Like it has in the rest of the world, the metaverse as a concept has gained significant currency in China in recent months, with both opinions and marketing campaigns springing up like mushrooms after the rain.
For example, Forrester’s principal analyst Xiaofeng Wang shared a blog post discussing the metaverse and NFTs, citing innovations in the 2021 Singles Day shopping festival—an art exhibition and a metaverse symphony featured on Tmall/Taobao—as examples. Meanwhile, Catherine D. Henry, US-based SVP for growth, XR strategy and innovation at Media.Monks, shared her thoughts on China's role in building the metaverse. With the presence of core technologies such as AI and 5G, plus super apps such as WeChat ("the precursor to the metaverse"), she believes China will lead the way to building “the future of the virtualized human experience”.
Campaign China asked Wang, Henry, and more China experts to weigh in on how the China market sees the development of the metaverse unfolding.
Xiaofeng Wang, principal analyst, Forrester:
In a fast-moving market like China, brands are more likely to embrace emerging technologies and digital innovations to differentiate and attract novelty-seeking consumers. There will be more brands trying out metaverse and NFT in their marketing campaigns, either by working with digital platform players like Alibaba or Tencent or by themselves (with the help of digital agencies) like the SK-II CITY campaign. It’s still at an early stage though, and we expect to see individual campaigns or pilots here and there, but it won’t be on a large scale, because neither the use cases nor technology itself is mature, and the majority of consumers are also not ready.
Whenever there’s a new technology or marketing tactic available, pioneering brands that are brave enough to be the first batch to try out get first movers’ advantage. It attracts more consumer and media attention and creates a lot of PR value. In addition, consumers are more likely to consider them as innovative brands. The first few brands that adopted WeChat Moments ads, luxury brands that first started to sell on Tmall or leveraged Douyin, all benefited from their early adoptions. Brands should move fast, but also take the test and learn approach to test the waters responsibly and cautiously.
Brands should consider and measure what real customer and business value that metaverse can bring, rather than just chasing the shiny objects. It’s dangerous to just deliver marketing gimmicks because when the novelty passes, consumers will soon abandon it. Brands should also consider corporate social responsibilities, such as respecting consumer data privacy and practising ethical marketing, even in a virtual environment.
Catherine D. Henry, SVP growth, XR strategy and innovation, MediaMonks:
Physical retailers can challenge the ease of online shopping by offering more social experiences. One of the best examples is Burberry’s social retail store in Shenzhen. To better engage with young, fashion-forward consumers in a physical retail space, the Burberry store offers a digitally immersive retail experience, linking social activity and physical experience. Burberry collaborated with Tencent to create a mini programme in Tencent’s WeChat app, where customers can unlock exclusive content and personalised experiences at the store. Much like a private club app, customers can book a themed fitting room, pre-select clothes and choose their own music during their fittings. They can also reserve a table at the in-store Thomas’s Cafe, as well as make appointments with stylists and other services. Since opening the store, Burberry has experienced an increase in sales by about 30%. This is a perfect example of the type of metaverse-driven ‘retail-tainment’, where digital and physical experiences merge—something that we can expect more retailers to adopt.
The Chinese market will have its own distinct hardware, infrastructure, UI and UX—which may differ from the West. So brands wishing to engage with this lucrative market should be prepared to engage with a separate, but substantial, demographic and ecosystem where the equivalent of Gen Z (people under 34 years old) represents 36% of the population, or about 500 million people. Young people in China are far more mobile-forward and tech savvy than in other parts of the world and largely do not engage with PCs or other technologies. Also, the consumer behaviour online is far more advanced in many respects.
Today, we have a unique opportunity to develop an embodied internet that is inclusive, accessible and open to a myriad of developers and creators to push technology to new boundaries. The most important thing for companies now is to create an interoperable system that allows users to move freely between different virtual galaxies.
Monica Lee, chair of Superunion Asia:
The popularity of “metaverse” seems to come with anxiety. Brands worry that they will not be able to catch up with the new trend. As a branding consultant, my advice is to come back to the brand itself and think about the nature of the "metaverse" and its relation to brands.
The concept of "metaverse" is essentially a new form driven by the Internet technological changes of the new generation. For brands, it is a giant new carrier for content, services and experiences that could encompass almost anything, and it is a new world full of endless ideas, creativity and possibilities. In particular, for Internet social and gaming brands, the metaverse broadens the limits of boundaries. People use "social" to imagine and redefine their new identities, with "gaming" to build a virtual and parallel world so that they will have an unprecedented experience from the metaverse.
The metaverse varies in many different forms, but what remains the same is the essence behind the concept, which is "people". It is the innovation and creative capability of people that build the metaverse. The carrier of service and experience is changing, but the goal of a brand remains the same: to "capture the minds". In the light metaverse, brands need to ask themselves how they can clearly define their core branding philosophy and guide their marketing events and how they can utilise the power of creativity to tell their brand story and win people's hearts and minds.
Roger Bikkier, MD of MediaMonks China:
Creating digital experiences that are either entertaining or useful will be paramount. Nobody wants to put on a VR headset to watch pre-roll ads. The metaverse unlocks unlimited possibilities for more engaging formats, experiences and even fully branded digital worlds, beyond what we can imagine today. Agencies most suited to serve brands moving into this new era are those that have the in-house digital production capabilities to connect strategy with production.
Brands should challenge their agencies to go beyond metaverse case sharing and get their hands dirty in experimentation. While everyone is scrambling to keep up, those that do, learn and adapt the fastest will be leading the way. Having a partner that can turn around metaverse experiments at the speed of digital will be key to success.
Despite the common concerns around privacy, I see a huge opportunity in the return of showing up anonymously. With the metaverse, we might be going back to a world where everyone can be anyone or anything. I expect that there will be ‘verses’ that embrace privacy to the anonymous extent, perhaps beyond Meta Platforms. In a virtual world, I can be any shape, form, colour or gender. From an inclusivity standpoint, this is massive as it levels the playing field. From a marketer’s perspective, targeting will be a challenge.
Gen Z's take on the metaverse
In addition to the industry experts quote above, Campaign China solicited opinions about the metaverse from a group of young Dentsu marketing professionals in China, who are not only young creatives but also consumers of the next generation. The members of Dentsu's so-called 'Z team' also expressed their opinions in a recent column about NFTs. The group members identify themselves only with English given names.