First-principles for branding in Metaverse.

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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 as flying cars did. It came into our lives with stealth, as a benign utility. 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, and 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 or 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-travelers in the sensorium called metaverse. These extended abilities and freedoms to navigate and co-operate/compete can be revolutionary.
The difference is in presence, shared experiences, and true interactivity.
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 (potentially) look to the left and the right, and 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, and 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. 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 and 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 decentralized 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 disadvantages or to gain an asymmetric advantage. (Think of guns, north African saddle, or the internet)
In a sense, technology and productivity set the direction of societies. Political/Economic Powers are mean-reverting forces that define how those technologies get used.
Soon enough after introduction, the powerful elite grabs hold of that technology and monopolize it. (or David wins over Goliath and monopolizes that technology. Either way, technology gets consolidated in the hands of the powerful.)
Internet too was born of a dream for an open, decentralized 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.
It is a dystopia waiting to happen far beyond our comprehension today. Unless we do something about it.
There’s no other way to fund it as of now. Unless UN or some crazy rich billionaire with as much sense as money steps in and builds the infrastructure for free for all. Otherwise, there’s no way that Metaverse wouldn’t be a power tool in the hands of nation states or big corporates.

If history is any indication, ‘Metaverse’ would be a network of walled gardens with varying degrees of utility, access, complexity.

2. For interoperability and openness, people need to consider the 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 the future in a monopoly/ duopoly. 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 immature. There’s a 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 into 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 and who is a prey, only those 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, and even for shared fiction like Santa Claus 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, the metaverse, and internet are weapons far more powerful than any that existed before.
    To protect themselves, people would likely scrub themselves clean of traces of internet or metaverse. In a trustless world, open spaces are bound to be rendered desolate.
    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 your thoughts and feelings… the dystopias are endless.

    Our Metaverse and NFT dreams can become realities only if we first ensure safety and trust. Brands have a big role to play in making it a safe space. More on this later.

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 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 to 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, and 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.

Where there’s human connection, human emotion, and social interaction, there’s a brand. In the brave new world of the metaverse, the difference between a good brand and a 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.
Look at the numbers. The last known figure for number of users of web 3.0 virtual worlds was at 50,000. So maybe, it doesn’t make sense for an FMCG player to prioritise branding in Metaverse now. But it might be worthwhile to gaming companies, technology companies, geek culture content companies, certain fashion companies… for whom it makes sense to build affinity among trend setter/ early adopters.

2. Build a dynamic cultural symbol that people can adopt and run with.

The unchanging: Brands at their most elemental, are symbols. A brand that does not have a memorable, identifiable symbol is a dead brand. Successful brands become cultural symbols through which people signal their identity or association. Brands become prisms through which people see the world and themselves.
What’s changing: In today’s world where consumers are simultaneously culture creators, consumers and replicators, it is critical to build symbols that can be used, remixed, and built upon by the consumer.
Human society has become a rapid meme copying machine. The fire of ideas, runs through culture at break neck speed. And the avalanche of these ideas is ever expanding. People prefer each other’s content/ideas over brand’s/ any authority’s.

So it is more essential than ever to have brand ideas/ expression that people can make their own. This will become even more important with emerging tech that allows for expressions in walled spaces, in inside-languages, in forms and ways that evolve faster than the approval process of a marketing department.

It is critical to understand this shift. 20th century was opening up. People had shared mass market culture. Brands as monoliths with a few iconic campaigns worked wonders.

21st century is closing in. emerging tech will fragment society in many permutations of overlapping communities.

To enter these communities will become difficult with 20th century ideas of iconicity. It needs 21st century idea of being a culture machine – helping create symbols that people would love to communicate through, take with them in their walled in communities.

3. Be in a trustworthy relationship with consumers.

The unchanging: 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.

The changing: 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 the metaverse exposes 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, 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 tsunamis, pandemics, etc. Social networks can be more responsible. They can do so much more…. it makes my head spin thinking of all the things they should do but don’t.

5. Experiment.

The unchanging: Humans are wired to notice the difference. The unchanging recedes from our conscience. Which is why, novelty, newness always works.
This is to say, brands would always operate at the edge of what we know/ feel. For a brand to get noticed, it has to push human conscience outwards, towards the new, the novel, the changing.

The changing:

The world today is more complex than ever before. The complexity is compounded by the fact that technological changes are only accelerating. That is a fundamental shift to affect human civilisation. Climate change, increasing inequality, post-truth phenomenon… these are all grave fallouts of this shift. Brands operate within this societal context and need to adapt to remain relevant.

A brand’s choice to use emerging technologies need to be informed by this context. There’s a role for metaverse to unite people in an increasingly unequal and divided world. There’s a role for blockchain to bring trust in an increasingly trustless world.

To be able to adapt to these emerging threats/ opportunities, brands must build the habit of experimenting, adapting to new tech.

6. Metaverse as a safe space.

Some parts of the metaverse answer a deep desire to belong, to freely be, to freely experiment. People don avatars to escape the biases, compulsions, and 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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