Published in Jul-Aug 2022
I know what you are thinking. However, since you will not admit it publicly (what contemporary marketer worth their salt would?), I will come out and say it in your stead. This ‘Metaverse’ thing is a confusing jumbled mess, albeit a very trending one. From a marketing point of view, the whole movement is abuzz with pretentious jargon, high-touch-low-substance PR releases, and dodgy ROI. Every brand wants to ‘do a Metaverse play’, but we don’t know how… or why. I like to think of myself as fairly tech-forward, so I am going to try to break it down here. But bear with me if I fall prey to the same trap as other marketers and spew out the same circular logic.
The underlying concept of a Metaverse as a virtual space that mimics our physical dimensions is not new. Science fiction writers have been dreaming it up since the thirties. But it was only in 1982 that the word was coined by author Neal Stephenson as part of a novel called Snow Crash, where the story’s characters use a virtual reality experience to escape their totalitarian reality.
Cut to 2022, and the world falling apart is no longer fiction. Deadly pandemics, environmental anxiety and crashing economies mean we still need an ‘out’, and perhaps it’s time to escape again to a reality that is a little less dreary than ours.
The technology has been building up for a while. If you remember going to the Venturer motion-simulated experience at Sindbad in the nineties, you can chalk that up as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for the Metaverse. Then came Web 2.0 and the age of social connectivity. Now you have a virtual placeholder that can represent you in the digital world. The movement still doesn’t have mainstream traction, but if you can remember Dwight Schrute from NBC’s The Office playing a game called Second Life, where his digital avatar is far more superior than his real-life persona, you can say you have a glimpse of the Metaverse potential early on.
The landscape changes with VR headsets and an American technologist called Palmer Luckey, who intends to launch his first consumer-grade product via Kickstarter in 2012. The Oculus Rift was not the world’s first or best virtual reality headset, but it arguably became the most notorious after an acquisition of Luckey’s company by Facebook in 2014 and here is where it becomes interesting for marketers.
Facebook in 2014 is just hitting its stride. It has a billion users and virtually unlimited cash, as it finally begins to accept its position as an advertising access juggernaut rather than a social connector (mission statements be damned). Previously limited to an endless scroll on a tiny screen, virtual reality environments open up the possibility to monetise space in a richer environment. More than ever pixels, are dollars. This starts Facebook’s journey towards embracing a socially-connected virtual reality world as their true calling, eventually culminating in renaming themselves to Meta Platforms in 2021 and selling Oculus headsets at a massive subsidy to encourage greater adoption.
Be advised though. Facebook – or rather, Meta – does not ‘own the Metaverse’, even if their company is now named as such. The Metaverse is a concept, and not yet a widely accepted singular platform. Dubbed Web 3.0, other players can, and have, contributed to creating spaces and assets to populate their own spaces in a similar style. As we stand today, there are three stages of entry into the Metaverse.
Define Your Metaverse Self: The first stage involves creating or purchasing an avatar. The logic goes that if you are to have a presence in a virtual world, that presence needs to reflect you accurately. There are now countless freelancers and agencies that will help you create a realistic avatar of yourself and place it in the Metaverse space of your liking. A quick search on Fiverr shows that $85 can get you a photorealistic digital version of yourself rendered in 3D, complete with signature movements. All that is needed from you is a photo and a brief on how you want your character to be. Some platforms will help you create an avatar yourself without any money (or bitcoin) exchanged. This is your cue to understand that your data and participation is the price you are paying. This allows brands to deploy mascots and anamorphic products into the Metaverse as characters that you can interact with. Imagine having a chitchat with Commander Safeguard before you go back to exploring some brave new germ-free world.
Express Yourself: Once your base avatar is defined, you can deck it out with the necessary clothing, accessories and gimmicks. This is a massive opportunity for brands operating in the fashion space. Should your avatar who is playing a tennis game against your high school buddy be wearing Adidas or Nike? It is fascinating to see how fashion can transcend physicality. Brands like DKNY and Charles & Keith are already offering Metaverse-wearable ‘digital’ versions of their most popular accessory styles, including the latter’s hit Koa bag. These fashion accessories are sold as NFTs; sometimes separately and sometimes in conjunction with their physical high-profile sales. This is also the state where Pakistan’s first brand-led foray into the Metaverse happened. The brand in question is Rastah, which specialise in artisanal South-Asian urban-wear. Their entry into the NFT space was marked by an auction of their digital piece from a ‘Love & Fear’ collection on the Foundation Rastah website. The garment, produced in collaboration with Lahore-based design house DMTLabs, was paired in the physical form. The campaign received a lot of confused press and praises for being ‘the first’, but has since not materialised into anything bigger.
Build a Digital Lifestyle: Things now become really interesting where users begin to accumulate assets and experiences that will help enrich their digital lives. This includes tools, artworks, collectables and most importantly… land. You have to take all of this with a pinch of salt, though. Theoretically speaking, the digital world is infinite, and therefore there is no true scarcity. We have all heard about the guy who bought Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s first tweet as an NFT for $2.9 million and only managed to attract a bid of $280 when he tried to pawn it off. Then again, we have also heard about bitcoin millionaires and the evangelism from the world’s richest man for cryptocurrency. So instead of hustling hard to buy that defence ka bangla, you may as well work hard to accumulate collectables and property in the Metaverse. This is where most global brands are playing right now, releasing NFTs to populate Metaverse spaces and allowing their customers to benefit from them. We did something similar for a now-no-longer-operational quick commerce brand called Munchies earlier this year. We created brand-inspired NFTs, in classic 8-bit NFT style and then used a social media campaign to distribute the newly minted digital assets to the community. In parallel, we created a Metaverse space on a platform called Spatial, which allowed users to explore the NFT gallery and other brand elements in an immersive environment with an avatar. Within the gallery was a scavenger hunt, with secret promos hidden in or behind the visuals. It was an ambitious project and we even set up a discord server to update the community on our progress. Unfortunately, the business pulled the plug on its operations before we could fully explore the possibilities and pitfalls of such a venture from a marketing POV. The ‘Munchverse’ still exists on Spatial, so anybody with a headset can see it in its immersive glory if they so choose.
Ultimately, the success of the Metaverse, according to this naïve marketer at least, depends on the ability and accessibility of hardware technology to give us the promised ‘immersive’ experience. My own Oculus headset has been collecting dust on a shelf because I don’t have enough friends in Pakistan to enjoy the social aspect of it. Sure, theoretically the headset is not necessary for the barebones experience. Phones with AR filters are also part of the Metaverse concept. Platforms like Spatial allow anybody with a computer or a smartphone to ‘explore’ its 3D environments as well. However, the fun comes when we spend more and more time inside our headsets. That is when brands will really be able to utilise the unlimited 3D advertising space available to them. Until then, we will have to make do with reading (and writing) articles and pressers about this ‘new frontier’ of marketing and branded entertainment, while secretly being depressed that such a future – at least in Pakistan – is decades away.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.