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June 4, 2008

VIRTUAL WORLDS 3: Is there a place for brand experience

Over the past few weeks, we’ve established that people are really getting to grips with virtual worlds such as Second Life for a range of business purposes; from meetings and seminars through to product launches and exhibitions. But the next question in live marketing terms is whether there’s room for brand experience agencies to get involved? Indeed, is it possible to create a true 'experience' in a virtual environment?

It’s hard to get brand experience agencies to commit on this front, and several that I spoke to weren’t prepared to comment, but were interested to see what everyone else had to say. This seems to suggest that people in the experiential arena don’t really know whether virtual worlds are going to take off. In fact, if you look at the events that have been held in Second Life, already they are fairly traditional – if there is such a thing – digital campaigns… TV ads with the ability to interact.


Looking good: Boots No 7 campaign with Rivers Run Red
shows brands can turn a virtual world impact into real world returns


However there is a new wave of events hitting Second Life that are much more in line with what we perceive to be brand experience campaigns. One such promotion is the No 7 make up campaign from Boots. The idea behind this is that visitors to the No 7 space in Second Life can have their avatar (their character within Second Life) made up in this season’s look, which is the same as the look that they are selling in real-world shops. Currently, the proceeds from the campaign are going to Breast Cancer Care.

What is an experience?

For Rob Wilson, planning director at experiential agency RPM, this starts to fulfil the key criteria for what constitutes an experiential campaign in a virtual world. “The main issue is how you define experience,” he says. “This can be tricky as everything we do is an experience. If you’re watching a TV commercial and it creates an emotional response then you are having a brand experience. However, what we do with our events, such as the Strongbow Cider House, is give you that emotional connection, while also allowing you to experience the product, which gives you a greater depth of experience.

“Essentially virtual worlds don’t do this as they lack the ability to hit the sense. But what is interesting about the Boots campaign is that it’s allowing you to customise the virtual self. For brand experience to work in virtual worlds it needs to be of benefit to the virtual self and then build an emotional connection that would extend into the real world.”

Helen Tarver, brand manager for No 7, explains that the impact of the campaign in Second Life has certainly carried across into Boots’ real world activity. “Because of the global nature of Second Life, we have seen a definite rise in brand awareness in other markets such as the States and this is great for us as we want to have a more global presence,” she says. “We’ve even had customers saying they were unaware of the brand in the UK, but have subsequently come into Boots stores to purchase No 7 product off the back of this, and we are enhancing our chances of having a real world impact by running the looks concurrently both in world and out.”

A question of control
But even if you can produce a real world impact there are still serious issues around suitability and security in virtual worlds. “If our media is all about generating dialogue and engaging consumers, then the second best media for that is digital. However, one of the big issues is around control. Second Life has been in the press a lot because of its lack of control and if they can’t commit to showing a greater degree of control over who’s using what for what purposes, brands are going to be worried about using it,” says Wilson.

Tarver agrees, but also points to another potential problem. “Security is definitely an issue and we have to look at protecting elements of the brand," she says. "It’s not just a case of controlling who uses the product, but, as Second Life has little building restrictions, it’s who opens up next door to you. We wouldn’t want to open a shop and then have a brothel open next door.”

Fortunately there are ways round this and No 7 went into partnership with UK Second Life consultancy Rivers Run Red and opened the No 7 shop on their private island. “This way we have control over who opens next door,” says Tarver.

So it’s early days for brand experience in Second Life and it’s certainly quite an obscure marketing proposition, but as FITCHLive’s head of strategy Tim Leighton said in his column earlier this month on EVENTS:review, “virtual events are a great way to bring a brand to life in ways you previously could only have imagined”. And we are really only just starting to understand how.

Related articles
OPINION Tim Leighton: Experiential has a place in the virtual world
VIRTUAL WORLDS: Threat or opportunity?
VIRTUAL WORLDS 2: Why you should be getting involved

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