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Creating a Meta(di)verse

How brands can drive inclusion in virtual spaces

Sam Collenette, DRUM

Senior Strategist

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Now that the initial metaverse hysteria is starting to subside, it is time to step back and think about the virtual spaces that we are trying to build long-term.

While the metaverse in its truest sense may be some way off yet, we are nevertheless standing at a crossroads. As we transition from web2 to web3, there is a significant opportunity to shape the next generation of the internet to be more diverse and inclusive than what has come before – But only if brands prioritise the communities they are serving.

Virtual worlds provide a valuable space for self-exploration – particularly for younger generations who have grown up online. In fact, many people feel more able to be completely themselves in these spaces than they do IRL. This is especially important for marginalised communities; according to a survey by Razorfish and Vice, BIPOC Gen Z are twice as likely to design their avatars to look like them as their white-identifying counterparts.

While these technologies are still in their infancy, now is the time to establish the principles that will help shape them into more inclusive spaces.

Sam Collenette, Senior Strategist, DRUM

But this relies on having the necessary access and tools. As these spaces evolve, there are no guarantees that they will be built equitably. We have already seen examples of the racial bias built into emergent technologies like AI and facial recognition, and many are rightly concerned about the increased potential for discrimination in virtual worlds.

As early investors, brands have a big part to play in ensuring they are creating safe spaces in which those who most need it are represented. That is why inclusion and the role of strategic partnerships must be at the forefront of agencies’ thinking as we guide clients towards taking their first steps into the virtual sphere. 

So what actions should brands be taking?

1.Prioritise inclusion

In order to create change, we first need to be having the conversation. 

Until we are creating spaces where everyone is included, we must actively seek progress. As prominent actors, brands have a responsibility to provide a platform for inclusion and facilitate larger cultural conversations.

Whilst virtual spaces offer the potential for a world free of physical limitations and societal stereotypes, that world doesn’t exist yet. Brands can’t leave issues of real-world representation at the door, they need to ensure they are brought online.

For example, Dove is taking its long-standing commitment to a more inclusive vision of beauty into the virtual world. The brand has worked with gaming platform Unreal Engine and non-profit organisation Women in Games to help developers build more diverse female representation in gaming.

Deodorant brand Degree is making similar inroads for differently-abled representation as an extension of its Breaking Limits programme. Partnering with Paralympic athlete Blake Leeper, the brand introduced adaptive wearables like wheelchairs and running blades into its virtual marathon in a bid to increase representation in movement.

2. Speak to the right communities

If brands are going to succeed in virtual spaces, they need to be representing the communities they are trying to engage.

Without speaking to lived experiences, brands risk propagating counter-productive ideas. While diverse teams can go some way to avoiding these issues, there is no substitute for speaking to those you are trying to represent. This is the least audiences expect – a study from the Institute of Digital Fashion found that 98 percent of consumers feel creators should conduct research when building avatars of communities of which they are not part.

Just look at the failure of virtual rapper FN Meka as a warning; the avatar, created without the necessary input, was eventually pulled by its record label after receiving backlash for playing up to black stereotypes.

Partnering with communities and experts ensures that brands can get representation right. One example of this is Clinique, who joined forces with software company Daz 3D and several makeup artists to address the lack of diversity in avatars as part of the “Metaverse Like Us” campaign.

3. Provide tools for everyone

If we are to create genuinely inclusive virtual spaces for everyone, it can’t be a self-serving exercise.

The onus is on brands to prove they aren’t making tokenistic gestures aimed at awards, but rather a longer-term commitment to inclusivity. Sharing how-tos, discussing the challenges and being transparent about the end-goal will ensure everyone has the tools to drive better representation. 

Brands can take inspiration from the open source principles on which web3 is built and those that are developing projects in the same collaborative spirit. The Open Source Afro Hair Library is one such project, seeking to address the lack of thoughtful representation of Blackness in virtual spaces by providing free 3D models to developers.

4. Act now

Along with the platforms themselves, early brand adopters will be the architects of web3.

It is encouraging to see some examples of brands already taking a clear stance on diversity and inclusion in virtual spaces, but this needs to be an industry-wide initiative in order to create meaningful and long-lasting positive change. 

While these technologies are still in their infancy, now is the time to establish the principles that will help shape them into more inclusive spaces. Getting in early can be both cost-effective and impactful, for brands as well as broader communities.

Guest Author

Sam Collenette, DRUM

Senior Strategist

About

Sam Collenette is a culturally-curious strategist, currently working as a Senior Strategist at DRUM in London. Moving between agency and client-side roles, start-ups and global organisations, Sam has spent the last decade working with companies to solve a range of business and communications challenges. Starting his career in editorial and PR, Sam’s experience has since spanned social media, content and marketing strategy. Having played a leadership role in delivering content and digital experiences at historic photography agency Magnum Photos and global charity Save the Children, Sam now works across the breadth of briefs at DRUM. Over the duration of his career, he has worked with a broad range of clients and talent across sectors, including Audi, Bacardi, Coors Light, HSBC, O2 and Samsung.

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Diversity/Inclusion