Brands’ metaverse leads: where are they now?
Until recently, many prominent brands including Disney, H&M and Coca-Cola were all-in on the metaverse. Now, times have changed and so have the business models within (some of) those companies.
Once such a priority, the metaverse has largely slipped beneath the surface of many marketers’ attention. / Adobe Stock
Remember the metaverse?
Not so long ago, many brands were thoroughly fixated on this vague virtual world, a space that comprised both online gaming and virtual reality (VR) and that was typically conflated with blockchain-based web3 technologies such as NFTs and cryptocurrency. Though the concept of the metaverse has been around for decades, it was catapulted into the public psyche after Facebook changed its name to Meta – thereby signaling its pivot from being a social media-first company to being a metaverse-first company – in October 2021. Mark Zuckerberg, the metaverse’s most devoted proselytizer, painted his vision for the future of the virtual world as being one in which the humanity of the not-so-distant future would work, play, date and do just about everything else.
Many brands, captivated by the notion that there could soon be a virtual realm populated by throngs of (mostly young) consumers, were quick to drink the metaverse Kool-Aid. Wendy’s opened up a ‘Wendyverse’ in Meta’s Horizon Worlds; Miller Lite hosted a virtual bar in Decentraland; Playboy built a ‘MetaMansion’ in The Sandbox and so on. Every other day, it seemed, some new brand was eagerly staking its claim in what seemed to be a virtual gold rush.
Then, almost as quickly as it had materialized, the bubble popped.
Following a sharp decline in the crypto market, a general lack of popular enthusiasm for virtual reality-based ‘experiences’ such as Meta’s Horizon Worlds and a surge of popular interest around artificial intelligence, some brands that had previously seemed so enthusiastic about the metaverse dropped it like a bad habit. Others appear to be tentatively treating it as a phenomenon that, like a child’s forlorn toy, has been temporarily abandoned by the culture but might one day be embraced again.
“Many brands were excited about the metaverse ... [and] their shift in attention makes sense with the current acceleration and adoption of generative AI,” says author and futurist Cathy Hackl, who has come to be known as the “godmother of the metaverse.”
Hackl believes that although the term ’metaverse’ has fallen into disfavor, it still points to some very real and ongoing technological trends. “It comes down to evolutionary and revolutionary technologies,” she says. “Generative AI went from evolutionary to revolutionary in the last year, and other technology sectors like spatial computing are still in their evolutionary phase. There’s [going to be] a future after the smartphone and a new version of the web will replace the current mobile internet; whether or not we’ll choose to call it ’the metaverse’ remains to be seen. The headlines have moved on from the term but the future has yet to be determined.”
Formerly the chief metaverse officer of Journey, a company that she founded, Hackl’s current job title is chief futurist. “The chief metaverse officer [title] was starting to limit me in some ways and was putting me in a box,” she says. “I felt the need to branch out further since my work encompasses so much more.”
Hackl changing her job title is also perhaps a reflection of a broader trend of tech and marketing experts who are shying away from the terms ’metaverse’ and ’web3.’ To explore this trend a bit further, let’s take a look at the recent career arcs of (in some cases former) metaverse leads within some prominent companies.
Mike White (Disney)
In February 2022, when metaverse fever was starting to heat up across the marketing landscape, Disney tapped Mike White to lead its in-house metaverse initiatives as the company’s executive vice-president of next-generation storytelling and consumer experiences. White had been with Disney by that point for more than 10 years.
The company’s metaverse division was dissolved under the newly reinstated Bob Iger in March and White was let go from the company earlier this month. Disney now seems to be shifting its technological focus to AI.
Pratik Thakar (Coca-Cola)
During his time as the Coca-Cola Company’s head of global creative strategy and content – a position he was first appointed to in January 2021– Pratik Thakar was, like so many marketers, excited about the metaverse. The brand moved quickly in its efforts to establish itself as a pioneer in the web3 space; it launched an NFT campaign way back in July 2021 and a little under a year later released a soda aimed at the gaming community, which it alleged to contain “the flavor of pixels.”
Today, Thakar is still with Coca-Cola as the company’s global head of generative AI.
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Robert Triefus (Gucci)
Fashion industry veteran Robert Triefus, who first joined Gucci back in 2008, was appointed as the company’s chief executive of Vault (the company’s online concept store) and metaverse ventures last September. He parted ways with the company about six months later to “pursue another career opportunity,” according to a statement that Gucci provided to multiple outlets at the time. He’s now the CEO of the Moncler-owned fashion brand Stone Island.
Max Heirbaut (H&M)
Sparked by what seemed to be a surge in the market for digital fashion, H&M was another big-name brand that was quick to capitalize on the metaverse. In January, the fashion brand launched Loooptopia, a branded virtual experience hosted on Roblox that emphasized educating users about circularity, or the recycling and reuse of clothing.
Back in May 2022, H&M hired Max Heirbaut to spearhead the brand’s web3 and metaverse efforts as global head of brand experience. Heirbaut still occupies that role, according to his LinkedIn page, and the company as a whole still appears to be committed to building its presence in the metaverse. (“The metaverse offers a new way to look at personal style and the potential of ever-evolving, limitless wardrobes,” the brand wrote on its website earlier this month.)
However, it isn’t the only brand that’s still moving forward with its metaverse and web3 plans. And Heirbaut isn’t the only metaverse lead within a well-known brand who has retained their role, despite the broader cultural shunning of the metaverse; LVMH’s Nelly Mensah, for example, who was named as the company’s global head of web3 and metaverse in January 2022, still appears to be occupying that role, as does L’Oréal’s Camille Kroelly (chief metaverse and web3 officer) and Nike’s Eric Redmond (head of Metaverse Studio).
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