New immersive platforms offer advertisers the chance to get in front of a hard-to-reach audience, but only if they respect the social aspect of consumers’ virtual worlds
In his 1992 cult sci-fi novel Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson wrote about a virtual reality populated by avatars and advertising that he called the metaverse. Crowded with ‘franchise signs’ that bathed the world’s inhabitants in a ‘loglo’, it predicted the futuristic immersive internet experience that is only now slowly becoming a reality.
Thirty years on from Stephenson’s vision, the metaverse is made up of a complex network of platforms. These have either grown from gaming, such as Fortnite and Roblox, or developed from the decentralised Web3 platforms owned by users themselves.
Brands are already falling over themselves to stake their claim, with US brewer Miller Lite one of the latest. It hosted its Super Bowl ad in the metaverse after being frozen out of the traditional TV advertising route by a rival brand’s exclusive tie-in with the NFL. Miller Lite built a virtual bar inside the 3D virtual world in Decentraland and its new advert premiered there, showing on TV screens in the digital bar.
“Just being in the metaverse isn’t enough, you have to make it compelling,” says Ben Wolan, executive creative director at DDB San Francisco, the agency that conceptualised the ad. The brand went meta with the ad itself, drawing attention via its avatar host – or ‘avastar’ – to the usual ways that Super Bowl ads try to get traction, with explosions, overly dramatic music and a “culturally relevant pop star”.
The strategy seemed to pay off, with visitors to the bar spending an average of 20 minutes within the ad, which Wolan says shows the power of the medium. But only if brands understand how to use it. “Just like a commercial, people’s desire to interact with a brand in the metaverse is only possible if you respect your audience and give them a quality experience,” he says.
This is not a one-off. There have been plenty of other productive forays into the metaverse by big brands.
Last Halloween, for example, restaurant chain Chipotle opened a store in Roblox as part of a promotion that resulted in the brand’s highest digital sales day in its history. Tressie Lieberman is vice-president of digital marketing and off-premise at Chipotle. She believes that if brands are going to really cut through in the space it is crucial they realise they’re not the experts.
“Because of the dynamic nature of the metaverse, they have to approach this new era of marketing with curiosity and a learning mindset in order to authentically show up for consumers,” she says. To do this, Chipotle worked with a next-wave gaming studio and a social agency to create the experience on Roblox.
Similarly, in 2018, when Fortnite introduced a new game mode called Food Fight, fast food chain Wendy’s worked with creative commerce company VMLY&R to immerse its brand in-game and meet the audience in their own virtual universe.
Wendy’s used the game mode to promote its ‘fresh, never frozen, beef’ message by creating an avatar that looked like the famous braided Wendy logo, who roamed around destroying all the burger freezers that appeared in game. It resulted in more than 1.5 million minutes watched and a Twitch stream that was viewed live over a quarter of a million times.
The key lesson that brands can take from these success stories is that when entering these metaverses, advertising should never disrupt the experience as this will only lead to contempt from consumers. Instead, it’s crucial that the advertisement becomes entertainment and lines are blurred.
However, brands will need to tread lightly in this new frontier and be willing to take risks, warns Tom Hostler, head of brand experience at agency Publicis Poke. He says: “Brands need to recognise the metaverse will be more than just a digital facsimile of the real world and resist the urge to simply recreate their familiar assets and consumer interactions in those virtual places.
“Consumers are drawn to the interaction with their friends, not the technology, so brands would do well to enhance those social interactions, rather than interrupt them.”
It’s also important to remember the metaverse’s scaffold isn’t solely made up of gaming platforms and there are plenty of decentralised metaverse gateways. One example is Somnium Space, where brands can buy virtual land and then attempt to commercialise it in some way.
Unlike centralised gaming gateways that have limits on the forms that advertising can take, decentralised platforms are unrestricted. Experts agree that when exploring these worlds, brands need to be careful that they don’t simply litter the landscape.
“Web3 has started to unlock an entirely new wave of trends and consumer insights for brands to tap into,” reveals Chipotle’s Lieberman. “We’re not only thinking about engagement opportunities in the metaverse, but we’re also trying to find ways to drive consumer action in real life with activations on these platforms.”
Advertising will need to be even more intelligent within these decentralised spaces because it won’t be as powerful: its creators are already being rewarded with micropayments for their efforts. Brands need to harness the power and creative opportunity that is available to them by carefully curating and designing worlds that people want to spend time in. That means creating communities that don’t feel out of place, don’t jar with users and aren’t simply display advertising.
“Right now, there’s a rush towards a version of digital out-of-home adverts and digitised experiential, but both of these don’t play to the social underpinnings of most metaverse experiences,” explains Hostler, who believes brands are going to have to be agile.
“Just as brands had to adjust to being more conversational in the social media era, I expect new forms of socialised immersive experiences that are born in the metaverse will appear.”
What we do know is that if brands don’t optimise their strategies before jumping in feet first they run the risk of alienating the very people they are trying to reach. Then, the metaverse will begin to resemble Stephenson’s more dystopian vision, which sees endless virtual tunnels of advertising that speak to no one.