(Bloomberg Opinion) — In recent months an accelerating hokey cokey of stellar brands have dipped at least one pixelated foot into the metaverse — the persistent, user-defined, digital simulation sold by Mark Zuckerberg as “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.”
For example: Nike acquired the digital studio RTFKT, which “uses the latest in game engines, NFT, blockchain authentication and augmented reality … to create one of a kind sneakers and digital artifacts”; Coca-Cola created a set of NFT collectibles to support Special Olympics International on International Friendship Day; Disney patented a “virtual-world simulator” to digitally augment its theme parks; Hyundai launched a “Mobility Adventure” where users can “experience Hyundai Motor’s mobility offerings in the form of avatars”; Warner Bros. partnered with Roblox to host an “immersive, virtual launch party” for its movie, “In the Heights”; and Gucci is busy “transcending the confines of time and space” with a range of meta-ventures, including “#SUPERGUCCI NFTs created by @superplastic.” Even Walmart is paving a trademark path to launch its own cryptocurrency, NFTs and “Verse to Store,” “Verse to Curb” and “Verse to Home” services.
Naturally, where there’s a buck to be blockchained, we find salivating celebs.
Snoop Dogg unveiled his Sandbox Snoopverse experience, complete with a collection of virtual cars and a digital replica of his “real-life mega mansion”; Paris Hilton launched “Paris World” inside Roblox to give her fans “all my inspirations of what I want in that world”; and the former First Lady Melania Trump kicked off her “NFT and blockchain technology venture” with Melania’s Vision — a “breathtaking watercolor” token that “embodies Mrs. Trump’s cobalt blue eyes, providing the collector with an amulet to inspire.” (Never mind that the source of funds for the winning bid in Mrs. Trump’s first NFT auction appears to have been the project’s creators.)
And, for the time being, the virtuoso of hype Kayne West is keeping his NFT powder dry:
And there’s clearly greater-fool gold in them there hills: In May 2021, a virtual, in-game Gucci Dionysus handbag re-sold for 350,000 Robux — the Roblox equivalent of $4,115, and $715 more than the bag costs in real life.
While crypto-bros are eagerly extrapolating this virtual gold rush into a Blockchain Candy Mountain of non-fungible profits for all, many brands are expanding in the opposite direction: from URL to IRL, from cyberspace to corporeality, from meta to meat.
At the other end of the spectrum are Direct-To-Consumer darlings like Casper, Warby Parker and Indochino that have realized the limitations of selling mattresses, spectacles and custom-suits via flat-affect websites, and rediscovered the timeless retail magic of patter, tactility and instant gratification.
This proliferation from clicks to bricks has had two curious neighborhood knock-ons. First, it has led to the emergence of DTC DMZs — see, for example, Manhattan’s SoHo — where brands like Allbirds, Glossier, Bonobos, The RealReal, Away and Madhappy cluster for passing trade and hipster approbation. And second, it has catalyzed a new breed of compartment stores — Naked, Neighborhood Goods, Wolf & Badger — where digitally-native indie brands encounter real-world consumers in the kind of immersive and engaging environments the metaverse is aching to emulate.
Take Showfields (“The most interesting store in the world”), which in its Manhattan, Miami and Los Angeles locations “brings together the most mission-driven, design-oriented, innovative, unconventional, and relevant brands, artists and communities from around the globe.” The net-net of which is to provide DTC blands with plug-and-play booths in Gen-Z spaces, while luring curious consumers with an endlessly evolving, selfie-inspiring narcissistic mirror of hauls.
What unites these seemingly opposing forces — metaverse virtuality and mercantile physicality — is the realization that, regardless of fads in fashion or tech, profit materializes when “point of sale” is coterminous with “point of engagement.”
In other words, brands must go where the action is.
Going where the action is takes many forms, and each location offers new brand opportunities, poses fresh technical challenges and throws up interesting consumer insights.
The lure of air travel for brands is the mindset of passengers, most of whom travel for pleasure or business. The former engenders a mood of footloose spendthriftiness, the latter a sense of cash-rich-time-poor, on-expenses revenge spending. (This kind of air-side liminality also explains why airport alcohol is such a thing.)
Over time, almost every aspect of the air travel experience has been branded — from the endless trek through the duty-free jungle to the co-branded luxury of the first-class lounge.
Take London’s Heathrow Airport, which boasts restaurants from:
Caffè Nero, Caviar House, Costa, Fortnum & Mason, Giraffe, Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal, Itsu, Kanishka, Leon, Pret A Manger, Shan Shui, Spuntino, Starbucks, Wagamama and Yo!
Boss, Bottega Venetta, Bulgari, Burberry, Cartier, Chanel, Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Hamleys, Harrods, Hermès, Jo Malone, Kate Spade, Kurt Geiger, Louis Vuitton, Mont Blanc, Orlebar Brown, Paul Smith, Prada, Rolex, Saint Laurent, Smythson, Superdry, Ted Baker, Tiffany & Co. and Watches of Switzerland
In 2019 (the last pre-Covid year) Heathrow’s total revenue was £2.98 billion — of which 61.5% came from aeronautical revenue and 13.6% from catering and retail concessions. Not too shabby for a glorified waiting room.
Naturally the brand experience continues unabated onboard, where airlines shill “exciting brands and exclusive products” from their own boutiques …
… and partner with drinks brands (Hawaiian Airlines × Maui Brewing Company), star chefs (British Airways × Tom Kerridge) and beauty products (Qatar × Diptyque) which are only too eager to deploy beachhead collaborations to engage affluent travelers with no practical means of escape. (Airlines also provide carefully calibrated class systems, for brands keen to target certain cash brackets.)
Back on the tarmac, the brandscape is no less crowded. For instance, the remarkable roster of Emirates sponsorships includes no fewer than six major football teams: AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Olympiacos FC, Olympique Lyonnais, Real Madrid C.F. , and S.L. Benfica.
Yet it is HSBC’s two-decade domination of airport schlepping that remains the most remarkable location-specific brand activation. In 2018, HSBC launched its latest campaign iteration (“Together We Thrive”), which covers 94 kilometers of airport walkways and 1,500 air bridges in 17 airports, across 10 countries, reaching 900 million passengers a year.
If air travel captures consumers for a few jangled hours, hotels promise days (and nights) of tranquil immersion. Traditionally, brands have hustled their way into hotel shops or paid to place their products in curious corridor window-displays. Now, every facet of the hotel experience is up for grabs — from mini-bar snacks (Moon Juice × Equinox Hotel) to bed linen (Wayfair × Hilton) and hi-fi (Ruark Audio × Savoy).
The most common hotel collaborations involve bathroom amenities, though some brands are more dedicated than other. Molton Brown, for instance, offers a range of specific hotel products (including the “Turndown Collection”) as well as a selection of “bespoke hotel services” (meet the “Bathing Butler”).
For brands offering complex services or expensive products, hotels enable consumers to test-run without pressure or obligation. For instance, W Hotels recently announced a collaboration with the clothing-hire service Rent The Runway, and Peloton has a dedicated “hotel finder” website to track which properties offer its machines. (According to the company’s S-1, as of June 30, 2019, there were 1,298 Peloton bikes in 696 hotels and resorts.) Moreover, the domestic popularity of luxury coffee pods — most obviously Nespresso — likely owes at least something to their strategic ubiquity in hotel rooms.
“At IKEA Hotell, you are not offered any small interior details. Here, the entire hotel is permeated by IKEA.”
The natural extension of “branded hotels” is “branded residences,” where consumers can live inside the brand values, mission statements and fabric swatches of their favorite CEOs.
While such ostentation is performatively expensive (Mayfair Park Residences cost between £4,250,000 and £24,500,000), the concept of branded residences is trickling down to the masses, like the cerulean blue sweater in “The Devil Wears Prada”:
In 2017, Airbnb announced the launch of five branded apartment complexes in partnership with the U.S. real-estate company Newgard Development Group. Last year Ikea launched 500 flats at the company’s first “mixed-use retail and residential development” in Changsha, China. And the British retailer John Lewis is building 10,000 homes on spare space from its property portfolio, including underused parking lots.
Last December the restaurateur and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio announced: “@CHFTYPizzas, a collection of 8,888 of the most delicious NFTs baking on the Ethereum Blockchain.”
Whether the sensory pleasures of mealtime can ever mix with the cyber profits of the metaverse remains to be seen (can fungi be non-fungible?). Indeed, a glance at the CHFTYPizzas website suggests little about what these NFTs will actually deliver, though the intent is clearly to strap into a culinary meta-rocket headed, like all such ventures, to the moon.
In some ways dating apps can be seen as mini metaverse pioneers: Real-life users create a virtual presence on cloud platforms hoping to connect in a blended reality. Given that, it makes sense for Bumble to construct a physical presence not just as a “safe space for healthy and equitable relationships and connections” but as a marker of real-world permanence. After all, it’s nowadays considered a milestone of commitment to delete the app that hooked you up.
Perhaps the strangest brand extension into F&B is Intersect by Lexus:
In Tokyo, Dubai and (until this January) Manhattan, Intersect by Lexus offers curated lounge, café, restaurant, exhibition and retail immersions, all tied to the design details and brand values of Toyota’s luxury marque. At once charming and chilling, the effect is rather like paying to be an extra in a Lexus ad.
The most notable encroachments are coming from Big Tech’s in-car assistants — Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Echo Auto — which are competing to overlay their operating systems onto the driving experience, while hoovering up yet more user data. But branding’s real automotive opportunity will arrive when (and if) self-driving cars become a mainstream reality, and the driver/passenger experience morphs into a “third space” cocoon of location-specific content, connectivity and consumption.
Glimpses of how this future might look emerge each year at CES. Among other announcements this January: Sony launched its prototype Vision-S 02 SUV that can connect remotely to a PlayStation; Amazon announced a collaboration with Stellantis to bring “customer-centric connected experiences” to brands like Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge Fiat, and Peugeot:
And LG trailed the Vision Omnipod vehicle with its “futuristic cabin” equipped with a virtual AI assistant (called Reah), modular in-vehicle appliances (say, a wine cooler) and a metaverse ready “meta environment screen.”
The boldest innovation was BMW’s iX Flow concept SUV, which features “electrophoretic” e-ink technology that allows the car’s bodywork color to be modified. At present the color scheme is monochrome, but full-spectrum options are in the works. What is to stop autonomous cars becoming mobile and morphable billboards — with exteriors as accessible to brands as their interiors?
Surrounding such infrastructural brand engagement is a blur of interstitial opportunities.
In the physical world, this blur is embodied by the inescapable crop of brand pop-ups and local activations, which range from opportunistic takeovers of empty stores (by established brands and indie startups) to bold attempts to “own” specific moments (Campari’s Aperol-ification of the “golden hour,” for example, which has proved much more successful than “Pimm’s o’clock”).
Together, these off- and online trends merge to a bizarre climax in a range of hyperreal and hyperactive experiential spaces operating as branded canvasses for social media self-aggrandizement.
The Museum of Ice Cream, for example, is “designed to inspire human connection and energize the senses to reimagine the way we experience and love ice cream,” which it achieves via pastel-hued “inclusive environments” in New York City, Austin, Texas, and Singapore.
Notwithstanding their self-evident superfluity, these Wonka-esque, FoMo fun houses are thus far the closest real-world incarnation of the brand immersion promised by the metaverse. Of course, judging from some early online experiences, to hope the metaverse will prove inclusive, liberal, pacific or pastel seems somewhat optimistic.
Omnivorous Omnichannel Omnipresence
For all its current hype and hyperventilation, the boldface metaverse brandgrab is simply the latest iteration of the shopkeeper’s timeless shibboleth: Eyeline is buy line.
As malls fade, main streets shutter and generations of digitally native nomads come of affluence, to be “available wherever books are sold” is no longer sufficient — you need to be “wherever books are read” or, even better, “wherever readers are.” If this proves to be the metaverse, so be it. And so much the better. After all, the markups on digital diffusion lines are fatter even than perfume, and there are no returns — at least, not yet.
The consequence for consumers may be less thrilling. If branding seems intrusive in today’s airports, hotels, restaurants and cars, just wait until it pervades every click and pixel of your online presence under the guise of gamified immersion.
Omnivorous omnichannel omnipresence may be the golden ticket for companies and celebs but, for the rest of us, a brand-saturated metaverse looks like corporate ball-pits all the way down.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion’s advertising and brands columnist. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world.