We Have All the Time in the Virtual World: Why Brands Must Play the Long Game in the Metaverse

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By Jerome Botbol, Head of Strategic Development, Happy Finish

If you were in any doubt that interest in the metaverse is expanding at an astronomical pace, look no further than Microsoft’s behemoth bid of £50bn for video game maker Activision Blizzard.

Microsoft has correctly identified gaming as a key foundation for metaverse platforms and it’s just the latest move among technology experts that are keen to join the party. Facebook has famously rebranded its parent company as Meta, seemingly staking future growth on grabbing a big share of this space.

Meanwhile, ad industry lifer Sir Martin Sorrell has unveiled S4S Ventures – a VC fund targeting early-stage companies with interests that include exploring commercial models within the metaverse.

This early scramble for share of the ‘new reality’ is as much about trying to understand the opportunities it offers as an affirmation that tech companies and the brands that seek greater scale through them, really get what the metaverse is all about.

The fact is consumers, particularly the digitally native younger generations, are shaping of the metaverse. This could be the most exciting and refreshing revolution in consumerism to date, as the desires of groups and individuals set the agenda – rather than brands telling people what they want and need.

Consumers and Brands Broaden Their Horizons

“Metaverse” is a generic term for experiences that go beyond the physical through connected virtual worlds, offering new ways for us to communicate and interact. There’s a recognition that it is in the earliest stages of its development and could be years or even decades away from being used to its full potential.

You don’t have to look far, though, to see that the key technologies that represent the building blocks of the metaverse have actually been around for some time.

Take Minecraft. Given a blank canvas when they first enter this world, gamers can set their own creative agenda, build whatever they want and set parameters for themselves. The crucial added element is that they don’t have to do it alone: they can talk to and play alongside friends and strangers alike to their heart’s content.

This facilitation of communication and peer-to-peer engagement is at the heart of the metaverse. At present, there are no rules – the metaverse can truly be whatever you think it is, and you can do as you feel. It’s essentially an undefined space; one that is building its own communities and taking the communication concept of Messenger to a far higher level.

While the physical world is built with boundaries, with the pandemic placing more restrictions on our daily lives than the world has experienced for generations, metaverse offers freedom in the shape of a new level of reality.

Already, large sections of society are aware of Virtual Reality (VR) – even if they’ve only seen news clips of people wearing headsets to play virtual games alone or with others. VR has a role to play in the metaverse, of course and is already being harnessed by the likes of travel brands keen to instantly transport people to desirable destinations.

But Augmented Reality (AR) is likely to be the technology that really makes interest in the metaverse take off. Permit me to use myself as an example of how this might work.

I’m an avid collector of trainers. There are boxes and boxes of unworn shoes stacked in my spare room, taking up space and leaving a hole in my wallet. I’ve got an aversion to sullying them by daring to wear them outside the house.

With AR, once tech companies like Apple get their act together and finally launch glasses that allow the wearer to experience a blend of physical and virtual reality, I could take to the streets in my everyday trainers but proudly show off a snazzier pair to passers-by in the metaverse. This boundless freedom of expression is perhaps its greatest promise.

How Far and Fast Can the Metaverse Grow?

So, if this is the future reality that awaits in the metaverse and it’s going to be driven by consumers, where does that leave brands?

I think patience and experimentation are the key. Mass audiences are already a given: witness the millions of people who virtually rubbed shoulders from far-flung parts of the globe at Travis Scott’s Fortnite Astroworld digital concert. Execution is therefore the greater challenge. Think back to previous developments in tech. Not so long ago, 360-degree video was the ‘next big thing’ but it resulted in aimless fads made for their own sake which failed to profitably engage brands’ target markets.

I fully expect brands to jump on the metaverse bandwagon, too, firing off largely irrelevant content into this new reality ‘because it’s there’. Experimentation will have more merit if launches are made with learning as their purpose.

Think of building your storefront or dropping your billboard into the space – as brands already do in games – as a way to test what consumers will respond to: metaverse 1.0, if you like. As we start to understand how people rather than brands are shaping this space, metaverse 2.0 will be ushered in; that’s when we can begin to provide engaging experiences that go beyond what the restrictive real world can offer.

It seems the way to succeed will be to provide a crossover of experiences that work in both the physical world and the metaverse: we’ll come to think of this as “Reality Plus”.

The philosopher David Chalmers believes advances in technology may one day deliver virtual worlds that surpass the physical realm and we’ll reach a tipping point where we spend more time in the metaverse than the material world.

Until then, brands need to keep their cool: recognise the metaverse is a sandbox that consumers are likely to control for some time; keep tabs on what tech companies are doing to deliver new platforms; and feel free to dip a toe into the virtual water with content and campaigns that help gain a foothold in this fascinating new space.