It’s been billed as the “new internet” and advertising’s next frontier; but what exactly is the metaverse, and why should brands take notice?
Strap yourself in, as we unravel the mysteries of this brave new world.
The metaverse is a digital space where the physical merges with virtual and augmented reality, enabling users to create new worlds, visit far-flung places and enjoy new experiences from the comfort of their sofa.
With the aid of a headset such as the Oculus Quest or HP Reverb, for example, intrepid explorers can interact with immersive 3D environments in real-time, opening up limitless possibilities free from the constraints of space and time.
Fancy visiting Tokyo from your living room in Cardiff? No problem. Want to experience the thrill of a rollercoaster, but have to look after your poorly cat? Done. With a multitude of associated apps facilitating entry points into a boundless world of experiences, it’s no wonder that Facebook has reoriented its entire focus to this digital space and reinvented itself as Meta.
Virtual worlds have existed for years, of course, with the likes of Fortnite, where players can interact and go to live concerts in an alternate reality, and World of Warcraft, where you can buy and sell goods with a virtual currency, accessible through consoles and PCs. Pokémon Go, the AR game that took the world by storm upon its launch in 2016, only required a mobile phone to bring its world into focus.
So, in this sense, the ‘metaverse’ we’re hearing about so often at the moment is more about the immersive worlds themselves, rather than the tech used to access them. There are multiple iterations of it, and various means of accessing it.
What cannot be doubted is that this interplay between physical, virtual and augmented realities is the future; in the opinion of many, it promises to change the way we socialise, learn, shop, do business and consume media.
The metaverse remains a baby, and with this comes teething problems.
One particularly sore spot is child safety. With VR chatrooms one of the most popular areas within the metaverse, there is a well-founded concern around the content and behaviours younger users are being exposed to. Some apps are under pressure to increase the age restrictions of their products, while in-app safety measures – such as ‘shields’ and blocking functions – can be difficult to apply in disorienting, real-time environments.
Currently, there is too much finger pointing and not enough law-making – somebody has to take responsibility, and until then the metaverse will continue feeling a bit like the Wild West of new frontiers.
There is also the issue of public understanding. According to research conducted by Wunderman Thompson, while 75% of people surveyed in the US, UK and China are now aware of the metaverse, just 15% feel they can explain what it is. This indicates that there’s a way to go before it truly becomes engrained in mainstream public life, though the same report also revealed that 74% of participants believe it is the future.
The challenge, then, is to build a cohesive, unified vision of what the metaverse is; as long as there are multiple definitions and frameworks swirling around in a nebulous cloud, public cut-through will remain limited to tech-savvy early adopters.
Every new frontier is defined by those with the mettle to take a step into the unknown – and when it comes to utilising the metaverse as a marketing platform, a trail is being blazed.
Online gaming is often fused with definitions of the metaverse (as we touched upon earlier), and the Fortnite is leading the way in terms of innovation. Last year, it teamed up with ITV and John Lewis to create an I’m a Celebrity experience, where players could take on challenges inspired by the hit show as well as participate in games linked to the retailer’s Christmas advertising campaign. A virtual John Lewis store was also launched, allowing users to purchase items to decorate their personal camps.
And then there’s Roblox, another user-generated, world-building platform which recently garnered industry attention with its Gucci partnership.
The Italian fashion-house ran a two-week product placement campaign where Roblox users could enhance their online avatars with Gucci handbags, sunglasses and other items which could be purchased in a virtual garden that was reminiscent of real-world Gucci exhibitions. While you may raise an eyebrow or two at spending money on virtual personas, Gen-Z – the primary Roblox userbase – has long seen the appeal.
Elsewhere, fashion brand Benetton has created a retail shop in the metaverse where digital customers can play games and earn QR codes, which can then be used to purchase goods in physical stores.
And Nike has even hired a Director of Metaverse Engineering to steer the company’s move into immersive, digital experiences. This culminated in The House of Innovation, a space where augmented reality mechanisms were used to bring together fashion, entertainment and gaming in interactive ways designed to create intrigue. There are also strong rumours of the brand introducing digital versions of its iconic real-world products in the near future.
Brands and the advertising industry must let go of any preconceptions around the value of virtual products and experiences. New generations are maturing in worlds where self-expression and discovery are as important as in physical reality.
Technology is ceaselessly driving forward, and companies that refuse to move with it will be left behind. With the likes of NFTs and virtual currencies now gaining a foothold in the lives of a substantial – and growing – minority of digital natives, keeping one eye firmly on how the metaverse develops makes good business sense.
For, just as digital adtech has carved new pathways in terms of real-time campaign launches and audience targeting, this new frontier is likely to transform the ideas and frameworks that have guided advertising for decades.
It’s a giant leap forward – one every brand should prepare to take.