There's roughly a 1% chance you haven't heard someone in our industry talk about the 'metaverse' at some point in the last month. This next iteration of the internet is on everyone's lips.
Although talked about as a "one stop destination", it's currently a convergence of technologies and trends: the growth of online social multiplayer games, development of VR and AR, advances in 5G and AI, enhanced creation accessibility and more.
As demonstrated by the rise of AI and gimmicky chatbots, when new technologies emerge, brands often jump in prematurely – a pattern captured perfectly by Gartner's hype cycle.
Brands' race to be "first" can mean merely "being there" is prioritised over providing value (we're currently seeing this play out with NFTs).
But audiences are averse to this. They will sniff out inauthentic and valueless work from a mile off. And if brands approach the metaverse this way, they'll jeopardise their credibility.
However, the brands that build useful digital experiences tied to culture, identity and expression will have a distinct advantage.
Constraints of the physical world
As the physical world was paused during the pandemic, we saw many shifts and restructures. Industries had to reinvent to stay alive, crypto gave us new ways to build wealth, Zooms and QR codes underwent a renaissance, and global populations tuned into virtual worlds for connection and entertainment. These shifts accelerated a new age of creative democracy.
In the physical world we have preconceived structures that allow us to express ourselves and build cultural currency (such as fashion, make-up, and cars).
But this comes with limitations. We can express only through established structures, and only if we have the means – money, resources, infrastructure, staff and the like. So power often lies with the corporations that create the products.
Rule of the metaverse
In the metaverse, however, the parameters of creativity have changed. We don't have the same structures for, or limitations on, self-expression (such as money, gender or physics). The rules aren't the same as when the previous new tech kids-on-the-block arrived.
With Gen Z upskilling themselves in the art of blending digital and physical worlds, and with tech becoming ever more accessible, the independent creator economy is booming.
A non-business-backed artist can hold a concert in Roblox, create and trade NFTs of their art, or develop a digital fashion line. Creatives and technologists that couldn't sew a physical dress can build a digital one for 3D avatars.
This highlights an increase in access to creative tools and opportunities, plus the drive towards the democratisation of digital expression. Independent creators have more control in creating models or avatars, with more liberty to explore characteristics like gender identity and race.
This limitless creativity has put power in the hands of new-gen creators, and many platforms are seeing the benefit. Roblox paid out hundreds of millions to developers, many of them teenagers, whilst providing accessible Roblox Studio tools for creatives.
The early internet was celebrated as an open, free network of connection. The goal is to get as close as possible to that dream with the metaverse. Imagine an online world with no limits or restrictions, where you can buy a digital hoodie from Nike that you can wear playing in Fortnite, at a virtual gig in Decentraland, and on your Bitmoji in WhatsApp.
However, we're already seeing tech giants creating walled gardens, building the metaverse along lines that may have scarred internet 2.0. Yet, as we're seeing with NFTs, despite these corporate structures, it's the marketplace and community that decide what is or isn't valuable.
Platforms have traditionally been created and controlled by tech giants, but new-gen creatives are building these platforms themselves. As creation becomes more democratised, power in deciding what's valuable shifts further towards the community.
For brands, this means stepping into the metaverse with caution and integrity. A 15-year-old now has the same power to create and distribute as a brand. As content creators build instinctively and natively for their own communities, brands should consider collaboration rather than going it alone.
Winning brands will co-create with new-gen creatives, listen before jumping into online communities, and give their audiences opportunities for digital self expression.
The metaverse is a democratised new playground for creatives where they can define the rules. Brands are desired in the physical world because of their perceived value. But as they compete in the metaverse against native creators, marketers have only one chance to get it right.
And if they don't nail it the first time, they'll be seen as just another player. One that's way off the mark.
Rosie Copland-Mann is senior creative strategist at Amplify.
Image: Tommy Hilfiger "Tommy x Roblox creators collection"