The internet, but worse: what the metaverse could mean for brands

The rise of the metaverse brings with it fresh opportunities for marketers.

Michael Baggs

Strategy Director at The Social Element


The metaverse - or more plainly speaking, online virtual worlds - is seen as the latest craze to enter mainstream consciousness and yet it’s already huge. As brands and marketers scramble to get a slice of the meta pie, many may be quaking in their boots at the onset of ‘the next internet’, and for good reason.  

The rise of the metaverse has striking similarities to the dotcom bubble. The risk is that it will play out much like the internet has, but in a world already fuelled by internet echo chambers and outrage-hunting. In other words, it’ll be the internet on steroids: in one sense, a far more creative and playful way to think and express individuality online. In another, it’ll deepen polarisation and provide new and unregulated space for unpleasant ideas to gain traction among a large - and likely young - audience. 

So, why should brands know or care about the metaverse? 

Well, let’s start with understanding how wide the appeal of the metaverse truly is. Many people are drawn to an alternate reality as a way to escape whatever they feel trapped by: their appearance, their family, their job - any of these things can tip someone over from casual metaverse usage into someone who cares more for their online life than their real one. There are stories of relationships on Second Life, and people able to make their living through selling wares in the virtual world, or streaming their Fortnite prowess. And a platform where people buy and sell is usually of interest to brands. 

In this sense, the metaverse provides many lucrative opportunities for brands. Ariana Grande performed live on Fortnite, using the power of her brand to sell virtual skins, while a virtual Gucci bag sold for $4000 on Roblox - more than the value of the real-life bag. 

With the pandemic accelerating the integration of the physical and virtual worlds, there is now a greater opportunity to commercialise virtual spaces. Atari provided the perfect example of this integration when they opened a virtual casino in Decentraland, an Ethereum-based virtual world where you can play, explore and interact with games and activities. The casino was a huge success and it is now hiring real people to staff the virtual casino to explain how it works to new players. So as brands question whether or not to jump in, it’s becoming harder to deny that virtual is becoming our reality, putting those who remain hesitant in the back of the race for winning the hearts of the consumer of the future. 

it’ll be the internet on steroids: in one sense, a far more creative and playful way to think and express individuality online. In another, it’ll deepen polarisation and provide new and unregulated space for unpleasant ideas to gain traction among a large - and likely young - audience

Michael Baggs, Strategy Director at The Social Element


The real ‘Wild West’ 

Whilst the metaverse provides these amazing opportunities for brands and individuals alike, they don’t come without a high level of risk. The internet, and particularly social media, has notoriously been viewed as the Wild West. The metaverse once more compounds and expands these issues. There is virtually zero regulation except for that enacted by the platform - putting us all at the mercy of their content policies. 

It is much quicker and easier to open a virtual shop and turn over a profit than to open a shop in the real world thanks to the lack of red tape - or regulation of any kind. Online, anyone can Venmo payments and trade within a game, but this can quickly lead to illegal activity taking place. Taxes can be more easily avoided, platforms and the currencies used are extremely volatile, and bad actors can use it for nefarious purposes. 

In the metaverse, illegal activities can occur online that are illegal in real life, like unmonitored gambling or uncensored pornography and there is no way for governments to intervene. For example, there’s a Minecraft library containing every banned book in the world, so if a book is banned in your country you can still access it. This could be a great resource for those in countries with unfriendly governments (albeit carrying risks of repercussions) - but it does show how little control anyone has over these spaces. 

So in terms of brand safety, a marketer may already be thinking “not for us, thank you”. But the risk of not getting involved is also big.  Users on Roblox built over 200 McDonald's restaurants in the game entirely autonomously. McDonald’s had no say or control in how the brand was presented. Roblox is a relatively safe space and so the implications for McDonalds were positive as the virtual restaurants acted as free promotion for the brand within the metaverse. But in virtual environments that aren’t so friendly, the risks to a brand’s reputation are countless if it doesn’t control its own identity.

Freedom from restraint 

However, with great risk comes great reward. There are multiple subcultures that make up the mass of gamers in the metaverse, providing lucrative ground for any brand looking for devotees. What’s more, these creative spaces are just that - creative. They free brands from the constraints of what is possible in the real world, meaning that brand activations could be truly spectacular - as long as the brand is prepared to do the work to ensure they extend the universe they're in, rather than stick out in it. 

Right now, there are hundreds of metaverse environments - it’s probable that in the coming years we’ll see a crash, with three or four platforms emerging victorious. But that’s no reason not to get involved. Though many people are hugely invested into the metaverse, for many it’s uncharted territory. This makes now the time to experiment with it and discover what works and what doesn’t. Brands should proceed with caution, but understand that most of the metaverse today is still an innovative, exciting and positive space with lots of opportunity. My advice: get in there and start swimming while it’s relatively clear water - and you may well be ahead of the game when other brands start to catch up. 

Guest Author

Michael Baggs

Strategy Director at The Social Element, The Social Element


"Michael Baggs is the Director of Strategy at The Social Element and a neuroscientist who studies human decision making to grow businesses. Sixteen years working in social media and digital marketing led to six years of study with Harvard and the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, specializing in the psychology of close relationships and behavioural economics. Prior to consumer neuroscience, Michael had three recording contracts and also worked song-writing for more successful and arguably better-looking artists."

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