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The metaverse could offer brands emotional connectivity at scale

By Steve Wheen, Founder & CEO, Distillery

The renaming of Facebook to Meta has prompted much speculation about what Mark Zuckerberg’s new world – “a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces” – will really offers consumers and brands.

But the focus is not just about the plans for bringing together Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus, crucially it’s on what it signals in terms of the development of the metaverse itself.

The term metaverse has been around for a while – Neal Stephenson used it in his 1991 novel Snow Crash to describe a world where users with digital avatars interact and exchange digital items across digital worlds. The word has now become a catch all for immersive, interactive digital and social spaces encompassing gaming, cryptocurrencies, VR, AR, NFTs and online marketplaces.

So, not surprisingly, Meta’s intention to hire 10,000 engineers and to invest $10bn to turn the metaverse into a viable product, has prompted considerable discussion. It’s brought the metaverse into mainstream media debate, even if Facebook is arguably playing catch-up in this area and following in the wake of online gaming giant Roblox.

The development of the metaverse is genuinely exciting. Through the merging of the real and virtual worlds, we now have an opportunity to be visionary in the way that brands engage, inform and entertain consumers.

This vision is not just about virtual technologies and digital spaces, as we already have some of these now. The real opportunity with the metaverse is to drive emotional connections at scale. The current reality of many virtual and immersive experiences is that they simply don’t have mass reach. They are in-person, or they involve disconnected platforms where you log in and out, or they are focused on relatively small audiences.

With the metaverse, we have the opportunity to create meaningful experiences and engagement, using VR and AR and other technologies, cost-effectively at scale. Brands that use content to drive emotional and behavioural change are set to have the opportunity to expand into new personalised experiences and interactions with the scale of online video. Brands that understand the power of content will be able to drive ever greater interactivity with consumers, leading to sustainable business growth.

Brands will need to think differently and be fast and agile, but the opportunities to create virtual experiences could be plentiful. Stella Artois recently entered the world of virtual horse racing, auctioning 50 rare horses and building a branded 3D racecourse. This is the type of virtual experience we are likely to see more of, but on a much bigger scale. Similarly, we could see an explosion in the number of branded virtual events, such as the Travis Scott concert on Fortnite that attracted more than 12 million attendees.

For some brands, the metaverse could present significant owned-content opportunities through the creation of branded virtual worlds to host events and experiences. We’ve already started to see this happen. Gucci has created its spaces on Roblox, such as the Gucci Garden, with visitors entering through a virtual lobby in which their avatars can view, try on and purchase digital items.

Japanese beauty company SK-II created a virtual city, SK-II CITY (pictured), modelled on Tokyo, that allows people to explore the digital environment and enter branded experiences. Other brands such as Warner Bros, Hyundai and Coca-Cola have also entered this space.

And we’re set to see huge growth in branded virtual assets with the development of the metaverse. From virtual fashion to real estate, people are now paying serious money for virtual possessions. Brands are creating wearable items for in-game or social experiences, such Louis Vuitton selling skins for League of Legends. Levis and Ralph Lauren are just two brands that have released a line of virtual clothing for avatar and personalised emoji platform Bitmojis.

But one of the biggest growth areas in virtual possessions is NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which is a way to transfer ownership of virtual assets between people, companies and creators. Coca-Cola, Pringles, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Microsoft and Nike have all launched NFT collections.

Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse is to create an open and interoperable platform, with companies submitting their assets into an aggregation layer, with AI used to make matches and provide recommendations. However, we are long way from interoperability, and while it is predicted that anything and everything could be monetised in the metaverse, this is not necessarily the right approach for brands looking to create meaningful content and drive emotional connections. It’s also likely that advertising will be bought and sold in the metaverse, but again, this is not the visionary future of content-rich experiences.

For brands looking to take their first steps into the world of virtual experiences and preparing for the new metaverse, there are several things that they should be doing. With Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus moving forward in much closer digital and commercial harmony, brand needs to understand the possibilities and prepare for a more immersive and connected digital world. They should look at the immersive experiences they can offer right now. It could be as simple as Insta lives or interactive webinars. All learnings and insights gleaned now should prove invaluable for the metaverse.

Brands should look at what virtual currency they have right now and look to who they can partner with in the virtual space. Partnership is critical, so brands should have an agency partner(s) that can get them up to speed on all platforms and opportunities leading into the metaverse.

Assessing assets libraries will be key to moving into the metaverse. From a technical point of view, this is about turning 2D into 3D. But from a storytelling perspective, it’s about having suites of assets that fit together seamlessly with consistent messaging and values. 

And this focus on consistency will be critical. In terms of brand content, we already have a need for consistent, omnichannel strategies, and this will only become more so with the metaverse. With barriers removed, brands have the ability to create content that transcends platforms, but this will require a heightened focus on connected storytelling, the delivers immersive digital experiences.

No one quite knows what the metaverse will look like, but there are a few things we can bet on. Brands will have to work harder to get attention, and they’ll need a more holistic content strategy. There will be no one way to enter the metaverse, but partnerships with virtual spaces is a good place to start. People are paying a lot for digital assets, and that’s only going to increase. And, the early days of social media were rocky for many brands – expect the same for the metaverse.

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