First-principles for branding in Metaverse.

Metaverse seeps in.

It’s 2022 and we still do not have flying cars. But we do have UPI.

We have been obsessed with flying cars. We made movies featuring it. Some of the smartest humans have been hard at work to make this dream a reality. Yet, many entrepreneurs tried and failed to market a truly ubiquitous flying car.

UPI didn’t inspire passions like flying cars did. It came into our lives with stealth, as a benign utility to earn a few freebies and offers. And now it sits almost at the center of our economic lives.

What does this tell us?

We tend to imagine visually and hence prioritize visual futures. Flying cars is simply far more fascinating than instantaneous digital payments. Both technologies can dramatically change the contours of our lives, but one demands more attention, while the other slips into our daily lives and becomes an ‘obvious’ part of our lives.

Metaverse as a concept is broad enough to fall in both these buckets. It is intrinsically a visual interface, that expands the eye’s, ears, and brain’s capability to see, feel, believe, and do what we could not see, feel, believe, or do before. Things like gaming, virtual worlds, NFTs fall in this bucket.
But it ALSO can be a productivity tool, automation tool, transaction interface, business planning tool, or an educational playground. And we have been dipping our toes in this second kind of metaverse already.

Since the pandemic, we have been attending school through zoom, meetings through Teams, attending concerts on Fortnite, and so on. These experiences are precisely the kind that inculcates in us the behaviours and the desires that would accelerate the seepage of virtuality in our everyday life.

Metaverse: the next level sensorium

Metaverse is confusing. Even for those who are building it. And that’s ok. The confusion suggests a fertile ground of possibilities. The way I see it, Metaverse has become a catch-all word that essentially suggests a step-up in human mediated-ness. And by mediated-ness, I mean the ability of technology to extend our senses. For instance, TV extended our ears and eyes to voyeuristically peek into 2D scenes from across the world. In TV, we didn’t have the choice to change the perspective, the narrative. With the internet, we had the freedom to take our senses where we want, but it was still largely 2D, often individual journeys through multiple media formats that had different levels of engagement. The result is a disjointed, individual experience of a great variety of things. With metaverse, we possibly will have the freedom to extend our senses across the world, across imagined worlds, while navigating these worlds in their full 3D glory, and among other co-travellers in the sensorium called metaverse. These extended abilities and freedoms to navigate and co-operate/compete can be revolutionary.
The difference is in presence, in shared experiences and in true inter-activity.
For instance, in magazines, you could read about someone else’s experience of visiting a beautiful beach in Goa in the past. With TV you could only see a pre-recorded or live video of the beach whose narration and perspective are decided by someone else. Today through the internet, you can see your friend’s pictures or Livestream from a beach in Goa. You can share a Wikipedia article or google map location of that beach too. In Metaverse, you could virtually join her on the beach. You could freely look to the left and the right, hear the waves lapping at your imaginary feet if she allows it. You still won’t feel the sand or the water’s wetness. But you will at least be able to direct your actions, experiences in sync with hers. Maybe go explore a cave nearby together or count the number of ships visible on the horizon.  You can share that moment a little more meaningfully than is possible now.

If legacy media are simulated realities then metaverse is hyper-reality. A reality that we ‘feel’ even more strongly.
Reality, as we experience it, is a function of our senses. The virtual world is hacking it with dopamine hits of notifications, likes, and the possibility of instant fame. By possibly having a continuous presence ‘there’, metaverse will be hyper-real on steroids. It will open new dimensions of identity, socialization, intimacy, belonging, of engagement.
It’s a brave new world that can go horribly wrong or awesomely right. It magnifies the rewards of the hyper-connected sensorium, as well as its risks.
It poses interesting questions about individuality in hive-like connected structures of sensorium where people memetically copy each other ad-infinitum.

It poses interesting questions about power and money (or broadly exchanges), and we will explore some of those questions when we try to separate hype from reality.

and so on…
But we are years away from truly experiencing or even witnessing it. We are at an early stage of this journey where hype often eclipses reality.

Separating Hype from Real possibilities

For people imagining it as a decentralised unified utopia, nothing can be further from the truth. Here are some first principles for that too –

  1. The powerful always have more means to take advantage of new technology.
    Many technologies are born of a need to overcome asymmetric disadvantage or to gain asymmetric advantage. (Think of guns, north african saddle, or internet)
    In a sense, technology and productivity set the direction of societies and powers are mean-reverting forces that define how those technologies get used.
    But soon enough the powerful elite grab hold of that technology and monopolise it. (or the David wins over Goliath and monopolises that technology. Either ways, technology gets consolidated in the hands of the powerful.)
    Internet too was born of a dream for an open, decentralised world free from crass-commerce. But it has devolved into walled gardens fuelled with surveillance.
    Metaverse, will have surveillance on steroids with information about how you feel turning into currency and people would be imprisoned with ‘brand presence’.
    Its a dystopia waiting to happen far beyond our comprehensions today
    . Unless we do something about it.
    There’s no other way to fund it as of now. Unless UN or Elon Musk or some other crazy rich billionaire with more sense than money steps in and builds the infrastructure for free for all. Otherwise, there’s no way that Metaverse wouldn’t be a powertool in the hands of nation states or big corporates.
  2. For interoperability, openness, people need to consider internet and metaverse as a public good, as fundamental infrastructure.
    A lot is riding on the hope that there will be a single metaverse where people can carry the virtual sneaker they buy on fortnite and wear it on.. sims or tiktok.
    For that to happen, incumbent leaders will have to cede their leverage, their advantage. There are only two reasons when that is about to happen –
    a. when a government mandates it. For instance in India when RBI mandated free UPI transactions, players had to follow.
    b. when the players are certain of their leadership in future in a monopoly/ duopoly etc. in our hyper capitalist society, most categories consolidate until there are only a handful of players left. maybe once that happens, they can form a cartel to drive growth from increased usage once they dominate reach.
    There is no other situation where players will give up their advantage for a free, open, interoperable, metaverse.
    So when I read metaverse primers or ‘rules of metaverse’, it feels pretty assinine / immature. there’s lot of wishful thinking and second-rate science fiction being sold as visionary thinking. Much of it is harmful, because people are putting their real money in pump and dump schemes that use this vision/ this pitch.
  3. Safety of Dark Forest.
    In a deep jungle where you don’t know who is a predator, who is a prey, only the ones survive who assume the other to be a predator. they are guarding against risks, not walking on hope.
    The only antidote to this depressing possibility is a world run on trust.
    But, globally, we see trust eroding among people, among countries, among communities, even for shared fiction like santa clause or the concept of sovereign money.
    When trust goes out, the world becomes a dangerous place. it becomes a dark forest.
    In such a world, metaverse, internet are weapons far more powerful than any that existed before.
    To protect oneself then, one must scrub oneself clean of traces of internet or metaverse.
    Metaverse will likely then become a dark forest where predators lurk for naive folks who give away their vulnerabilities in the form of data, for free. With NFT and even digital banking, it is already happening. Imagine that being turbocharged with the ability to impersonate you perfectly, alter your facts, incept in you thoughts and feelings… the dystopias are endless.
    ah well, must eplore this later.

coming back to the topic at hand…

What changes, what does not: Dematerialized lives and unchanging humanity.

If an experience is not shared on Insta or Snap or Moj or Tiktok or…, did it really happen?
Never in the history of humanity have we spent as much time taking pictures as we do now. Yet, few of these pictures find themselves turned into physical pictures. Remember the love and care with which our parents and grandparents cherished old pictures. Seeing the photo album was a cherished ritual, repeated yearly. Now, the same pictures, digitized get forwarded on the family’s WhatsApp group. Within a few years, the physical album became redundant. No one misses it.
Similarly, receipts, tickets, newspapers, and even commutes have evaporated from daily lives for quite a few among us. Virtuality is leading to the dematerialization of many facets of our lives. Babies now try to swipe pictures from book covers as they would on a cell phone.

The material might be replaced with the virtual, but the experience remains. Photo frames may go, but memories don’t. hangouts may turn virtual, but social bonds remain.

As our memories, bonds, attention converges in virtual worlds, like bees to honey, brands too will start floating around you in virtual worlds to suck on that sweet sweet marrow of your attention. Bees aren’t worried if the honey feels annoyed or its personal space is being violated. Would brands be any different?

Where there’s human connection, human emotion, social interaction, there’s a brand. (fortunately or unfortunately) In the brave new world of metaverse, the difference between a good brand and bad brand would be about knowing and respecting people’s wishes and people’s space and time.

First-principles for brands to navigate emerging tech.

Our brain has been millions of years in the making. It is not about to change in the next few years. Once we appreciate this fact, it can serve us well to focus on this unchanging aspect of humanity as we try to navigate the changing tech landscape.

1. Be where the attention of your consumers is converging.

If you are a brand that caters to consumers who are dipping their toes in the metaverse, so should you.
It pays to be at least in the peripheral vision of your consumer, if not in focus. That’s what builds awareness.
Worst case, be the buzzing fly if you have to, but not the wolf in the story of the Little Red Riding Hood.
Best case, be the inspiring voice, idea that helps people make sense of their lives. As people migrate to virtual worlds, so will their concerns, their abilities, their freedoms. Converge attention by giving voice to the marginalized, by enabling new capabilities online. EARN the attention by doing good. Don’t be roadkill to get attention.

2. Build a cultural symbol.

Brands at their most elemental, are symbols. A brand that does not have a memorable, identifiable symbol is a dead brand walking. Successful brands become cultural symbols through which people signal their identity or association. Brands become prisms through which people see the world and themselves.
In today’s world where consumers are culture creators and replicators, it is critical to build symbols that can be used, remixed, built upon by the consumer.
Metaverse will create new avenues for the symbols, new tools for new kinds of content. The simple idea here is to be ready to use these new tools, new avenues to help consumers consume/ use/ remix brand’s symbols.
As long you are not enabling conspiracy theorists, pornography, criminals while doing so, you are fine. Organisations like ‘check my ads institute’ can help you navigate this tricky situation. More on this later.

3. Be in a trustworthy relationship with consumers.

A brand is not just a trademark. A successful brand often is an answer to a deep yearning, an innate desire, or an inescapable hunger. A brand is an emotional promise, it is an intimate association.
If an individual is sharing such intimacy with a brand, it is incumbent on the brand to respect that confidence. We live in an increasingly lonely world. For many, sadly, a brand becomes a proxy for a relationship. So I hope you understand how important and high-stakes responsibility it is at the level of the individual for a brand. You wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who listens to all you have to say and then uses it against you or gives that information to someone else for profit.
As metaverse bares open the individual to the rapaciously hungry predators of the world, it becomes important for brands to protect their consumers from the trail of data that the relationship generates.

The borders between the intimate and the not-so-intimate, the personal and impersonal are receding as are borders between the real and virtual.
As we navigate this brave new world, we will have to negotiate new terms of social engagement – of privacy, of propriety, of power. There’s no wringing our hands off these debates. Have a point of view on emerging issues that affect your consumers’ lives. Ensure safe experiences for your consumers.

4. Be of use.

If the tech can help you provide a superior customer experience, do it. For instance, fashion brands use AR filters to simulate the wearing of particular designs. Cab aggregators can use their platforms to assist in times of calamities like tsunami, pandemic etc. Social networks can be more responsible. They can do sooooo much…. it makes my head spin thinking of all the things they should do but don’t.

5. Experiment.

A brand that experiments with new ideas conveys to the world, that it is intellectually curious. Digital technologies offer opportunities to scale up good ideas very quickly and very profitably. Use technology to empower consumers and harvest good ideas, goodwill in a way that is mutually beneficial. Share, don’t just reap wealth/love/ideas.  

6. Metaverse as a safe space.

Some parts of metaverse answer a deep desire to belong, to freely be, to freely experiment. People don avatars to escape the biases, compulsions, persecution they may be facing in the real world. There is a strong role for brands to play here. As space for liberalism & democracy shrinks in the real world, brands can help marginalized groups find a voice. Metaverse can be the safe space, a safe springboard for marginalized people to launch their hope and dreams in real lives.
Be that voice, be that muscle for the weak.

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