In the fall of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced changing his company to Meta and the term metaverse has become a buzzword every company wants to be a part of even though the metaverse has been around for years. Still, many aren’t entirely sure what it is or how to utilize it best. We recently spoke with two experts when it comes to creativity, innovation and the retail space, Liz Crawford, VP Planning at TPN and David Richmond, Senior Strategist at TPN (TPN is the creative commerce agency and is part of the Omnicom Commerce Group) to understand more of this new world, about how retail in the metaverse might look, plus how voice technology can make an impact.
What is the metaverse?
In simplest terms, Richmond believes the metaverse is more of an idea than a reality that encompasses immersive virtual experiences. Experiences might include video games, podcasts, crypto communities, VR, avatars and more. “They’re almost like the future of social media. These places are where people will come together and interact with each other for the purpose of socializing. There’s also this sort of Web3 phenomenon, the idea that the internet will become more heterogeneous and decentralized. So it’s almost like it’s up to users and creators to define what it is in the moment,” Richmond added.
“When you say ‘the metaverse,’ it kind of leads you to think that there’s one place, but it’s not,” commented Crawford. In 2003, the original metaverse was born, Second Life. Developed by Philip Rosedale, it promised people the option for a different life away from the reality of their own physical world. In fact, it did exactly what the term metaverse is promising now.
“Here we are nearly 20 years later and we’re having this big conversation about the metaverse. Bitcoin itself began in 2009. Virtual reality started in the late ’80s. And even augmented reality, like Pokemon Go for example, one of the first AR games came out in 2016. These things have been around for a while and I think today it’s simply a new way of thinking and talking about these ideas [and innovating upon them],” added Crawford.
What does retail in the metaverse look like?
Retail has seen its fair share of changes over time and in the last few years and going into Web 3.0 the need for personalized and automated customer experiences are becoming increasingly important to consumers. Consumers and businesses alike are looking to have more control over the way they do things, more ownership and even more creativity.
Still with the adoption of Cryptocurrency not quite high enough yet, Richmond believes it’s more about what he calls the “multiverse” which consists of using multiple channels for a brand to connect with their potential buyers. “I think people are interested in it [the metaverse]. A lot of it, what we’re seeing right now, [is more about], driving brand awareness. People will spend a lot of time in these experiences, they’ll learn about a brand, they’ll form memories with their friends and so people are kind of approaching it like a popup in a way. It’s more of a place to go and experience something cool and maybe get a sample or enter some kind of sweep.
But I’ve not really seen much in terms of actual, shoppable experiences in the metaverse. There are some with a great example I’ve seen with Vans World on Roblox. You can design shoes for your Roblox avatar, which is a brilliant way of filling a void that serves that community, as people love to customize their Roblox avatars. And because there weren’t that many shoes available on platforms, Vans filled that space [in a unique way.]
Then once you’ve customized your avatar shoes, you can order a real life version of them for yourself. I’ve seen Nike too do some interesting stuff with bringing their Roblox experience into the store. [In one experience] you can engage with a sample or a light version of their Roblox game play in-store, in their flagship in downtown Manhattan,” Richmond added.
But what if you could order something directly from the game itself? Playstation Australia partnered with local restaurants to recreate meals in various video games, including Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II which uses ReadSpeaker.ai’s text to speech. Although you had to order directly through a food delivery app, the potential for gamers to order food or products through a game or metaverse experience is a possibility for the future and suggests ideas for retail in the metaverse.
The influence of gaming on retail in the metaverse
The correlation between gaming and the metaverse is certainly one to notice. “Gaming has definitely led the way in terms of things like virtual research and training,” said Crawford. “[For example,] you could reinvent the aisle, put it in a virtual world and then get research results [or even use it as a training tool]. [Companies like] Walmart used gaming technology that way. So I think that from a technological standpoint, [gaming is] certainly at the forefront and will be lending some of their technology, not only of course to research, but also to actual commerce.
Gaming creates better adoption in many cases simply because it’s fun and entertaining. “People are willing to spend hours, in some cases even the majority of their time in these virtual experiences, because it’s a lot of fun. Whether or not they’re willing to incorporate shopping to that, remains to be seen. I do think that brands that can make it fun and engaging are the ones who are going to win for the time being. I don’t think people are yet at the point where they want to do their chores in a virtual space. And I think a lot of people do see some retail as kind of a chore. At least in a case of something like weekly grocery shopping,” added Richmond.
“Yes, when it comes to something like a shopper mom, she’s all about efficiency of time and effort. If something like grocery shopping is going to take more time [in the metaverse], then forget it,” Crawford said.
Where does voice technology and a custom branded voice fit into retail in the metaverse?
When it comes to any new technology, it’s not about adding it to an environment just to say you’ve done it. It’s always about answering the question: Is this useful and does it make something easier or better? If the answer is no, then using a new technology or creating something for the metaverse simply doesn’t make sense.
It’s why Richmond suggests that for now, people are coming to these metaverse experiences primarily for entertainment and novelty.
If entertainment and experience is the primary purpose for the metaverse, how can retail create that excitement yet still keep with brand consistency? One way is with voice technology and even more specifically, a branded voice. Brands like State Farm have their branded icon, Jake from State Farm in video games like NBA 2K22, Hello Kitty’s voice is used in their Android Google Action game (a custom branded text to speech voice created by ReadSpeaker.ai) and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket Racoon also has a voice available for use on TikTok.
“I think there’s a number of ways that voice becomes important in the metaverse,” suggested Richmond. “Sound design is really important for increasing brand awareness and even consideration. Of course these are virtual worlds, so you have a greater degree of control over the experience. Sound is incredibly intimate. It’s a tactile sensation. I think in general, people overlook sound because we’re so visually oriented. But in a way that sort of lowers their guard. People are constantly exposed to ad visuals, but maybe not as conscientious about how what they hear influences them. There’s a lot of data suggesting that people are really open to and receptive to recommendations from podcast hosts [for example]. And it’s because they feel a strong affinity from just listening to their voices all the time.”
According to research by Professor Albert Mehrabian, words account for only 7% of communication. How something is said is far more important than the words used when conveying meaning. A brand voice is a direct personification of the values your brand stands for and a custom branded voice allows for brand consistency, brand legacy and customer loyalty while allowing a brand to keep their own data and be personalized and unique.
“It doesn’t seem we’re heading towards true seamless interoperability anytime soon, meaning being able to travel from one world to another, but that’s why having a consistent brand voice becomes almost more important. Because when you’re engaging with the metaverse, you might be engaging on Minecraft and Roblox and Fortnite and a proprietary platform you created yourself simultaneously.
So being able to just type out a message and have it instantly manifest in a consistent way across platforms [with something like a custom branded text to speech voice], is ideal. It sort of removes room for error. You don’t want to have Jake from State Farm having to record a ton of new audio. It becomes easier to manage all these different spokes on the metaverse wheel with just one voice which becomes a tool rather than a task to be constantly recorded,” Richmond added.
“You could also easily create a branded voice and then auction that off as an NFT,” said Richmond. “What’s interesting to me is that, then you can really have something that’s proprietary. When you talk about brand voice you probably want some things that are proprietary. I think that making sure that whatever it is, it can travel across many multiverses and still stay yours and stay consistent,” Crawford added.
Adding even more value, Richmond said, “A custom branded voice is like having one unified voice that speaks many different languages or communicates that character, and that feeling that you’re trying to get across. Cross culturally it is also really interesting. Different intonations can carry different meanings in different languages or social contexts. When voice becomes a tool, you just get a lot more control over that [like you would with a branded text to speech voice].”
First steps to getting started with retail in the metaverse
When it come to getting started in the metaverse, make sure no matter what, your brand is seen and heard in multiple places, Crawford suggested, adding, “I think that the other thing too is, we do need to think about NFTs as things that pretty much every brand should be considering selling or giving. Whether it’s access to an exclusive Nike club or whether it’s just a way to have, let’s call it, a permanent 10% discount off of something. So it’s like a coupon that could be used over and over again, your personal coupon.
And they could even be changed and reprogrammed and you could target some of your best customers and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to sell these things or give these things to induce different kinds of behaviors, because they’re tokens.’ I do think that it requires some creativity in terms of thinking.
In my experience in the business, we tend to think along the same lines, ‘Okay, here comes the brief and here comes the coupons and the ads and all this other stuff.’ Yet we also need to be thinking about, ‘Hey, what’s happening in the multiverse?’ I think right now we have a multiverse. I think the dream is to have a metaverse.”
Richmond added, “It’s something to have fun with right now. The opportunity for brands is to kind of create a definitive experience because it’s in the early days of [this new metaverse.] I think the pitfall is to create something that’s just sort of drab, fills in the blank. Have some fun with it. Don’t be afraid to do something really wacky or kind of lighthearted.
I also would love to see more hybridization, like using NFTs or selling some kind of access or something that has a long-lived value and for whoever owns it. Maybe it’s a popup that is accessible both virtually and in real life? I think what’ll be exciting to see is that interaction between what’s real and what’s virtual. Making it exciting or playing with the novelty of getting a product in real life, that means something in the virtual world as well. Nerf had done this thing where you could buy a Nerf gun and then your character in Roblox got a corresponding weapon. I feel like that’s almost underexplored and underutilized. I’m hopeful that this year and next we’ll see a lot of fun stuff playing, blurring the lines between the physical and virtual worlds.”