Earlier this year, Traci and Dave Gagnon got married on virtual platform Virbela. It was a hybrid event where part of the wedding happened in “real life” too. It’s a sign of the times. The boundaries between “real” and “digital” are blending into what is increasingly referred to as the ‘metaverse’: a space not limited to virtual matrimony, but one where brands can weave themselves into our digital DNA.
It’s no longer a question of to what extent the metaverse will be a new marketing frontier. It’s a question of how quickly and how creatively brands will use it to connect with their target audiences. And it’s not just a simple copy and paste job or a straightforward transfer from 2D to 3D. Brands need new strategies, new ideas, and new iterations if they want to stay connected to audiences within this evolving virtual space. Crucially, the ones who will thrive will be those who create new ways of expressing their meaning symbolically within the metaverse.
Symbolism has always been at the heart of branding: shapes, colors, objects. The way we interpret these influences our behaviors – even if we don’t realize it. Symbols speak louder than words, because our brains decode meaning thousands of times faster from images than from text – 60,000 times faster, to be precise. They’re easier to remember and shortcut meaning effortlessly and irresistibly. Successful brands do this all the time. Primed like Pavlov’s dogs, we may start to be hungry when we see red and yellow because we associate it with McDonald’s. The more we get to know a brand, the more value we derive from their symbols. It triggers an emotional reaction. Like buying a Chanel handbag and joining an elite-group with high social status or wearing Nike clothing and associating with an active lifestyle. Symbols represent a brand’s personality.
But symbolism in the metaverse is different than symbolism in the physical realm.
It’s crucial to acknowledge that consumers entering the metaverse already think and understand things through a lens of symbolism. We’ve grown up with symbols influencing our decisions, and the connections we have to the digital world only accelerates the connections we have with brands. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the metaverse as an “embodied internet.” In creating one’s own avatar, we are all forced to think about how we want to be represented in our most distilled, yet concise format, with the potential to grow and be creative as we see fit. Brands need to apply a similar way of thinking.
Nike was one of the first brands to jump behind this new digital lens with the creation of Nikeland, its personalized digital space in Roblox, an online platform that allows users to program and play games created by other users. Building its own unique selection of games, with features where players can shake their cellphone to unlock lightning speed, Nike is expanding its accessibility to even more consumers. And transitioning this game play to have higher symbolic meaning comes from the ‘swoosh’ emblem adorning players’ clothes. It’s more than just wearing the brands’ trademarked digital goods; Nike is digitally associating itself with playfulness and inclusivity (two facets that make up the brand’s IRL meaning).
Not limited to apparel brands, Wendy’s entrance into Fortnite’s ‘Food Fight’ wasn’t just a way of showing up where its consumers are for the sake of it. It was a way of creating something that symbolically showed what they stood for. Wendy’s is famous for its fresh meat, and as a challenge to competitors that use frozen food, the aim of the ‘Food Fight’ game is to eliminate all the freezers. By taking part, consumers are actively responding to symbols that express key elements of the Wendy’s brand meaning. And in one final act of symbolism, the coders at Twitch removed the burger freezers from the game permanently at the end of the campaign, therefore removing the (virtual) world of frozen beef forever. Genius.
Yet it’s crucial to understand this isn’t a one-way transformation. There is still very much a physical world that we all exist in. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it, this movement will “embed computing into the real world and embed the real world into computing.” In Burberry’s Honor of Kings appearance, players could purchase a ‘skin’ of Burberry clothing with looks taken from its SS/21 ‘In Bloom’ collection and signature House check. Seamlessly blending the digital with the reality, the clothing is available to purchase both online and in the physical stores. The symbolism here comes from the brands’ belief that beauty comes from the intersection between humanity and nature, where the Honor of Kings character Yao embodies the spirit of nature as she can take the form of a deer.
Merging the two realms is key. To do so, brands will need to create immersive, multi-sensory experiences that truly transport consumers. I recently spoke with Jordan Harper White, a NYC-based creative director and project manager who’s been working at the intersection between physical and digital spaces for the last decade. He argues that brands need to think of themselves symbolically, beyond purely the visual, if they are to succeed in the metaverse: “Creatives in the space need to foresee hybrid collaborations between audio, visual, experiential designers and emerging technologies that incorporate all of our senses to truly merge the digital realm with our physical world.”
Harper White led the team that brought IBM’s Watson Artificial Intelligence to the 2019 US Open. Usually, the AI tennis highlights are just for a TV audience and player coaches, but IBM created a physical experience that mirrored the technology’s capability to deliver instant highlights of every match based on their fan curiosities, preferences, and choices. Moreover, through Azure Kinect, IBM shared an experience with fans to mimic what it felt like to be a player via gestures, movements, and facial expressions and allowed them to encounter familiar brand experiences in a whole new way. That physical experience subsequently reinforced the value of AI throughout their lives in different industries showcasing IBM’s ability to not just change the game, but to help them interact with the world in different ways.
While we don’t know what the future of the metaverse will look like, we can learn from digital integration of the past. When social media first arrived, brands had to similarly adapt to cut through the noise. British fitness brand Gymshark was one of the first to leverage influencers, and in doing so became globally synonymous with the online health and fitness space. Glossier, a social-first beauty brand, curated pop-up shops around the world, which were geared toward community building and brand awareness. The decorative backdrop and Instagrammable aesthetic of the pop-up blended the physical realm with the digital, creating engaging content that empowered its customers to share content that gave them their own voice, aligning with their mission to “give a voice through beauty.”
What’s clear is that in this new ‘phygital’ space of the metaverse, the power of symbolism for brands knows no bounds. Those that can harness it to elevate what they stand for will be the ones who cut through and ultimately succeed in connecting with their target in new and exciting ways.
Molly Rowan-Hamilton is the strategy director at BrandOpus.