More and more firms are turning to the emergent metaverse as a way to reboot the customer relationship, incorporating greater elements of interactivity, personalization, and adventure in their interactions with customers. Put simply, the metaverse is essentially a collection of 3D virtual worlds in which users can interact, socialize, and trade digital products and services in a variety of different settings.
The metaverse can help put consumers in the driver’s seat in at least three major ways: 1) by creating new ways to discover and explore products, 2) by helping to fuse physical and virtual product experiences in more meaningful ways, and 3) by reestablishing connections between people and brands through AI-powered bots called “digital humans” that can interact with users in virtual environments.
Creating New Ways to Discover and Explore Products
A new car, a new home, a trip to an exotic location — many big-ticket purchasing decisions are hard to make in a static online environment, with limited opportunities for product exploration, testing, and advice. But many companies are already using the metaverse to change that.
For Celebrity Cruises, a cruise line based in Miami, Florida and part of the Royal Caribbean Group, the metaverse has offered a way to re-engage with prospective passengers following the devastating impact of the pandemic on the travel industry. It has launched Celebrity Beyond, the first virtual cruise ship in the metaverse. Potential passengers can take a 360-degree tour of the ocean liner before sailing, enjoy a stroll around the ship’s centerpiece Grand Plaza, or relax in the Rooftop Garden or Sunset Bar. Passengers can talk with AI-powered avatars of the ship’s captain and its designers, to learn more about the ship’s design and range of services. For land lubbers, Celebrity Beyond also provides virtual tours of many of its destinations, including Japan, the Caribbean, Alaska, and Europe.
Buying a new car is another big-ticket purchase that requires a lot of time for exploration and product testing by consumers. The Fiat Metaverse Store puts the customer in the driver’s seat of a virtual version of its new 500 La Prima by Bocelli model, with customers able to explore driving and infotainment features, personalize the car set up, and take it for a virtual test drive on La Pista 500, a test track coiling along the rooftop garden of the historic Lingotto building in Turin.
In other cases, brands are using the metaverse to help customers understand more about the provenance of their products or the processes and technologies behind them. Global automotive manufacturer Hyundai has established Hyundai Mobility Adventure, hosted on Roblox, to help younger consumers in particular learn more about advanced mobility solutions. Chipotle Mexican Grill, a global restaurant chain based in California, is using its Chipotle Burrito Builder on Roblox to give customers an interactive burrito-making experience. Customers can grill, season, and mix a virtual guajillo steak using the grill simulator, and earn credits for real food. They can teleport back to the chain’s opening in 1993, talk to the Chipotle head chef in a virtual kitchen, and try their hand at rolling a virtual burrito.
Fusing Physical and Virtual Product Experiences in More Meaningful Ways
Unlike traditional ecommerce, in which consumers largely ordered physical items online and consumed them offline, the metaverse offers much greater opportunities for the fusion of virtual and physical goods.
Consider Charli Cohen, a fast-rising London-based fashion influencer and fashion brand whose business model focuses on producing limited physical editions of clothing — sourced from sustainable textiles from Milan — alongside virtual counterparts that can be used in gaming, virtual reality and metaverse environments. Working with iconic gaming company Pokémon and Selfridge’s department store, Charli Cohen launched Electric City, where customers can browse and purchase Charli Cohen’s physical Pokémon-branded fashion items or shop for limited editions of digital wearables.
The bubbles effervescing inside a Coca-Cola bottle represent a symbol of popular culture the world over. On International Friendship Day in 2022, Coca Cola celebrated its second anniversary in the metaverse by organizing an airdrop of digital designs inspired by bubbles inside a coke bottle to its existing holders of digital collectibles. Coca Cola has used other digital drops to celebrate Pride Month and Halloween. In 2022 it launched its experimental Starlight range of physical soft drinks, alongside a digital marketing campaign in which consumers could access a metaverse-based concert by singer-songwriter Ava Max by scanning a code on the cans.
Digital twins — virtual replicas of people, objects, and places that are programmed to have the same physical properties as the real thing — will play a key role in this physical-virtual fusion. I interviewed Nathanael Lumbroso, the co-founder of Treedis, an Israel-based company that is using digital twins to connect the physical world to the metaverse in sectors such as retail, real estate, hospitality and travel, manufacturing, and even museums and galleries. During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, Treedis built a complete digital twin of The City of David and of the whole old city of Jerusalem, attracting over one million visitors per month to the immersive site. He told me: “With the digital twin, we can really start to tell the history of The City of David in an immersive way, using the sensation of historical music, interviews with archaeologists, and animated characters, all in six languages.”
Brands are also turning to the metaverse for more unified, realistic, and personalized interactions, through AI-powered customer agent avatars, also called “digital humans.” Hanwa Life, a major life insurance company in South Korea, has developed Hannah, a virtual financial planner targeting advice to millennials and Gen-Z customers. Aimedis, an e-health platform, has an AI-powered digital assistant called Ava, who can help patients, doctors, and other healthcare workers access advice and support services in the Avalon medical metaverse platform. Voicehumans has created Lia, a digital personal shopper that helps customers make entertainment and shopping decisions in shopping malls.
Challenges and Imperatives
While the metaverse potentially offers the greatest opportunity since the internet to re-imagine the consumer experience, many hurdles remain. Fundamentally, the metaverse changes the rules of the game around consumer experiences and CX strategies. The following imperatives can help companies as they launch their own metaverse initiatives:
Master the art of “the drop”
Consumer experiences in internet-based ecommerce were largely about the quality of search and online ad experiences. Social media was about the well-primed tweet or TikTok video. In the metaverse, consumer marketing and promotion will be about how to manage “the drop” — virtual collectibles such as art, designs, and memorabilia that are sporadically airdropped to customers’ digital wallets as a way of rewarding loyalty, promoting new launches, or simply reinforcing brand values. For example, for its “Keep It Real Meals” campaign, Burger King launched a series of digital collectibles that could be accessed via a QR code on burger boxes, fronted by celebrities such as Nelly and Huddy. Iconic fashion house Gucci organized a drop of digital fashion items to 5,000 of its most loyal followers living on the New Tokyo site on metaverse platform Discord. Celebrity Cruises has auctioned digital artwork created by Brazilian sculptor Rubem Robierb. The drop introduces many new elements for CX professionals to consider: choosing the right time and place, weaving in elements of surprise and wonder, creating NFTs which reinforce brand values and identity, and creating new partnerships — with celebrities, artists, digital characters, and others.
Play the game
Marketers have long used games and competitions to engage customers: a quiz printed on a box of cornflakes, or a golden ticket inside the wrapper of a chocolate bar. But in the metaverse, games and contests will be central to the consumer experience. In Gucci Vault, players can compete to earn vault boxes to open entry to raffles for digital money and collectibles. In Electric City, Charli Cohen customers can equip themselves with a digital wallet, look for hidden Pikachu characters, and go on treasure hunts where they can win physical merchandise and digital collectibles. In Louis Vuitton’s The Game, millions of players competed to find 200 digital candles (representing its 200th anniversary), to gain entry to a raffle to win one of ten digital postcards created by famous designers.
Follow the data trail
With the fusion of metaverse and physical environments comes the opportunity to gain new analytical insights into consumer behavior and experiences. As Treedis’s Lumbroso noted: “With metaverse-based applications, we can start to better understand consumer experiences, profiles, and behaviors. We can see their path through the store or showroom, where their gaze lingers, which angles they view products from, and so on. These all give important new insights to strategic planners and marketers in business.” Being able to parlay insights from the virtual to the physical world, and vice versa, will become key to understanding consumer behavior and experiences for marketers, product designers, store planners, and CX professionals of all kinds.
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New discoveries, new adventures, new consumer insights — the metaverse presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent the consumer experience across multiple industries. Marketers, business planners, and product developers of all kinds must seize the opportunity now.