Marketers Greet the Metaverse

What brands such as Stella Artois and Wendy’s are doing to test the virtual waters

By Anne Field

To get a primer on the metaverse, Wendy’s joined the Fortnite competition “Food Fight” with an axe-wielding avatar to help Pizza Pit battle against Durrr Burger over in-game freezers. Courtesy of Epic Games

Stella Artois recently galloped into the not-too-distant future. The beer brand teamed up with the blockchain-based digital horse-racing platform ZED RUN to auction 50 nonfungible tokens (NFTs). Each NFT features a unique Stella-themed virtual thoroughbred horse, which owners can collect, trade, race, or even breed, all from the metaverse.

Quickly becoming a new frontier for marketers, the metaverse is an online virtual reality space in which users can interact with each other and their environs. "Our work with ZED RUN is a good example of not just how we can play in the metaverse, but how to do so in a way that helps build the brand," says Richard Oppy, VP of global brands at ANA member Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Stella Artois. "This is not a flash in the pan for us."

The metaverse as a medium continues to gain exposure, with an increasing number of marketers starting to wonder what the fuss is about and whether to join the fray.

"Any brand that wants to be relevant is thinking about this space," says Jeff Roach, president and chief strategy officer at brand marketing agency SCS, whose clients include manufacturing companies John Deere and Miele. "It's on everyone's radar."

Early in the Game

While the metaverse got a big lift in October when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company would be changing its name to Meta in part because of how the technology would transform his social network, gaming platforms were first to leverage the metaverse.

Take Roblox. The company launched in 2006 as a children's video game but has recently become an immersive world in which more than 43 million daily users design and sell their own interactive experiences, like building an amusement park or working at a pizza joint. The massively popular online game Fortnite, in which online users play games and attend concerts, has also played a great role in incubating the market.

Providing a shared experience lies at the heart of the metaverse, at least on paper. "It's about having that digital social connection," says Sam Cox, senior creative technologist at We Are Social, a global social media creative agency whose clients include Audi and Guinness. "Gaming becomes kind of secondary."

But when it comes to making inroads with users, marketers have to tread lightly, warns Dave Morgan, CEO of ANA member Simulmedia, a measurement platform for TV and video games. "You have to authentically work within how people live in those environments," he says. "That's hard. You can't just mail it in."

For example, when Wendy's joined Fortnite in 2019, it did so as a player not an advertiser.

"Gamers play with other people, not brands. So how could we communicate our fresh, never-frozen beef message more like a gamer and less like a brand?" says Jeremy Cline, manager of innovation and data at ANA member VMLY&R, which worked on the effort. "The former would play the game. The latter would buy ad space in the game."

For the "Food Fight" competition in Fortnite, Wendy's — counterintuitively — suited up for team Pizza Pit because team Durrr Burger sold burgers made from frozen beef, and Wendy's wanted to emphasize its commitment to selling fresh beef. In the game, Wendy's axe-wielding avatar attacked and destroyed Durrr Burger's freezers. The effort generated more than 250,000 live views on streaming platform Twitch, while mentions of Wendy's rose 119 percent across social platforms, according to The Drum.

A Complex Universe

Finding a way to gel in the metaverse will depend a lot on the market category. High-end apparel and accessories, for instance, are leading the charge. "Luxury brands are really front-runners in this," Roach says.

Fortnite maker Epic Games also jumped into the ring, partnering with fashion brand BALENCIAGA to create four virtual outfits that could be purchased within the game. The company went one step further by selling a Fortnite-themed collection in select BALENCIAGA brick-and-mortar stores worldwide.

In a similar vein, Gucci created a virtual garden on Roblox, where mannequin-like avatars explore an ethereal environment as well as a store with limited-edition items users can buy and then use across the platform. On the Roblox resale marketplace, the Gucci Dionysus Bag with Bee was resold for in-game currency worth more than $4,100, exceeding the price of a real Gucci Dionysus.

Indeed, traditional brands are finding innovative ways to enter — and monetize — the metaverse. In June, John Deere tapped SCS, which worked with Minecraft content creator Blockworks, to create an experience in Minecraft called "FarmCraft."

"We were looking for how to get a new generation to understand the brand and that led us to the metaverse," Roach says. FarmCraft allows players to do everything from grow crops to drive around in a tractor. The game has had more than 4 million downloads, according to Roach.

Entering the metaverse with NFTs can be more complex, particularly if brands have a long-term marketing strategy. Earlier this year, AB InBev created a dedicated team in charge of metaverse strategy across the organization.

The team includes what Oppy calls a "small" in-house group, including legal and corporate affairs executives so as to better address the complexities of working with NFTs and cryptocurrency. The department also includes members from VaynerNFT, a new unit within global creative and media agency VaynerMedia that is working with AB InBev. "This will be a big part of our campaigns in the future," Oppy says.

Marketers predict that the metaverse will become part of the fabric of life, similar to social media.

"Every brand should be asking themselves: if I sell goods in the physical world, how can I sell them in the metaverse?" says Brandon Faris, executive creative director at LEAP Group, a network of creative agencies whose clients include Carnival and Hershey's. "The metaverse ecosystem is alive and it's coming. If you don't participate, you'll be left behind."

 


 

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