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Making sense of the metaverse

By its very nature, the metaverse is a limitless space, and brands and retailers are scrambling to adopt the new technology—even while trying to understand its business applications and true potential.

Making sense of the metaverse
[Volodymyr; wacomka /AdobeStock]

Imagine: you’ve just gotten home from work, and you put on your VR headset to attend a concert using a ticket that you bought with cryptocurrency. After the event, you check out the virtual neighborhood and spot your favorite restaurant, pop in to place an order, and a short while later, the food arrives at your physical door.

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The metaverse—a distributed network of virtual worlds where users can interact and experience things as they would in the real world—has the ability to be as complex and integrated as the scenario above, or as simple and as siloed as an online video game. It is, by its very nature, a limitless space, and brands and retailers are scrambling to adopt the new technology—even while trying to understand its business applications and true potential.

It’s impossible not to consider and speculate on the implications of this emergent tech in the commerce space, but helping brands make sense of it requires a larger discourse rather than individual hypothesizing. In a four-part series on the metaverse, I’ll present some thoughts and observations on:

1. how brands can step into the metaverse; 2. the role of the metaverse within the omnichannel experience; 3. the question of metaverse governance; and 4. how to think about the wider virtual supply chain.

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The metaverse lives at the intersection of many different technologies, some of which we’ve only recently been exposed: virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), cryptocurrency, NFTs, blockchain, and much more. As such, it’s hard to draw any reliable conclusions—apart from the fact that the metaverse is largely still evolving.

A recent Forbes article asks, “[Is] the metaverse going to be evolve to [sic] little more than another digital way to communicate with each other in a 3D format? Will it be a more advanced way of gaming? Will the metaverse be a fad or the trend of the future?”

On the other hand, tech company Boson Protocol presents a more expansive and enthusiastic outlook: “The metaverse, then, is more than a game, a website, an application or a platform. It becomes instead the interface through which we experience a new type of reality with its own rules and its own economy.”

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FINDING A FOOTHOLD IN THE METAVERSE

Despite the uncertainty and mixed opinions, plenty of brands have been eager to find their own foothold in the virtual world. Fashion and apparel brands are several of the biggest players in the space, creating digital clothes and accessories that online users can purchase to personalize their digital avatars. For instance, Nike and Gucci are both offering digital accessories on the gaming platform Roblox, with the latter selling a virtual bag for $4,115.

This may seem shocking at first glance, but it’s really more of a continued evolution of the digital-first approach. There are striking similarities between the current state of the commercial metaverse and the evolution of digital-first brands alongside social media. Brands like Casper and Dollar Shave Club, for example, cite Instagram as being integral to their commercial success. Whereas the former credits the platform’s ability to facilitate customer connection and engagement, the latter speaks to positive advertising outcomes as a result of a simple, visual layout. Viewed against these approaches, the rise of retail commerce in the metaverse seems like more of a natural next step.

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So what lessons can we glean from these examples? Should you dip your toes into the virtual waters? And if so, how?

THE POWER OF COLLABORATION

The “how” is easier to answer. Collaborations appear to be a common starting point for brands to safely experiment in the metaverse while continuing to showcase their products and cater to a wider audience. Gaming platforms like Fortnite, Minecraft, and the aforementioned Roblox allow brands to leverage pre-existing virtual frameworks that already have sizable audiences, but the creation of separate metaverse spaces is a bigger, more complex brand play. The long-term viability of nascent metaverses like Sandbox and Decentraland, for example, is still unclear.

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At the moment, little interoperability exists from one metaverse to the next, so your choice of platform should be a central consideration for your business or marketing strategy. And given the fragmented nature of the landscape, it might also be a good idea to diversify your options. In fact, management consulting company Gartner advises businesses against investing in one specific metaverse.

KNOW THYSELF

Whether or not your brand should engage in the metaverse is perhaps the biggest question of all, and it comes with a myriad of other considerations. How close, for example, should a brand model its metaverse storefront after its physical storefronts? Should the metaverse be seen as a virtual carbon copy of the real world?

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Questions like these suggest that the metaverse presents brands with an opportunity to do some deep exploring—not just dabbling on a new platform for the sake of it, but taking a long-term perspective that allows them to simultaneously experiment and further refine their brand identity. Whether it’s through collaboration or independent ventures, brands will be most successful if they hold true to their brand foundations.

As in the early days of the internet and social media, we’re collectively trying to make sense of an exciting, new technology. If we look at the brands that have been successful in adjusting to technical innovation, we can see recurring patterns: embracing new frameworks, telling brand stories in novel ways, connecting to different demographics, and strengthening by adapting. The takeaway here is the importance of fitting a brand’s message to the medium rather than trying to force it.

This medium—the metaverse—does appear to have its own rules, many of which are still being tested and formalized. So coming up with a plan that respects both the medium and your brand’s messaging is key.

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Jason Cottrell is CEO & Founder of Myplanet, specialists in digital transformation programs that tackle complex commerce challenges.

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