Brand Sauce: IRL Vs. URL. How can brands harness virtual status?

 In Insights
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We’re halfway through 2020 and it’s definitely not the year we were expecting. While we’ve all been locked down in our homes, we’ve found ways to adapt to the lack of contact with our friends, family and loved ones. This has exponentially driven a trend that’s been simmering under the surface for a long time, virtual status. 

The lines between reality and the virtual realm are more blurred than ever. It’s no longer viable to only have a status in your real life, but now people are looking into their virtual selves and upping their street cred. Status has always been a prevalent feature in our society. From titles and gowns in the industrial era, to designer threads in our current society, we’ve always found ways to assert ourselves over others. This new trend takes it one step further.

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BBC // E! Online

Online addicts are roaming the internet, primarily social media platforms and gaming, to find new ways to build status online which may otherwise not be possible offline. Virtual space allows us to show status without breaking the bank on designer clothes and explore an alter ego without having to commit in the way we would have to in the real world. Whether that’s getting the dreamiest house in animal crossing or adorning yourself with virtual garments- yes that’s a thing. We can see it in the stats, In their Era of Monomass document, Dazed states that 30 billion US dollars was spent on look boxes and skins in games in 2017, a trajectory that is expected to increase right through to 50 billion this year. Brands are facilitating this new trend and providing people with ways to update their online personas.

Why is Virtual Status Happening?

The recent confinement to our flats and homes has accelerated the need to find fulfillment in online spaces. However, the reasons leading to virtual status have been simmering under the surface for a while. It all began with Runescape and World of Warcraft, gaming platforms, that lead young people to not only communicate online, but also begin to use their money and time to acquire goods in the virtual space.  

runescape

Forbes

The reasons for the increase of popularity in online personas goes far deeper than the technology that enables it, that’s just the surface. 2020 has been a distressing year for all, beyond the pandemic there’s been bush fires, racial murders in the States and locust swarms, which all sounds incredibly biblical. Gen Z are looking for escapism, even if it’s just for a hot minute, to distract from the overwhelming news. When you take this perspective, it’s therefore not surprising that 21% of individuals prefer their life online to in real life (or IRL as the gamers might call it). (Dazed, the era of Monomass). 

It would be straining to picture how we all would have coped with a lockdown without the support of the technology that keeps us connected with our loved ones, but it’s still tiresome. The initial novelty of constant zoom calls has now worn off and is no competition for the human touch we crave. Online spaces are however, providing shared experiences boosting the virtual experience economy and driving the desire for virtual status. 

How can brands get involved?

Now we’ve seen that data, it’s pretty obvious that brands should be getting themselves in the vast realm of virtual status. We do appreciate that sometimes it can be a minefield, with seemingly infinite platforms, strategies and users to get to know. Through all of this adaptation, an important message for brands is to stay true to themselves and keep it purposeful. A message that, as an agency, seeps through into every aspect of our work.

1: Keep it Relevant

We’re all aware that hopping on a trend and forcing a fit for your brand is like pushing a square peg through a round hole. It just doesn’t work and consumers won’t engage well. More than that, offering an online service that has no relevance to your brand, doesn’t offer any credibility. Brands should keep doing what they do best, but adaptation is key. 

One brand who has popped up on our radar is Olivia’s Interior design. This company is now offering a digital interior designer to revamp your animal crossing home, crazy right? Well, it actually feels like the perfect way for brands to capitalize on the huge spend increase in virtual spaces. While they are charging for their services, it’s not all about the money. This extension of their brand shows to their consumers that they are both adaptable and relevant by providing a service which utilizes their best skills. While Animal Crossing seems to be everywhere we look and has become a cultural gaming icon, it’s likely to not stay that way forever. Olivia’s concept now addresses the need for interior intervention in Animal Crossing, but is also a timeless concept that can be used across many new virtual spaces that will likely arise.

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GoNintendo

2: Do it with Purpose 

Another important consideration for brands, when making any adaptation to their offering, is its purpose. Consumption is changing and with better access to information than ever, consumers are wise to the tricks of big business. Consequently, purposefulness is hugely important. A brand should have a point of view and voice that they share with their consumer, as well as integrate through all aspects of their business. So when making a switch, we’ve always got to ask ourselves, what exactly is the point of what I’m doing? 

One Scandivanian brand, Carlings, has put purposefulness first and launched a digital clothing collection targeting one prevalent issue in the fashion industry right now, sustainability. We, as consumers, can often be wasteful and flippant swapping out one cheap clothing fad for the next. By now you will have seen the slow death of fast fashion, although many of these big brands are still lucrative, our perceptions of fast fashion has changed. A great example of this is Gucci going seasonless. 

gucci

The Business of Fashion

To tackle the problem, Carlings designed a digital clothing line which had immense popularity and sold out within the week. The way this worked was, for 30 euros, you could purchase a digital garment and have a 3-D designer fit the garment to your body in an image that you would have provided. This seems wildly futuristic. It also seems wildly logical. We use social media to build up a perfect representation of ourselves to present to the world. If we can do this without having to burn down the planet at the same time, what’s the loss?

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HypeBeast

The point we’re making here is that consumers, particularly those of the younger generations, want to consume with meaning. We can see this in recent weeks whereby people started shifting away from big brands to support local business during the pandemic or now the increase in purchases from black owned businesses as a response to BLM. 

3: Breaking a Few Boundaries

As a whole new world opens up its time for brands to follow in the creative influencers. The way we create, consume and share content is changing by the day and this has only been accelerated by Gen Z’s nonconformity to tradition. It no longer starts with the elite and filters into culture, but follows a cyclical pattern, whereby anyone can have influence. 

With this being said it’s time for brands to follow the lead of artists and creatives to understand how they can fit into this space, and one key marker for this is Grimes. Grimes has separated her IRL self from her virtual self, WarNymph. This virtual persona explores identity and breaks social taboos in virtual space. She discusses her recent direction with the avatar stating ‘One thing we’re doing right now is we’ve built an avatar and I’m about to kill myself and transition’.

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Instagram @warnymph

While this extreme might feel difficult for brands to onboard with, it carries a key message. Get creative. Gen Z don’t like to be defined by stereotypes or boxes and if you try to label them they’ll rebell. So brands should consider how they can experiment within digital spaces to appeal to the eclectic nature of this emerging audience.

So what’s the deal?

So much is still unknown about where this trend will take us, but brands need to be keeping an open mind. This shift in consumer attitude to virtual spaces and virtual personas gives us a huge opportunity to get creative and change the game. Although, if a brand switches it up too much it will risk losing a sense of brand cohesiveness which is pivotal to ensure they retain trust and credibility with their consumer base.

One big move from Wendy’s was to start a food fight on gaming platform Fortnite. This PR start perfectly embodied the way a brand can get involved with the trend without losing any brand clarity. Wendy’s did their first live stream of the game on platform Twitch, owned by Amazon, and co-opted the game’s food fight mission. The burger chain urged players to take their side and battle against the games online burger shop ‘Durr Burger’. Wendy’s founder commented that it was a dig at the brands rivals who use frozen burgers. This stunt fit so well with Wendy’s and retained brand relevance by making a statement about their ethos. By targeting brands who use frozen burgers they are promoting their own values for fresh food.

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Esports Observer

Social media is still in its relative infancy, Six Degrees was the first platform launched back in 1997, making social media 23 years old. It’s intriguing to wonder what social media will look like by the end of our life times and consequently how virtual status will develop. 

But one thing we do know is that brands should start to consider getting creative online and virtually, placing foundations to transition into the digital realm, because let’s face it physics isn’t the leash for what a brand can do anymore. Think multidimensional and test it out for yourselves, let’s start breaking some boundaries.

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