What’s next for branded virtual experiences, according to the creatives who build them

By Marianna Nash

This piece is part of Future Ready, a Think with Google series that explores the macro trends shaping businesses for years to come. Here, we asked experts across media disciplines to discuss their hopes for and expectations of branded virtual experiences.

Over the last two years, just about every kind of brand has faced the question of how, when, and where to experiment virtually. But separating buzz from lasting behaviors will be critical to building out robust media strategies that excite and engage audiences across platforms. We asked industry experts, analysts, and content creators about what to expect from the early days of this revolutionary shift.

Online shoppers will browse in 3D

According to virtual design firm BrandLab360 co-founder Dan O’Connell, the “spatial web” could become the new normal in as few as five years. But first, there will need to be a stepping-stone between digital and virtual experiences, one that won’t alienate the vast majority of shoppers accustomed to conventional product and payment pages.

Virtual architecture can be the digital twin of a real-life store where people can browse without the friction of in-store shopping.

“We’ll see people exploring in virtual reality and buying in e-commerce,” said O’Connell, who noted that his clients’ customers spent 8X longer in those brands’ virtual spaces than on their e-commerce sites.

“In a VR activation, you can get product recommendations based on your VR journey,” he explained. “It’s also creating efficiencies in the supply chain. Virtual architecture can be the digital twin of a real-life store where people can browse without the friction of in-store shopping.”

In early 2022, BrandLab360’s studio rolled out Maison Too Faced for the Estée Lauder Companies brand. Maison Too Faced, a social, gamified virtual shopping experience, lets visitors explore lavishly appointed rooms and gardens that defy the laws of nature, unlock challenges to win discount codes, shop with friends, and learn about Too Faced products. While Too Faced is one of many cosmetics brands to experiment with 3D design, BrandLab360, which launched in 2017 as a virtual showroom designer for fashion houses, has fielded more than 2,000 inquiries ranging across industries since the pandemic began.

“We’re seeing a cascading shift,” said O’Connell. “It seems to be unstoppable at the moment.”

Huge launched SK-II City for the Japanese skin care brand when it became clear that most fans around the world would not be able to attend in-person activations during the Tokyo Olympics. The virtual world is inspired by real-life architecture and infrastructure in Tokyo, such as Shibuya Crossing, and allows users to play educational games and watch the brand’s animated films about Japan’s Olympic athletes.

“There was a bigger push to figure out how to engage people in a meaningful way,” said Hugh Connelly, executive creative director at Huge Singapore. “‘Can you build community inside of these environments and allow people to walk, spatially, through a digital environment?’ And so it was not explicitly part of the brief, but it was an easy kind of analogical reasoning.”

Micro-influencers will bring big results

With its reputation for dedicated fandoms, gaming is a natural venue for content creators to attract passionate fans. But brands seeking to partner with these creators should note that audience size only tells half the story. And the stereotype of gamers as uniformly young white men has been erroneous for years: Nearly half of all gamers are women, and many young gamers are people of color.

People are more likely to trust what the person they watch four to five days a week says about a product or a brand.

“A lot of brands would be surprised at the reach that streamers and content creators have, and how dedicated our communities are to us,” said Alisha Ether, who goes by LeeshCapeesh on her Twitch and YouTube gaming channels. “Every streamer, every YouTuber, has a community — especially the micro, mid-tier influencers. People are more likely to trust what the person they watch four to five days a week says about a product or a brand.”

In “The Sims” gaming community, independent 3D modeling artists known as “modders” create downloadable assets for in-game worlds that can range from a character’s hair and makeup to their home. Danielle Udogaranya, known to Simmers as Ebonix, is a well-known modder who has seen her designs published by studio Electronic Arts and consulted on decisions that led to hundreds of new character skin tones.

“My initial thing was just wanting a piece of content that wasn’t in the game, but represented my culture,” said Udogaranya, who had downloaded other users’ custom content packs but never considered making her own until she discovered that content representing Black players and culture was severely lacking. After creating a 3D dashiki, she went on to teach herself how to model hairstyles in 3D, which led to discovery by Simmers all over the world and to partnerships with Foot Locker Europe and other brands.

Content creators in the space say they would like to see more types of brands get involved.

Partnering with players and creators can be an effective way for brands to venture into gaming spaces. In 2020, Gucci commissioned two modders to recreate their sustainable Gucci Off the Grid fashion line and campaign. One architected a branded multistory treehouse, while another recreated Gucci goods in-game — and a 3D avatar of campaign star Jane Fonda to wear them.

“With ‘The Sims,’ beauty and fashion go hand in hand with half the game, because the game is about creating people,” said Kayla Sims, who goes by Lilsimsie on her YouTube channel. “A lot of that ties into how people play ‘The Sims’ and how people are sort of mimicking life.”

Though fashion and beauty have an outsize presence among brands in gaming, content creators in the space say they would like to see more types of brands get involved. Morgan Nixon, who live streams both gameplay and makeup tutorials as Bettynixx, suggested home-decor brands could sponsor videos about gaming setups. Ether encouraged bottled water brands to step into a space where content creators broadcast regular reminders to their followers to hydrate.

“You need to know the audience you’re promoting products to and what their interests are,” said Alia Shelesh, who streams games as SSSniperWolf and beauty content as Little Lia. “There are niche audiences within gaming that also have other interests that they want to be appealed to.”

Games will be meeting grounds

Anyone who has played “Roblox,” “Fortnite,” or “Animal Crossing” while social distancing has witnessed firsthand the potential of video games to unite people across geographic distances. According to Newzoo’s Intro to the Metaverse report, the metaverse is simply the next stage in the evolution of these virtual worlds, which will become persistent environments where “multiple stakeholders can create and capture value beyond the core product.”

You don’t want to do anything that interrupts or annoys people while they’re playing.

In other words, games will be gathering places to which brands will be invited as long as they play by the rules. Though most early activations have taken the form of in-game brand collaborations, some enterprise applications have seen game technology used to host live events. The popularity of the medium is finally beginning to show up in budgets, with 93% of media buyers intending to run in-game advertising by 2025.

But most video games do not yet accommodate advertising, making it necessary for brands to offer something useful or rewarding to players in activations, said James Swift, an online editor at Contagious who analyzes advertising trends. “The most successful ones we’ve seen so far are ones where brands help players or users.”

Swift cites South American retailer Almacenes Exito’s collaboration with top “Call of Duty: Mobile” players as a best-in-class example of a brand collaboration. When prospective customers managed to defeat the top players, they won discounts. “I think that was a good way, because obviously you can’t advertise within the game, and you don’t want to do anything that interrupts or annoys people while they’re playing. So they found a way to incentivize people to join in.”

Condiment brand Heinz aided players with its “Hidden Spots” campaign, by mapping out safe spots for players to have a mid-game snack in the world of “Call of Duty: Warzone.”

“Again, I think that’s a good way of engaging at the moment,” said Swift of the Heinz campaign. “Until — or even if — these platforms allow brands to actually advertise, the way to do it is to be a bit clever and be a bit useful or quite entertaining.”

In SK-II City, arcade games were a vehicle for education around the brand’s mission of sustainability. Those who bought items from the fully recyclable Andy Warhol X SK-II Pitera Essence Limited Edition line could scan a QR code on the bottle to enter the 3D city and learn about their new product through gameplay. According to Connelly, this post-purchase experience saw the highest engagement of any activation on the site. Vogue Business reports that the virtual world will be a permanent site fixture for the P&G-owned brand.

From Nikeland and Vans World in “Roblox” to Ally Island in “Animal Crossing” to Miller Lite’s Meta Bar, brands across verticals have found success by offering products and experiences that only exist within virtual settings, often on real estate within popular video games. These experiences are not one-off stunts, but destinations with their own enticing offerings, representing a new direction for experiential marketing.

YouTube content creator Lauren Webber, known as LaurenzSide, expects gaming to become an even bigger part of the zeitgeist as the shift continues. “I honestly believe, especially with the development of Web3, that gaming is going to just keep getting bigger and more mainstream in the future.”

This article was sourced from Think With Google

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