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Reaching people behind the avatar

The Gaming Jury President explains how brands can connect with people as they become different versions of themselves in the metaverse

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Tiffany Rolfe is the Global Chief Creative Officer of R/GA where she leads a team of over 200 cross-disciplinary designers, thinkers and makers who create work at the intersection of storytelling and technology. R/GA’s clients include Nike, Verizon, Samsung, Airbnb, Slack, ESPN, and Instagram. Rolfe is a pro at delivering transformational campaigns that have a cultural impact. Here, as told to D&AD, the Gaming Jury President explains how brands must adapt their identities and behaviours to connect with the new, adaptive identities of their customers.

I was talking to a few colleagues about identity in the metaverse the other day, (I work at R/GA after all) and we were debating the merits of multiple avatars versus a single avatar once the metaverse is here in full force. In centralised Web2, we’re able to sign in across different platforms with our Google or Facebook identity, but in Web3, will we traverse different gaming worlds freely with many identities or just one? One co-worker said she wished for a centralised platform in the metaverse, where consumers can have just one identity, another wanted a multi-faceted avatar that can traverse all platforms, while the third said she hoped for multiple, escapist renditions of herself.

The chat led me to think about brands aiming to reach consumers. Do you apply the same principles of audience targeting and marketing? It’s all still speculative and we’re learning more everyday, but I’d say in most cases, you can’t. You can’t use the same rules from our old marketing playbooks to connect with customers in these virtual worlds. Agencies and brands need to be much more flexible and adaptive in our approach. We need to live and play in these immersive universes to understand them. We need to bring value to these communities. We need to move away from ‘targeting’ and think more about ‘attracting’.

“You can’t use the same rules from the old school marketing playbook to connect with customers in gaming worlds”

To do this, brands will have to move away from a rigid image of themselves and find different ways to express their proposition across platforms; adapting and morphing into different versions of themselves with the same ease that’s being shown by their shape-shifting consumers. I think of it as planting the seeds of a story rather than pushing a fixed brand narrative. You’re still a brand with a point of view, but it’s a story that can be shaped based on the community you’re engaging with, and in the context of that particular platform. I think the tricky part for brands will be to still hold on to their core values, while giving up some control to their audience to build their brand with them.

It’s interesting that a lot of the brands that are adopting the metaverse and gaming worlds early are high fashion brands, which are intrinsically linked to signposting taste and expression, and finding new types of value. The Gucci Garden in gaming platform Roblox allows people to dress their avatars in virtual Gucci and play in themed rooms for example, while Louis Vuitton released a mobile game called Louis the Game, which had users retrace the brand’s story over two centuries to try and find one of 30 NFTs.

At R/GA, we’ve recently launched a D2A (direct-to-avatar) practice out of our London office because we believe the value of products for your virtual self are going to continue to increase. Even now, some digital products are going for more than their physical counterparts like a virtual Gucci purse that sold on Roblox for more on than the original physical version.

“I think of it as planting the seeds of a story rather than pushing a fixed brand narrative”

Now is the time for brands to start strategising their marketing programs within these platforms, and this is something that many of our clients are curious and anxious about. They want to understand the right approach — where should they build? What should they create? How much should they invest?  We’ve been giving our clients the same advice we’ve been giving our team: you have to start playing and experimenting to really understand and know the space, and you have to understand the behaviours of the platforms. You can’t show up holding a sandwich board with your logo on it, it's not going to work.

All this being said, I know there's tension around the space, and people are still unsure of where things are going. I'm a parent and I think about what this new world, where reality is mixing with virtual universes, means for my kids, how they interact, and how it will shape them as people. And so, while I'm a tech optimist, I'm also realistic about the challenges. But my belief –and how I think brands should think about it is – we have the opportunity, as agencies and as brands, to help build experiences in the way we want them to be. We could wait and see what happens, but then we’re waiting for someone else to build our future. And if we want these new worlds to be great places, where people can thrive, then it's up to us to help build them.

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