Virtual worlds as branding engines

I was talking to a smart marketing guy in San Jose and we were talking about how to craft brands in the Cluetrain era, now that we can’t shout at the consumer until they "get it."

Most of the properties being created in the social media space are haunted by a problem.  They are designed to be companionable and interesting.  They are intended to be something the consumer will like well enough to repurpose for their own purposes.

When this, being companionable and being useful, is the condition of entry, we know that we can not honk the brand horn loudly.  Indeed it’s not even clear we can mention it in anything more than a whisper.  Anything more forthcoming makes us conspicuous and the marketing property disagreeable and distinctly not the kind of thing the consumer wishes to distribute through their own networks, under their own names, as it were.

The solution I personally love is putting virtual worlds on line.  I love the idea of building a world that people can discover and examine and perhaps inhabit.  It should be beautiful, filled not with puzzles or violence, but with subtle little clues that allows the visitor to glimpse and then by dint of their own imaginations complete.  

The Sophie project I did at the Coca-Cola company was designed to work this way.  We created the home of a creature who was half goddess, half teenage girl.  The visitor wouldn’t actually ever meet Sophie.  But there was lots of evidence with which to understand who she was and how she acted in and on the world.  Someone stormed in and turned the thing into a TV show, or tried to, and that was the end of that.

But Sophie lives on.  These worlds are rich, participative, cocreative, mansions within mansions.  In a world this rich and this generous, the brand can make the occasion appearance, garner recognition, extract, dare I use this word, marketing value, and then make itself scarce.  When there is something much going on, when the world in question is so fabulously endowed with imaginative resources, the brand couldn’t "barge in" if it wanted to.  

I would love to hear from readers about virtual worlds that might quality.  I haven’t ever seen a Second Life that seemed to fit the bill.  I loved the atmospherics of Blade Runner and the beauty of Myst.  I like the endless nooks and crannies of GTA.  But none of these ends up a world that feels endless interesting and explorable.  But then I don’t get out much.  Please if you know good cases in point, sing out.  

6 thoughts on “Virtual worlds as branding engines”

  1. Fantastic post, Grant, I have a particular affinity for this notion:

    “When there is something much going on, when the world in question is so fabulously endowed with imaginative resources, the brand couldn’t “barge in” if it wanted to.”

    Having been part of a team responsible for the development of a virtual world (albeit one created in support of a brand), I have a bit of context for the scale of an undertaking of this magnitude, and can scarcely imagine that a world of this sort exists, or could reasonably be extrapolated from an existing property.

    That said, the creation of these worlds is frequently a rabbit hole down which creative technologists can dive, leaving imprints that form the very nooks and crannies to which you refer. The problem is not one of a lack of desire to create the experience, but rather a lack of will to fund the development of a world in which brands are fleeting, ephemeral interlopers.

    I smell a kickstarter.

  2. I think brand engagement in gaming and MMORPG virtual worlds is tragically lacking. While you could create a virtual world out of whole cloth, I think existing virtual worlds (with their own internal cultures) are a far more intriguing arena for brand expression.

    Grand Theft Auto is known for the way it mimics the brand-infused reality of living in a large city to the point of absurd parody. A great example is Burger Shot, which not only has playable in-game locations but also billboards, radio spots and TV ads. A lot of brands these days are embracing an over-the-top, self-parody strategy – Burger King, Old Spice, Dos Equis, etc. Would GTA be a great fit for these kinds of brands, or would real-life brand participation ruin the fun even if it’s self-deprecating?

    I think a lot depends on the context of the virtual worlds because they have their own internal logic and structure. By introducing a brand – which also has its own internal logic and structure – into a virtual world, the brand takes on the context of the world. Many games these days have endless downloadable add-ons and expansion packs that add content and augment their virtual worlds. Maybe that’s the appropriate vehicle for branded content?

    The Mr T Night Elf Mohawk in World of Warcraft is a great, although somewhat shallow, example of this. Branded personalities are no doubt easier to inject into a virtual world, but should it be that hard for other types brands? Instead of a character, maybe their form takes the shape of a level, object, attribute or location within the game.

    For example, in Fallout 3, a big part of the game is collecting Nuka-Cola bottles (obviously modeled after Coca-Cola) and you can even visit the Nuka-Cola plant and engage in a few related quests. This is an obvious opportunity for Coca-Cola to develop new quests & in-game items, maybe even produce a limited real-life version of Nuka Cola – things that enhance both the virtual world and the brand.

    There are so many possibilities for this kind of engagement but it requires an incredibly deep understanding of the virtual world so that the brand doesn’t seem like it’s “barging in”. In the end, I think that is what’s keeping companies out of virtual worlds…at least for now.

  3. I think the world 42 Entertainment created as part of the ‘Why so Serious?’ campaign is one of the best examples of brands being woven into the heart of a story.

    “Why So Serious?” was the ARG campaign for The Dark Knight movie launch. Given the mass-market appeal of the product, the fact that they went so experimental was refreshing. CEO Susan Bonds stressed that she wanted a loose structure in which only “the spine” was defined, and relied on the following guiding principles:

    1. A distributive narrative in which the message was deliberately fragmented and influenced by the medium in which it was expressed
    2. Digital archaeology: Innovative steps were taken to create the impression that the story actually happened, that it was many layers deep.
    3. Fans as partners in the fiction, with the ability to influence where the story went
    4. Brands organically baked into the story, serving to enhance the plot line rather than interrupt it.

    The numbers are solid: The ARG had 200,000 heavily involved players, another 650,000 who played a significant part, and more than 10 million participants by the end of the campaign. 42 Entertainment estimates the ‘buzz multiplier’ to be between 10 and 20, meaning that the number of people aware of the movie through the campaign was between 100-200 million. To be a part of that would have been something.

    Links: http://www.whysoserious.com/

    Cheers,
    Hiten

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