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Huge opportunities for brands in virtual reality, just don’t call it the metaverse yet

The Vans World Roblox experience allows players to hang out with friends, compete in challenges and customize their Vans gear

Despite a global pandemic and continual lockdowns across the globe, the concept of bringing experiences to audiences is thriving within the virtual realm. What many are calling the metaverse – where the physical and digital worlds will merge and become a fully virtual reality (VR) – could come to fruition in the next decade. As part of The Drum’s Experiential Marketing Deep Dive, we look at what brands are doing in this space to bring their audiences together and entertain them, and explore what could happen as it expands to include immersive commerce.

Right now, most of us will interact with the ‘metaverse’ through consumer-facing, interactive and immersive virtual platforms. The social gamer space is paving the way for the future of online and offline experiences, creating huge opportunities for brands, and in turn extending their online presence to reach more diverse and engaged audiences.

In the past 18 months we have seen brands such as Gucci, Vans, Stella McCartney, Burberry, Coca-Cola, Netflix and Warner Bros dive right into this space.

One particular platform that has allowed various brands to flourish is Roblox. An online game platform and game creation system, it saw an average of 46.6 million daily active users in July this year spanning 180 countries. Many brands have entered into this space to offer consumers new experiences and keep up brand awareness. Another to do this is Vans, which recently launched its own world within Roblox where players can hang out with friends, compete in daily challenges and customize their own Vans gear and skateboard.

Christina Wootton, vice-president of brand partnerships at Roblox, explains that persistent brand worlds such as Vans World or Stranger Things: Starcourt Mall are a great way for brands to offer fans evergreen spaces to enjoy their favorite content. “They can help maintain and even increase their emotional investment, as well as draw in new audiences. You can think of them as the natural evolution of social media interactions, allowing fans to connect with brands, creators, community members and content curated specifically for them in immersive 3D environments.”

One of the front runners at the moment is Gucci, having created a pair of virtual sneakers that you could wear on Instagram using AR filters, as well as in Decentraland (a 3D VR platform) and in Roblox. An immersive experience was also created within Roblox where players could walk into the Gucci Garden with a blank avatar, and as they maneuvered through various experience spaces, different patterns or colors would be added to the character uniquely designed by Gucci.

Moving away from the gamer-sphere, Arizona Iced Tea, which is clued up on its subcultures and community marketing, recently bought an NFT from The Bored Ape Yacht Club – a collection of 10,000 unique digital collectibles living on the Ethereum blockchain. When you purchase a Bored Ape, you own all the commercial copyrights.

In this community people have started coffee brands, beer brands and other creative projects, which adds to the overall perception of the community. “[It] adds to the overall bottom-line value as well,” explains Zoe Scaman, founder of Bodacious.

“What they’re doing is adding value to that overarching community. To the consumer it feels like it’s a lot more like brands playing with them rather than brand marketing to them. And that’s a completely different dynamic.

“They will probably do some really interesting stuff on their cans of iced tea with Bored Apes. It’s a good way of making the community feel like they’re being listened to.”

Early adoption

What people believe the metaverse to be is a long way off, says Scaman. “What we’re talking about now is immersive entertainment experiences. That is not the metaverse – the metaverse is so much bigger and more complex than that. It’s about 10 years away.”

If brands want to be part of this eventuality, early adoption is key. If you’re entering this space, you must intrinsically understand the subcultures and different communities without just plastering advertising everywhere.

“The successful brands will be ones that don’t simply replicate their current products and service in the metaverse, but instead think more creatively about what value they can offer,” says Nick Pringle, senior vice-president and executive creative director at R/GA London.

“Getting in early, learning and supporting the growth of the metaverse will buy creditability and allegiance from their growing communities. This can’t be underestimated. Gen alpha are ‘metaverse ready’ thanks to Roblox and Fortnite – brands that add value to current and new virtual spaces have the chance to become well-loved.”

He claims that any agency working with progressive brands should open a conversation about direct-to-avatar. RGA is currently working with two key clients on these kind of experiences in London, and by this time next year suspects that it will be working with more.

Wootton is seeing brands such as Vans discover brand-new revenue streams through the Roblox metaverse collaborations. The numbers being seen from virtual experiences from early movers (such as the Lil Nas X concert and merch sales, Gucci Garden experience visits and limited virtual item sales) are inspiring for brands, artists and celebrities alike.

Into the unknown

The metaverse is where we are headed, claims Scaman. What’s happening right now is a collision of different trends from ownership economy to NFTs, and cryptocurrencies to immersive virtual experiences.

“You’ve also got the spread of these gaming worlds into wider forms of entertainment and new forms of tribalism, and community online-based infrastructure that is arriving,” she adds. “And all of these things are banging into each other and creating brand new spaces. It will result in a metaverse later along the line.”

The opportunities are endless. Brands can deliver high-quality experiences that improve the metaverse for its users.

At Roblox and various other gaming platforms, people love to customize their avatars. Brands can benefit from enhancing creative expression with virtual goods and items.

“People can be who they want to be on the platform, and they truly value their online identity that’s broadly recognized within their social circles,” says Wooton. “One in five of Roblox daily active users update their avatar on any given day, with around 50% of users updating monthly.

“Our users love to customize their avatars with the latest virtual fashion items and merchandise, reflecting their real-life style, but also trying on looks they wouldn’t go for in the real world. This means there are numerous practical applications for virtual fashion and virtual goods in our community; they are a great way for brands to test new ideas, innovate or even launch entire lines in a completely low-risk, sustainable way.”

Pringle suggests that Uber could provide portals between ‘verses’, or Square could solve the payment complexities that exist. “Alternatively, brands can look to provide ‘play to earn’ opportunities via blockchain games in the metaverse – think Axie Infinity or Zed Run,” he explains. “Imagine a brand letting you earn rather than just consume – that’s an interesting future.”

Ownership economy is going to become the default, adds Scaman. “People are going to own digital goods that they can take from one world to the next. And that’s going to be a form of status, the form of belonging, a form of fashion, exclusivity. You’re going to be able to move a skin from one game to the next. And that’s the future hope of whatever this metaverse ends up looking like.”

Dare to break the barriers

There is still a long way to go before mass adoption, and some of the challenges along the way will include technological capabilities, the closed walled systems, IP issues and law frameworks issues. Right now corporations are not set up to embrace the metaverse.

“If that was real you wouldn’t have walled gardens,” says Scaman. “If it was in place, then you would be able to take your banana skin from Fortnite, you would be able to wear it in Instagram, and then you’d be able to go and wear it in Call of Duty. And obviously, that won’t happen.

“Big open multiplayer games such as Call of Duty don’t want to fuck around their IP. But it’s one of the only ways that the metaverse and the future is actually going to work, by lowering gardens, allowing for open movement of content and IP and skins and all of your ownership assets that you have into different worlds.”

Technology will find a way, says Pringle. “Each technological barrier system was taken down over two decades because the demand was so high. I think user demand for the metaverse will eventually be in a similar place and individual platforms will want to encourage a free flow of movement between them.

“One company won’t own the metaverse – it’s too big a proposition. Rather there will be a string of mini-verses and each will develop a virtual USP. It’s likely that any single user will ‘use’ and experience different platforms for different reasons or occasions. If you agree with that thesis, then market forces will make the walled garden approach bad for business and technology will develop a solve for portal-ing seamlessly between them.”

Scaman adds that it will create something similar to new IP law, new legal frameworks and new technological frameworks. “All of these different gaming worlds are built on different systems and they don’t speak to one another,” she explains. “When we solve that we can have a metaverse.”

Fundamentally, the metaverse is going to be a huge upgrade of the internet as we know it – an always-on world that lives on top of our own world. Many are dipping their toes into this realm of unknown and creating extraordinary experiences, and if brands don’t act now, they will perish in the virtual future.

From festivals to retail installations to unmissable activations, we examine the avenues open to marketers to reach consumers enjoying their newfound freedom in The Drum’s Experiential Deep Dive.

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