CES 2022: The impact of the metaverse on the brand/consumer relationship
In October 2021, a VR demonstration by Mark Zuckerberg promoted the concept of the “metaverse” to the mainstream. 2022 kicked off with a flurry of “What is the metaverse?” articles published in major newspapers and media outlets. It seems everyone is talking about it—especially everyone at CES 2022. A mockery of its omnipresence even went viral on Twitter.
For the sake of brevity, the metaverse is a more immersive and engaging version of the internet. Users will wield new hardware and input methods to interact within this virtual world. Think virtual/augmented reality headsets, body tracking, and haptic feedback. If today’s online experience is a Zoom call, the metaverse will be an in-person meeting. The promise of fully interactive virtual worlds will not be realized overnight, rather they will come at us incrementally in the coming years, driven by the adoption of the new hardware. Surprisingly, brands are already jumping at the new opportunities that the metaverse will provide. With so many players getting involved, “the metaverse” could actually be a number of metaverses managed by different companies—but that remains to be seen.
It all started with blockchain
The prominence of the metaverse runs in parallel to recent developments in digital ownership. Before the world of blockchain—a system in which a record of transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network—anyone could right-click and save an image, even reposting elsewhere, and there was little recourse. It was difficult, and sometimes impossible, to prove who was the original author, or even the current owner, of a file. Now, thanks to the blockchain, there is proof of ownership to be had in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) which have enabled that “deed” to various digital goods, whether in the form of art, music, or virtual land. This proof of ownership, powered by blockchain “smart contracts,” even allows for royalties to be paid to the creator every time the NFT is sold, opening up new streams of revenue for artists and brands.
Brands in the metaverse
The first digital revolution found many large companies slow to adapt—it’s likely that won’t be the case for the metaverse. Retail giant Walmart recently filed for trademarks related to making and selling virtual goods. Nike announced a virtual world within Roblox—an online platform popular with the younger generation. Users can enter the world and equip their avatars with Nike-branded apparel. The race is off to stake a flag in the wide-open virtual worlds.
Limitless—’real’ and virtual—possibilities
This new virtual world will create opportunities for brands and marketers to expand their target audiences and connect with them in more ways than ever before.
Imagine a virtual Gap store where you can design your own apparel (for the virtual world or real life) and have it displayed in a showcase for others to comment on or even buy. Celebrities, spokespersons, and influencers can host real-time events where participants can get access to limited-edition runs of apparel, make-overs, or accessories in both digital forms via NFTs for their avatars and physical versions that can be used in the real world. This level of brand engagement offers a bridge between the virtual and physical worlds, beyond what was even possible with brick-and-mortar stores.
When it comes to online grocery shopping, the experience just isn’t clicking for the majority of shoppers. A virtual “in-store” experience could bridge the gap between online shopping and the familiarity of meandering store isles, guided by a shopping concierge who is able to make recommendations based on the current contents of your smart fridge. Shoppers could meet up in a virtual grocery store to plan a meal for an upcoming gathering, items could be picked up, examined closely, and could link out to customer reviews or recipe videos.
The widespread use of AR/VR will also reach healthcare, including at-home testing, health wearables, and telehealth use cases extending from diagnostic to therapeutic. Healthcare in the metaverse will simplify and streamline the consumer experience, offering improved access to health innovations. The metaverse is an unprecedented way for health providers and insurers to improve the health of their customers and engage them in very tangible ways.
What we think
Brands and marketers will massively benefit from the metaverse—some already are. They will gain access to a new channel and ad formats. Think virtual billboards in high-traffic environments or sponsored experiences. In addition, access to robust customer data—shopper data that has never been available outside of a closed testing environment (eye-tracking, movement behaviors, product placement, package tests). All of this data can be used to improve both virtual and brick-and-mortar retail.
The last two years have shown us the benefits and downfalls of living a more “virtual” existence. The promise of the metaverse hopes to make our current understanding of the virtual feel a lot more real. This won’t come without controversy or challenges but the future of the brand/consumer relationship is about to enter a new and exciting phase.