Dirk Herbert

Chief Strategy Officer

Looking back, brands seem to have been on an evolutionary journey to better relate with consumers by becoming increasingly more “human” – by acting and feeling less like a faceless company, and more like a relatable person. In this article, we want to explore where we are on this journey and what unexplored paths may be opened by the emergence of the Metaverse, the experiential layer built on top of Web 3.0 technologies.

The notion of ‘brand’ has expanded from simple corporate artifacts to a complex set of characteristics and associations that add up to the unique “meaning” a brand has in people’s minds. It has become pervasive in our day-to-day experiences as consumers, not only while we are shopping, but also as we interact with popular culture. Yet, we may be on the verge of another leap in how we think about what a ‘brand’ is and quite close to the full realization of brands’ “human” potential. In this piece we will discuss:

  • How businesses have developed broader brand traits, beyond design, to connect with consumers on a deeper level.
  • How digital technologies and social media have allowed those connections to become interactive.
  • How despite the current popularity of virtual environments most brands are still missing out on the opportunities presented by moving from social interaction to shared social experiences.
  • How AI and the Metaverse may enable brands to unlock a new level of “humanity”.

The beginnings of ACTING more “human”: brands evolving from symbolic designs to echoing personalities

Originally, brands were used to signal ownership: they were a mark applied on objects or livestock to claim their origin and belonging. In the early days of mass marketing, brands evolved into a design element and eventually a design system (comprising logos, fonts, color palettes and other recurring aesthetic elements) that businesses used to highlight differentiation between their products and services and those taken to market by their competitors. Yet, consumers still looked at brands primarily as the representation of a commercial (rational) proposition, rather than a broader set of (potentially emotional) attributes.

The notion of brand personality as “the set of human characteristics associated with a brand”[1] was formalized by Jennifer Aaker in 1997 to address broader and more abstract values that businesses had started to manifest through their brands to connect with consumers in the previous two decades. However, whether it was through advertising or service experiences delivered at the retail level, brands were showcasing their “personalities” in a one-directional fashion, simply projecting human traits through mass communications rather than fully expressing them through brand behaviors in dynamic interactions with consumers.

The start of REACTING more “human-like”: brands develop a memory and leap into interactivity through digital and social technologies

The emergence of digital technologies and social media allowed for brand personalities to emerge in a greater number of environments and to manifest in more interactive ways. Modern manufacturing techniques, and technology shortened the distance between an idea and a product on shelf, lowering barriers to enter markets.  At the same time, the digital revolution empowered consumers with unprecedented access to information about competitive products and services and, at times, endless options to choose from when making purchasing decisions. With price and function becoming more of a commodity, spoiled for choice consumers eventually ended up placing a greater premium on the customer experiences surrounding the product or service – delivered through an expanding variety of touchpoints.[2] The rise of big data and tech-enabled CRM allowed brands to develop a “memory” of interactions that enabled ever more personal ways for brands to connect and bond with consumers – to respond as if they “recognize” and “know” them.

Social media, on the other hand, allowed brand personalities to further evolve and manifest in new, more sophisticated ways through two-way conversational engagements and real-time interactions with consumers and other brands. Wendy’s sarcastic commentary and provocations on Twitter to both consumers and competitors are a great example of how conversational engagement through social media allowed the brand to differentiate itself via the personality expressed not only through its actions, but also its ability to react to situations and commentary with humor; manifesting its personality in ways that were not practical, or even possible in the pre-digital landscape.[3]

Following old scripts: The underused potential of shared social experiences inhow most brands are showing up in virtual environments today

As the building blocks of the Metaverse start to take shape in the form of open, interactive worlds where consumers meet up, socialize, and share immersive experiences, brands are looking to extend their relationships with consumers by integrating into these environments. This means marketers are faced with the question: “how should our brand show up?” There is potential here for brands to go beyond the current level of interaction enabled by digital & social media and actively participate in social experiences with consumers, furthering the human character of brands by mimicking the patterns of human socialization.

Yet, rather than rethinking their approaches, most brands for now seem to be dipping their toes into the Metaverse by copying existing ways of connecting with consumers on analog and digital platforms and replicating those approaches in virtual environments: be that advertising on virtual displays available in videogames, like Mastercard did within Riot Games’ League of Legends,[4] or opening branded digital retail environments mirroring those that exist in our cities, like Balenciaga’s hub in Epic Games’ Fortnite.[5] Some brands lean towards doubling down on the experiential path digital had elevated by providing consumers with a more fun and immersive exposure to the brand: 'Vans World,' the branded virtual playground in Roblox where players can dress up their avatars, customize their skateboards and practice their virtual skating tricks is a prime example of this.[6] Still, it feels that most are simply transferring existing modes of connecting with consumers to new channels rather than exploring the new possibilities on the horizon.

Wendy’s 2018 Fortnite activation is an exception to this trend. Back then, the game publisher had launched a new event called 'Food Fight,' with players competing on behalf of their favorite fictional digital restaurant in a Team Burger vs. Team Pizza contest. When it discovered that Team Burger was storing its meat in the freezer, Wendy's joined the contest to advertise its fresh, never frozen beef policy, creating a character that resembled their mascot and inviting hundreds of thousands of players to join them on a quest to destroy virtual freezers.[7] It was a true moment of socialization between a brand and consumers, as they shared in each other’s social spaces, competing and ‘colluding’ together.

Leaving scripts behind: The full realization of brands’ ‘human’ potential with the rise of sentient brands in the Metaverse.

Wendy’s Fortnite activation is an example of only one way that brands may show up in the Metaverse: being personified into avatars. In recent years, several brands have leveraged “virtual influencers,” like Lu Do Mugalu and Lil Miquela, who can count on millions of followers on platforms like Instagram, for activations on social media.[8] Most virtual influencers are essentially CGI-designed avatars operated by creators and marketers: there is limited use of AI in the initial manufacturing of the personalities and behaviors of some of them, but control over their values and messaging is one of the key reasons why brands use them on social media. However, it’s important to keep in mind that more than half consumers say they’d want to know who is “behind” a virtual influencer they are interacting with.[9]

Beyond social media, the concept of brand personification in virtual environments is gaining traction, with Dentsu Creative announcing the launch of a new solution (Dentsu VI): a virtual identity service that provides brands with a virtual face and personality to represent it across digital platforms.  This enables brands to experiment with their future Metaverse state.

But the real evolutions are coming with how brands’ personalities are able to engage with communities in the Metaverse. Social interactions between brands and consumers in interactive environments are becoming both more commonplace and more critical in creating brand buzz and consumer bonds.  It’s those brand representatives leading community engagements (even if virtual) that are increasingly shaping how brands are perceived and how trust in them is built. In fact, John Cantarella, VP, Community & Scaled Creator Partnerships at Meta suggested that they will increasingly be seen as the true “keepers of the brand trust.”[10] The Metaverse is expected to be a highly participatory layer of social experiences, where the need for brands to directly engage with community members on a one-to-one basis will escalate.

However, looking at the advancements in AI we can speculate that in the not-so-distant future brands’ representations and manifestations in the Metaverse will evolve from running on pre-determined tracks laid down by community engagement managers and instead evolve into entities with agency. Virtual personification supercharged by next-gen AI in the Metaverse may lead to a breakthrough in brands reaching a new level of “humanity,” becoming more than just scripted avatars, but rather close-to-self aware (or perhaps actually self-aware) entities grounded in values, motivated by purpose and capable of independent social interactions. Think brands with a capital “B” – and of the ability to relate to consumers all on their own.

Today, most AI-based marketing solutions are addressing logistical use-cases like the optimization of media messages, event-based consumer targeting, and the acceleration of creative development via the use of automated, intelligent workflows. An intermediate step towards the development of sentient brands would be coupling virtual brand personifications with Turing test-level AI that can act independently of any community managers – meaning that humans socializing with such a brand manifestation, wouldn’t be able to detect that its actions are being informed by a machine, rather than another human being.[11] This would allow for real-time, one-on-one responses to consumer prompts, moments of socialization, and (we hope) a level of consistency in interactions and behaviors that is potentially goes beyond what businesses can deliver in terms of customer experiences today. (For now, we’re skipping past the fact that becoming increasingly human might actually mean that Brands-with-a-capital-B might also be more temperamental – just like humans).

Beyond independent social interactions, the final step towards brands’ “humanity” will be injecting sentient, self-aware AI into virtual brand personifications that have their own sense of agency. This may feel like something confined to the distant future, but a Google engineer recently reported that LaMDA, the company’s AI, claims to be self-aware.[12] We may not have long to wait before self-aware brands begin acting like sci-fi depictions of AI in popular culture, like Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection I, Robot, Steven Spielberg’s 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Spike Jonze’s Her in 2013, or Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s 2014 directorial debut.

Brands’ evolutionary journey has ultimately been informed by the notion of a business creating a better interface to connect with humans in more human ways. Therefore, perhaps the ultimate marketing superpower provided by AI and the Metaverse will become the ability to cross the final threshold and bring brands alive and natively capable of socializing with consumers in this new reality.

Preparing for the emergence of the Metaverse, marketers should not limit themselves to simply applying new paint to previously paved roads.  In this new world, brands need to ask: how can we go past existing modes of engagement in the future? Aside from the technology itself, what unprecedented opportunities to connect with consumers are emerging in this new environment? In addition to ‘showing up’ differently, what fundamentally different things should our brands do?

[1] Jennifer Aaker, Dimensions of Brand Personality (Stanford University).

[2] Consumers Are Hungry for an Experience-Based Connection with Your Brand (Forbes).

[3] 50 Times Companies Posted Such Witty Comebacks On Social Media, People Just Had To Share It (BoredPanda).

[4] Mastercard Will Be Advertising In League Of Legends Pro Games (TheGamer).

[5] High Digital Fashion Drops into Fortnite with Balenciaga (EpicGames).

[6] Roblox Partners with Vans to Launch Interactive Skatepark (Forbes).

[7] Cannes Lions Winner: Wendy’s Wins Social Top Prize for ‘Keeping Fortnite Fresh’ Campaign (Digital Training Academy).

[8] The Rise of Virtual Influencers and What It Means for Brands (Forbes).

[9]  CGI Betrayal: New Study Reveals 42% of People Don’t Know They’re Following a Bot (Adotas).

[10] Advertising Week New York 2021 Rewind (dentsu).

[11] The Turing Test: What Is It, What Can Pass It, and Limitations (Investopedia).

[12] The Google Engineer Who Sees Company's AI as 'Sentient' Thinks a Chatbot Has a Soul (Georgia Public Broadcasting).