The atmospheric music intensifies, drowning out the unmistakable sound of a storm raging outside. The camera crops dramatically into an expressionless face, the eyes hidden behind menacing black-lensed glasses. Unemotionally, Morpheus extends his two hands to Neo, languidly opening them to reveal a glistening red pill in his right palm and a matching blue pill in his left.

“You take the blue pill...the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill... you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Is this travel retail’s blue pill/red pill moment (inspired by sci-fi movie The Matrix)?

Most of you will instantly recognise the seminal moment from the classic sci-fi movie where The Matrix is revealed to Neo; something which, once seen, can never be unseen. Well, here comes your blue pill / red pill moment; take the blue pill and forget you ever heard the word Metaverse and go back to doing what you have done in travel retail for years. Or, take the red pill and wake up to the reality of a world you didn’t know you are already living in.

 

What is the metaverse?

Since the early 1980s, technologists have frequently speculated on the emergence of a “successor” to the internet, a brave new world that we currently know as the Metaverse.

Whilst its true extent, and indeed form, is difficult to comprehend, conceptual thinking is beginning to coincide with increasingly powerful technologies that will likely transform the way we interact in the coming decades. This is exemplified by Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement, laying out Facebook’s vision to unify communities, creators, and commerce through virtual reality: “Our overarching goal across all of these initiatives is to help bring the Metaverse to life.”

So what does the Metaverse look like? Kerry Murphy, founder and CEO at the digital fashion house The Fabricant offers the following definition: “The metaverse is just a digital layer of our lives. The metaverse will exist once everything that we do digitally is completely, seamlessly connected. So, if I buy a yellow T-shirt in Fortnite, I get to wear it on Instagram, I get to wear it on Facebook, I get to have an AR wearing experience, and they’re all completely interconnected. The metaverse is just an extension of our physical lives into the digital realm.”

The past few years have seen the emergence of such digital experiences, which have started generating these new kinds of social connections and virtual economies. The Moodie Davitt Report Virtual Expo is a prime example in the travel retail community, but gaming platforms like Roblox and Fortnite are leading the way, offering new ways for brands to engage with consumers, create global communities and build a new kind of virtual economy.

Whole new worlds are being created, and the attention of a new generation of customers is there for the taking.

Louis Vuitton’s first collaboration with League of Legends

Connecting with a new generation of customers

Digitally-native Gen Z and Millennials are at the front line of this revolution. A recent study from Squarespace and The Harris Poll found that more than 60% of them believe that how you present yourself online is more important than how you do in real life.

“There’s a lot of ways to show up on the internet—there will be a lot of different ways to show up in the metaverse,” says Ben Hughes, VP of creative at Squarespace. “As the metaverse continues to grow, it’s a place where you’re totally in control of how you present yourself, at a moment where how you present yourself through digital channels is becoming the most important thing”—not to mention a potentially lucrative one.

Forward thinking brands are already jumping at the opportunity, offering up digital versions of their products to satisfy Gen Z’s craving for self-expression. Iconic denim brand Levi’s experimented with a line of clothing on Snapchat. With a predominantly Gen Z audience on the platform, the partnership allowed the brand to connect with a new generation of Levi’s fans in an authentic and personalised way.

Levi’s avatar clothing line on Snapchat

As part of their Air Matte collection launch, NARS introduced a digital avatar in collaboration with Zepeto, an app specialised in the creation of avatars for the Metaverse. Playing on the need for self-expression and gamification, the concept allows NARS to engage in a personal way with their customers and leverage the power of communities.

NARS’ foray in the Metaverse through a collaboration with avatar creation app Zepeto

Whether these exciting new initiatives are partnerships with the virtual world, avatars or NFT experiments, it would be a mistake to think of them simply as digital billboards. The metaverse is quickly becoming the new ‘third space’, where global communities are created and nurtured through customer-centric experiences combining entertainment, personalisation and value.

The opportunity for brands is to genuinely immerse a new generation of customers into a boundless brand world and develop deeper personal, and meaningful, relationships with them.

 

Where people go, brands follow

Because the Metaverse brings a new dimension to the Internet, brands and businesses have no choice but to consider their current and future role within it and how it relates to their audience.

Whilst the first wave of consumer engagement in the metaverse has tended to consist of a route one approach, the translation of real-world products into virtual spaces, brands are beginning to recognise the potency of creating “virtual first” products and services.

The key to gaining a competitive advantage is surprisingly ‘old-school’. Creativity. In the Metaverse, the possibilities for creativity are endless. Why? Not only have marketing expectations not yet been set, but the laws of physics simply don’t apply. By thinking “virtual first,” we can start to see how these spaces become highly experimental, creative and valuable for brands. This represents an incredible opportunity for brands to reinvent themselves in a way they couldn’t achieve in the real world. In short, anything is possible.

Stella Artois’s metaverse horse racing sponsorship on ZED RUN

For example, a brand making energy drinks in the real world could manifest as a supplier of rocket packs in the metaverse or an airline brand could provide teleportals in the virtual world. This may seem fanciful, but consider the possibility that the next generation might well discover your brand in the virtual world before it even knows of its existence in the real world.

So ask yourself how you want to be perceived by this new generation of customer and then what brand values can be transferred back to the real world.

 

What does this mean for travel retail?

Travel retail is at a turning point. Driven largely by covid, the channel is going through its very own digital transformation and has the opportunity to redefine itself as a global consumer recruitment channel (see our previous piece on this subject: Omnichannel is Dead. Long live Omnichannel.

However, to successfully reach a new generation of customers, brands in travel retail need to rethink their outdated customer acquisition strategy. It’s no longer enough to add digital customer engagement and gamification to a brief. Brands need to think about a persistent ‘virtual world’ experience, an engagement of customers that transcends channels, creating long-lasting and authentic relationships during their entire life cycle.

If the realisation that 83% of global consumers believe the future of shopping is hybrid makes you feel woefully unprepared for our fast-approaching and inevitable future, maybe you should have chosen the blue pill. But you didn’t; you cannot ‘unsee’ the metaverse. It’s time for you to forget real-world limitations and embrace a future without limits.

If you’d like to speak to one of our experts about what the metaverse might mean for your brand, and learn more about how CircleSquare are the perfect agency partner to help guide you through this complex new world, simply chose the red pill and give us a call.

 

Read the original column on The Moodie Davitt Report here.


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