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Being purposeful in the metaverse
Could purpose-driven brands that are bought and sold in the metaverse one day replace traditional advertising?
David Jones’s essay – that marked the rebranding of his holding company You & Mr Jones to The Brandtech Group – included a number of eye-catching predictions, none more so than his claim that brands will one day ditch TV ads altogether in favour of virtual, purpose-driven products bought and sold in the metaverse that “do good in the real world”.
“In doing so, tangible actions will be what change the image and reputation of the brand, not some TV commercial overclaims,” Jones added.
Brands as varied as Sotheby’s, Samsung and Vans are leaping into the metaverse with increasing eagerness. These early ventures amount to little more than “hype cycle stuff”, argues Mark Eaves, co-founder of Brandtech-owned creative agency Gravity Road. “You can’t blame people for being enthusiastic and getting involved, but it’s not serious marketing.”
Nevertheless, Mark sees huge potential in the vision of a decentralised ‘web3’, underpinned by a verifiable ownership system. “Customers will be able to become actual stakeholders in the products and the services they buy and, increasingly, co-create.”
The new cool
David Jones’s prophecy hinges on a perception that such digital goods would sit at a perceived sweet spot, where conspicuous consumption and virtual socialising meets climate and sustainability concerns.
The idea of virtual ownership is certainly gaining traction: the market is forecast to be worth $186 billion globally by 2025. Gamers already spend real money on virtual ‘skins’ and on in-game goods, while investment in NFT collectibles continues to surge. Virtual products by luxury brands like Gucci resell for more than their original price tag – and sometimes for more than their real-world equivalents.
“People’s lives are increasingly lived online. It’s a simple fact that a very cool item of virtual clothing is going to be seen by exponentially more people than its real-world version, even in virtual worlds, platforms and games that are currently not interoperable,” says Mark Eaves.
Moreover, research suggests that brand purpose may become even more important in a virtual context. A survey by Wunderman Thompson Intelligence found that 88 per cent of consumers globally want their online self to reflect their real-life ethics and values.
“Sticking to your brand identity and purpose will be key to success in the metaverse,” says Emily Safian-Demers, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s editor. “Brands will need to take care to translate their core ethos and values into the virtual realm.”
Purpose in (virtual) action
Companies are already finding ways to manifest brand purpose in metaverse environments.
L’Oréal Paris commissioned five female artists to create NFTs, using the minting mechanism to allocate specific royalties to the brand’s Women of Worth philanthropic initiative.
Unilever partnered with Animal Crossing: New Horizons to create ‘Hellmann’s island’, a location within the video game where players could convert virtual food waste into real-world meals for people in need over the Christmas period.
Admix, a gaming ad tech firm, raised money for men’s health charity Movember by selling virtual in-game billboard space.
1/3L'Oreal NFT art
2/3Hellmann's Animal Crossing
Of course, a marketer’s approach is likely to be guided by whether they agree with the assertion it is “ludicrous” for a mayonnaise to require a greater sense of brand purpose.
MediaCom’s global head of sport, entertainment and culture Misha Sher is sceptical that the metaverse will do much to transform purchasing habits: “I’d like to believe that we are more conscious as consumers now, but in reality I’m not sure if that’s true.”
What may be pivotal is a desire by brands to fit in with new virtual landscapes, where purpose and ethics form a central plank of users’ virtual identities. Andy Dobson, head of technology at Publicis.Poke, likens a brand launching a metaverse presence to when a retailer arrives in a new region and feels the need to adapt to local customs and habits.
“If traditional advertising was about talking to people and social was about talking with them, then the nature of the metaverse will reward brands that become active participants and co-creators with its inhabitants,” says Andy.
Web2.5 comes first
The industry is unlikely to see any significant shift away from TV advertising in the early days of the metaverse, reckons Andrew Mason, chief media officer at Digitas UK.
“Traditional communications will still have a meaningful role in the metaverse. Digital alone is not sufficient, and the combination [of the two] will be powerful,” said Mason. “Over time, when brands have experimented, determined what works and what is effective for them, then perhaps they may dial [traditional advertising] down. We have a long way to go yet.”
Emily Brydon, strategy director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, is similarly unconvinced that the metaverse will “replace” TV as a medium for brand communications: “It feels like the industry has declared the death of television for the best part of a decade, but it doesn’t look like that day is coming anytime soon, when even the biggest tech companies are reliant on traditional advertising.
“In the same way that brand acts haven’t replaced brand communications, we’re probably looking at a future where any brands are operating and engaging in both [TV and metaverse] worlds.”
Issues such brand safety may hinder any meaningful shift in media budget allocation. Sexual harassment is already an issue on Meta’s Horizon Worlds platform. It may be harder to police a decentralised web where events unfold in real time, rather than being posted in the form of text, photo and video content.
“As you go into the more extreme corners of the metaverse that exist, a lot of thought needs to go into it. There's a huge responsibility on making web3 a more welcoming and safer place for brands and consumers,” says Richard Davies, MediaCom UK’s chief digital officer.
As it stands, Davies believes brands are more focused on pushing the limits of the mobile web with AR lenses, shoppable commerce and virtual try-on tools. “That’s the end of web2.5, rather than web3,” he adds.
The birth of metaverse brands
Despite these immediate hurdles, Gravity Road’s Mark Eaves maintains that brands would be wrong to discount Jones’s vision of ad-free, purpose-driven communications: “The metaverse as a marketing environment is already taking off. There are lots of discrete pieces of activity being launched by global brands.
“The next phase will be whole new brands and product propositions that are designed with a web3 mindset, and we expect these to begin appearing by the end of 2022.”
And AMV’s Emily Brydon believes this transition will energise, rather than side-line, the agency world. “Time and time again, agencies have used the challenges of the complex media landscape as a positive constraint, to push creativity further and add value to people’s lives in different ways. I don’t see this being any different.”
Jones’s is a bold claim, but stranger things have happened – not least the very notion of the metaverse itself. Best not to discount it too quickly.