We saw all kinds of technology trends accelerate, from telecommuting to e-commerce to augmented reality. Lockdowns played a big role in encouraging people to spend more time online and introducing more people to digital worlds and services. In many cases, online platforms became people’s primary social environments and normalized the idea that relationships can thrive online. Gaming environments, in particular, emerged as viable places for people to interact.

The metaverse explained

At its simplest, a metaverse is a shared virtual 3D space that is interactive and “always on.” First popularized in science fiction, notably Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” and Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”, the metaverse is typically seen as a more immersive version of the internet and often envisioned as its logical conclusion. Like the internet, the metaverse converges with reality in that the relationships one has in this space (be they with people, places, brands, etc.) can transfer into real life.

The basic technology required to create a metaverse has been available since the 1990s, and there have been dozens of separate metaverses build on a variety of platforms. Some of the more popular early examples include There, Second Life and Decentraland. These all remained niche communities, never quite breaking through into the mainstream. But as our technologies for things like creating more realistic human avatars improve (and as new generations grow up interacting with them), metaverses become ever more compelling for ever broader audiences.

Several popular MMORPGs have become extremely popular in recent years. And many allow for the creation and purchase of branded assets, including in-game avatars or “skins”. Customized digital skins are therefore an obvious choice for companies looking for in-game brand integrations. A good example is Louis Vuitton’s branded sponsorship on the League of Legends championship in 2019. On one level this could be seen as simply the eSports equivalent of Ralph Lauren’s Polo designing the uniforms for the US Olympic team.

Epic worlds

It’s no secret that Epic Games has been working for years to build out Fortnite into a metaverse. Its CEO Tim Sweeney has been vocal in publicizing that aspiration. And Epic’s current legal battle with Apple over app store fees has raised the visibility of that ambition in the media. The viability of Fortnite as a metaverse has been rapidly rising in recent years, and marketers have been seeing opportunity there. Indeed, Fortnite has had some very high-profile brand integrations.

Back in 2019 Wendy’s won the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions for their clever “Keeping Fortnite Fresh” campaign. Wendy’s had encouraged Fortnite players to smash the freezers inside the game’s Durrr Burger restaurants in order to highlight their own “fresh, never frozen” brand promise. The brand activation generated enough buzz to convince Epic to remove the freezers from its game, and massively increased the conversation around Wendy’s in the Fortnite community.

Success like that tends to encourage others, so it’s no surprise that we saw more Fortnite integrations follow. Surely no one who works in marketing can have missed hearing about Travis Scott’s concert that took place within the game last April. And its reach was indeed impressive, with 22.7 million live views and another 145 million on YouTube. More importantly, it reportedly drove a 26% increase in streams of his music and $20 million in merchandise sales.

Concerts in the metaverse might be real trend, even as live in-person concerts are slowly returning. Like all virtual events, they provide broad accessibility and can massively scale. Sensorium Galaxy is a newly launched metaverse that plans to host concerts from well-known DJs like David Guetta and Armin van Buren in virtual worlds called PRISM and MOTION. Their metaverse will even have its own native currency, built on the blockchain.

New kids on the blocks

Despite our ever-improving 3D graphics, not all metaverses aspire to photorealism. More low fidelity graphical worlds have been popularized by platforms like Minecraft and Roblox. Roblox in particular, being a more capable game engine and more powerful for creators, has inspired a large number of branded integrations and experiments.

Luxury brands have become especially taken with the Roblox ecosystem, introducing and selling virtual goods. Gucci recently sold a virtual bag for $4,115  – more than the retail price of the actual real-life bag it was based on. The sale was part of their Gucci Garden installation, which was live on the platform for two weeks in May. A couple of years earlier Nike sold items on Roblox during Nike Air Max Day.

The movie studio Warner Bros. created an entire virtual world on Roblox for “Wonder Woman: 1984” before the film’s release. The experience included themed mini-games and other ways for fans to engage with the movie’s content and stars. Hasbro and Nerf have both included codes with their real-world products that could be used to redeem virtual items in Roblox-based worlds. They’ve even gotten in on the music action, with a live concert by Lil Nas X in November.

Brands have also been experimenting with in-game commerce on other platforms, like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. In Taiwan, IKEA created Animal Crossing-themed variations of numerous pages from its real-world catalog. KFC built an in-game restaurant that players could visit. They even provided in-game coupons that could be redeemed for real-world free chicken (at participating Philippines locations).

A whole new world

Some brands are not content to simply integrate into existing virtual worlds, preferring instead to create their own branded metaverses. Is that the future of branded engagement, providing fully immersive virtual worlds completely designed around your brand?

Japanese cosmetics brand SK-II created the Tokyo-inspired (if not inspiringly named) “SK-II CITY“, given that international travel is still on hiatus in many parts of the world. Visitors could go to a virtual cinema to watch the “VS” series of animated films inspired by the lives of of six Olympic athletes. They could also go on an exclusive backstage tour behind the scenes of the making of the VS series and explore some of the cultural and social issues that the films address. SK-II CITY has somewhat limited functionality, but it shows how a custom metaverse can be used to showcase branded content.

Balenciaga took that notion way farther by creating a full-on adventure game, with production values to rival many modern console games. Set in 2031, Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, was built to showcase the company’s Fall 2021 collection. To complete the game, players had to traverse multiple “zones”, all the while encountering virtual characters who were of course each wearing pieces from the collection. The brand worked closely with Unreal to create the game, confronting the nuanced challenges of rendering the material details of footwear, eyewear, stitching, as well as the flowing of fabrics as characters move.

Coming at the integration of game worlds and fashion from another direction altogether, RTFKT Studios is a digital fashion brand that was actually “born on the metaverse”. Fundamentally immersed in game engines, blockchain authentication and augmented reality, RTFKT is known for creating NFT sneakers, game skins, and other collectibles. Riding the current NFT wave, a recent sale raised over $3 million in just 7 minutes. A niche seems to be emerging for brands to leverage NFTs and augmented reality in the metaverse to reach their customers.

What does it all mean?

Like most things involving kids and technology, the metaverse is a rapidly evolving space that’s sure to change in the coming years. But brands can’t hope to keep up in this world without diving in and testing the waters. Digital worlds allow marketers an almost endless array of opportunities for experimentation and the costs for doing so are relatively low. So what are y’all waiting for?

Featured Image: Travis Scott in Fortnite