Gamers are passionate tribes, and quick to react if something goes wrong - the stakes are high, so whatever you do needs to be authentic. Do your research, find the gamers in your company, or ask the experts. When done right, it's a huge opportunity to engage a new passionate generation of brand ambassadors - just look at DHL's sponsorship of ESL.
Don't forget the experience IRL:
Despite dystopian predictions, the value of real-world interactions and experiences will never go away. Brands that create crossover physical/digital experiences and integrate virtual and real-world experiences will win in the long run. Thinking about blending an NFT offer with a tangible offer, like Nike's CryptoKicks.
The metaverse is limitless. For brands right now, it represents a high-margin, highly-creative, super-sustainable, digitally native portal to a new reality - one that'll allow brands to reach new audiences and bring about a paradigm shift in the way we'll experience products, content and even other people.
For brands that are brave enough to experiment, the possibilities are endless. The good news is no one's cracked it yet, so there's no better time to join our next great creative revolution.
First published in Campaign Asia