Back in the day, I was considered the coolest aunty to kids to whom I bore no relation because I worked with Sulake’s Habbo Hotel and Disney’s Club Penguin. These two virtual worlds were THEE places to hang out if you were between the ages of 6 and 11, a place for building, self-expression and socialising. A virtual web of spaces – hotel rooms or igloos – which kids built for other kids and served as a hive of creativity and user-generated gameplay well before Roblox and Minecraft existed or boomed in popularity.
In these early virtual worlds, we saw brands creating experiences, such as the Always Salon, Capri-Sun theme park and Frozen-themed costumes for penguin avatars, for kids to engage with. But as talk of the Metaverse gets louder, with more and more companies pegging their futures to this next evolution of the mobile web, the experiences we’re seeing in today’s virtual worlds have certainly grown up.
I take my definition of the Metaverse from Matthew Ball, whose book, The Metaverse: And How it Will Revolutionize Everything, I couldn’t recommend more. He defines it as:
“A massively scaled, interoperable network of real-time rendered, 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence, whilst supporting a continuity of identity such as history, communications, payments, entitlements and objects” (if you’ve got 14 minutes, grab a cuppa and watch him explain it here).
While the Metaverse isn’t just about gaming, it’s games like Habbo Hotel, Second Life, Roblox, Minecraft, Microsoft Flight Simulator and Decentraland (to name a few), which at this moment in time, best showcase the potential of Metaverse(s) or Metauniverses. Which is why brands continue to experiment within these worlds, testing and learning as they go.
Here’s some of the past, and more present, brand forays into virtual worlds that give a glimpse of what the future may hold:
Reebok Retail in Second Life
In a piece that could have been written just last week about the challenges of setting up a shop that people can even find in an expansive virtual world, this 15-year-old New York Times article also shows that the desire to kit avatars in the latest kicks was as fashionable back then as it is today. The beauty of virtual worlds is that they offer immersive brand experiences within retail environments that feel familiar. Today this still holds great potential, browsing and buying goods not just for your virtual avatar but for you— having them delivered straight to your home.
Gucci Vault Land
Gucci’s moves in virtual places and spaces is to be admired, their commitment to experimentation is unfaltering so would really recommend keeping an eye on what they do. Robert Triefus was recently announced as the brand’s CEO of Vault and Metaverse ventures—a move that reflects his work in introducing Gucci to multiple digital environments. From Gucci Town in Roblox to exclusive community spaces on Discord and a pop-up concept store in The Sandbox, Gucci is taking the emergence of the Metaverse seriously and no doubt considers it a major part of this iconic brand’s future.
Habbo Hotel Always Salon
This was a six-week campaign in which the Procter & Gamble brand launched the Always Salon in Habbo—an online, pixel-art style virtual community where young adults can create their own avatar, make friends, and design and build games. It kicked off with a competition to find twelve Habbos to work in the Always Salon each day. Each week, contestants had to undertake mini challenges, with Habbos voting for their favourite ‘employee; those with the least votes dropping out of the competition. Finally, the winner took it all, getting their own salon full of rare itmes and an Always Salon badge—the only one of its kind in the game. As reported in New Media Age (‘memba them?!), 13,000 kids engaged with the experience during the campaign. You can still play Habbo, so go check into the hotel at Habbo.com.
Virtual Knock Offs
An avatar is the digital personification, or alter ego, of the person behind it, so it’s no wonder that users will buy items—from clothing and accessories to virtual real estate—that help them stand out online.
It’s estimated that the virtual goods market is worth $32 billion, so ripe for cashing in. But how do you even start to police knockoffs in these vast virtual worlds?
Second Life saw hundreds of counterfeit goods, from Salvador Dali artwork to an Ikea catalogue’s worth of virtual items created by and sold to players of the game. More recently, Hermes sent a cease and desist notice to artist Mason Rothschild for the sale of his Meta Birkin bag NFTs. Just as fake items are a problem for brands in the real world, Virtual knock-offs and counterfeit goods will undoubtedly be part of our digital future as well.
We are still some way off from experiencing the Metaverse as perhaps best articulated in sci-fi books Snow Crash (where the word was coined) and Ready Player One. However, the journey there has already started. We’d say to brands, it’s time to take that trip and jump on board!