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How does a brand have identity in a “metaverse” that doesn’t yet exist?
As we forge ahead with shaping a collective concept of the metaverse, identity will become a main focus. In our physical world, identity is connected to everything — from fashion and fandom to sexuality and career. We have seen large fashion and beauty brands including Givenchy and Clinique making entries in the digital space and Walmart and Nike creating their own customized experiences. Several major brands like CAA now have a metaverse strategy and even a chief metaverse officer.
There is a strong push into this space — a place where no one has yet established their identities, let alone the stories they are looking to tell. And before we say Roblox and Fortnite are the metaverse, we should start with understanding definitions. Those are both virtual game worlds with a social layer, much like EVE Online and World of Warcraft.
Plenty of virtual worlds have focused on character and story connecting to the player’s identity. Whether it’s the skill tree you’ve set for yourself, multi-classing your way to greatness, or the fashion style you’ve adopted, identity is a concept relatable to every human. We all have a certain vision of “self” constructed from our upbringing and surroundings and connecting to culture and environment, so this must carry into our digital representatives.
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Identity is an amalgamation relating to both our physical and psychological being. It is our ontology, the stuff that makes up our character. And this “character” is projected through our physical as well as our digital identities. Most recently we have seen digital identities created by influencers showcasing their physical lives in a very specific way for financial gain. These portrayals are often unrealistic and unverifiable but serve the purpose for brands trying to sell their goods to that influencer’s followers.
Brands as characters on your shelf
These identities are how we connect to each other in our daily lives. Whether at a grocery store or on the internet, this sense of self gives us a lens through which we direct our social output. It is a sort of invisible shelf we carry around that’s filled with our experiences, likes, interests, dislikes and viewpoints. But what if the shelf wasn’t invisible?
Let’s imagine we have collected all of our stuff in one place to show our friends. For example, if I’m a fan of Seinfeld and The Simpsons, and also love Spider-Man and The Goonies, a very basic understanding of my taste can be derived. And let’s say I have Funko Pops of my favorite characters to display on my living room’s shelves. Then when someone visits my home, they immediately get a better understanding of who I am through the characters I identify with and the stories I enjoy.
This is where the bridge between physical and digital begins to extend. As we purchase digital collectibles to store in digital wallets on a blockchain, we are building our digital ontologies. Companies like Singapore-based Mighty Jaxx are now launching physical collectibles with NFC chips which, when scanned, automatically provide a certificate of authentication. The owner will also receive a “digital twin” of that collectible to use in games on the Mighty Jaxx app. This gives even more meaning and utility to your collectibles, extending the experience far beyond merely a physical shelf where you can show your guests one at a time.
The future of digital ontologies
This is a nascent space, where the acronym “NFT” is giving way to the term “digital collectible.” Further renaming can be expected based on audience reception. Although any nascent space is in flux, there will be certain constants. One we can count on is our human need for identity. A digital identity will extend beyond our physical need to showcase the clothes we wear or the cars we drive. It will be held in our blockchain-connected wallets, either self-custodied or in the custody of a brand or digital ecosystem we trust.
When we enter the virtual worlds — and one day, a cohesive metaverse connecting all these virtual worlds through portals or gates — we will be able to share our digital ontologies with our friends and those we meet. It will be as if we are carrying our living room shelves around with us, but with infinite space to be filled with all the characters we love and worlds we have explored.
Our favorite brands will no longer be static entities, but living characters connected to our digital ontologies. With our wallets, we will be able to control what we show and whom we allow to view our shelves. Instead of being ad-driven, brands will need to function more like characters so they are not coming off like our Tupperware-selling acquaintance who bugs us weekly to come to one of their plastic parties. If you want to land on that primo user shelf space, stop thinking like a product and start behaving like a character!
Leading fandoms into the metaverse
We are seeing massive brands like Disney positioning themselves to take on this leadership role, but their mammoth size may be prohibitive in this mercurial “metaverse.” Fandom-agnostic companies such as Sideshow, which have earned deep consumer trust along with a large active audience, might be better positioned to be Web3 leaders. With their strong understanding of fan-connected products, and as makers who oversee their physical global supply chain, their transition into a digital space presents a serious opportunity for exponential growth.
A great many new digital products are launching without a physical component, and their fandoms will likely want to have physical products on their home shelves as well. We are a tangible species who needs things to exist in both worlds to represent our physical and digital identities. More and more brands will soon realize shelf space doesn’t mean only being in Barnes & Noble or Target, but on people’s digital shelves as they explore their favorite virtual worlds, showcasing the brands they like and characters who represent them.
Benjamin Jackendoff (a.k.a. B. Earl) is a Marvel writer and partner at Skyview Way Studios.