Branding in the metaverse is becoming a necessity. Long-established brands can find it hard to keep up with technological innovations, often held back by heritage and legacy structures. Some of these brands quite literally wrote the rulebook for world class, top-down marketing. But the standard approaches of brands past don’t always translate to this new digital reality. Ripping up that very rulebook may feel sacrilegious, but it’s the best place to start. In practice this means being inside culture, rather than interrupting it.
Find your niche
But first, let’s understand the history behind Web 3.0. Truthfully, a lack of understanding behind the many existing niche cultures that make up the internet and digital culture has created much of the malaise and frustration that we’ve all experienced at the tail end of Web 2.0 where massive centralised institutions control the flow of culture and information. A one-size-fits all approach is all but inevitable; despite these platforms consistently expressing that they are a space for disparate voices, the reality is a sea of sameness. This has played a significant part in driving young energy to seek out a new kind of internet that recognises niches and the individuals that make up those niches, into existence. Enter Web 3.0 and the race for brands to play in that space.
Being ‘inside’ culture means understanding the many different places, both on and offline, that your audience exists in, and knowing how they operate when they are there. This ensures marketing ideas are entirely suited to them and how they consume media. In the new rules, this is usually hyper-specific. Broad stroke marketing approaches are less effective in an era of super-niche interests.
As one example, we know that Gen Z are entrepreneurial side-hustlers; that they set the cultural pulse, deciding the trends which drive a prolific resale market for alternative assets, on a spectrum from sneakers to NFTs.
This culture is strongly associated with unexpected collaborations and limited runs; the heir apparent to Millennial hype. Surprise and scarcity drive secondary markets of unique, collectible assets. Creating such assets is a great example of how brands can be ‘inside’ as opposed to interrupting culture. By buying, selling or collecting an asset, the consumer is choosing to engage with the brand, on their own terms, rather than that brand getting in their way. But you can’t just ‘build it and they will come’. Lest we forget the endless PR-stunt NFTs of 2021-2022 that went nowhere.
Follow the rules
In a metaverse of unlimited options, brands and their messages are easier to switch off than ever. As a brand, you have to create something consumers actually want to engage with that is timely, ‘cool’ and adds something to their lives and experience. Doing something in the metaverse for the sake of ‘doing something in the metaverse’ is transparent, obvious marketing which will at best be ignored, or worse, torn to shreds on TikTok.
When you have identified where your audience is, you need to follow the rules. In practice this means ensuring the platform you choose is being used exactly how it is intended.
Understanding has to precede marketing. Only then will it feel seamless and not like you are interrupting those who exist in these spaces.
Fortnite is a good example of a platform where brands have had varying success. Thinking of Fortnite as a game is like thinking of Facebook as a message board. It is an environment and a media platform like any other that marketers can utilise – the difference is there are very few limitations to what can be created in a virtual 3D world. But to be a successful brand in the game means knowing how people actually use it: inserting yourself in that culture and understanding its rules before you dive in with an activation that feels out of place.
In the same way that parents don’t understand teenagers, classic marketers don’t understand that the top-down, brand-knows-best mentality is antiquated and redundant in metaverse spaces like Fortnite. You need to know what your audience wants, which is a lot more specific than it used to be. To step inside this culture, you have to ‘play the game’ and trust the people that make and cultivate it every day.
And let’s not forget that gaming platforms are, for good reason, incredibly protective over what you can or cannot do as a brand within their environments. Having the right relationships with the right players, influencers and most importantly, the people within the business is absolutely critical to ensuring success. This is not only because you want the right creative insights that’ll drive success and give you an edge, but because you want the right decision makers who understand the unspoken (and the clearly spoken) rules of what you can and cannot do from the very beginning, to ensure as few hiccups as possible as you develop the work.
All of this is ultimately in aid of reaching your North star: authenticity and creating a real reason for showing up where you are. We know that gaming consumers often express an aversion to ad-supported media, with the concern usually being that a) they have paid for the game, and b) brands interrupt the game play and ruin the experience.
When brand activations feel random, forced, or pointless within the context of a metaverse environment, they will be considered as interruptions by your target audience. Collaborating with the communities and creators who use and love a game is the key first step in understanding what they would actually like to see from your brand.
Fit in, don’t stand out
Understanding what ‘consumers’ want in an era where individual identity is increasingly complex and multi-layered makes for a challenge. Traditional marketing tends to group people in siloes. But in a virtual environment, where you can express every aspect of your identity individually, unbound from the rules of physics or the limits of human craft, that siloed mentality doesn’t work.
Understanding why people exist in their chosen space is imperative. Very often it is to express an aspect – or aspects – of their multi-layered identity that they simply cannot when confined to the ‘real’ world. It is not the escapism many assume it to be – it is liberation from limitations.
The growing number of online avatars used by millions of people across a myriad of platforms are the perfect example. Dressing an avatar however you like is becoming a powerful tool for empowering identity online. Becoming a part of a digital wardrobe is another great example of how brands can literally be ‘inside’ culture without interrupting anyone.
When it comes to AR wearables specifically, this also solves a very real problem and fulfills a need: to be seen, to be different and to do it in a way that doesn’t contribute to the many problems often associated with Fast Fashion.
Stop shouting, start listening
Simply ‘shouting’, as advertisers have done since time immemorial, doesn’t work. We know this first-hand from brands as beloved and longstanding as Coca-Cola. Inserting yourself in spaces which are not usually ad-funded or brand-friendly will garner the expected response if executed poorly.
Having metaverse ambitions as a brand means unlearning a lot of what we have been taught as marketers. The metaverse is, quite literally, another world. The best brands are making culture from the inside. In practice, it means figuring out how their brand fits into the metaverse by engaging with the community, strategising long term, and creating activations people actually want to engage with – cultural moments that add something to a consumer’s life.
Understanding your brand’s motivations behind launching a metaverse product is just as important as engaging with the community who will use it. Cultural understanding shapes brands and makes them more relevant, visible, and valued within the context of the space they are in. ‘Authenticity’ and corporate brands don’t often meld, but without the former, the latter will struggle in the metaverse.
Cover image: irissca