Will brands other than Facebook become ‘meta’?

Tech gurus Mitch Joel and Cam Wykes look beyond the name change to what it means for adoption of VR and AR.
Mark Zuckerberg

When Facebook rebranded its parent company as Meta late last week, strategists viewed the transition in two camps: visionary and unwarranted.

On the one hand, there were those who aligned with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s stated motivation: that the name change reflected the company’s investment in the “metaverse,” a concept for having entertainment, social and workplace interactions happen in virtual and mixed reality environments, which Zuckerberg has been vocal about since the summer.

But more cynical observers saw the company’s effort to be seen as more than a social media company as a diversionary tactic to separate it from recent whistleblower accusations of failing to act on misinformation and privacy transgressions on its platform. Some also saw it as a way to put less focus on what has been its main driver of social media revenue – advertising – which has been a source of calls for further regulation, mandates to share ad profits and privacy concerns.

Cam Wykes, VP and head of content at Media Monks, seems to agree a bit more with the former camp. “It’s a bit of a branding switch because they’re in hot water now for knowing that engagement on their platforms is detrimental to people’s mental health, especially teenagers. Some say it’s a bait-and-switch. I don’t think it’s that. I just think they are close to becoming that virtual reality platform. So, they’re going all in with the new name to demonstrate the quantum shift in their offering.”

Strategist and founder of Six Pixels Mitch Joel believes the Meta announcement is merely part of an industry trend. “We’ve seen Google do this with Alphabet. It’s not that this is an uncommon practice. I mean, look no further at our own industry where you see brand names like WPP and Publicis and how they roll out with other brands that handle their own thing.

“Certainly they’re placing their bet on what’s next – at least Zuckerberg and his senior team are. It’s a very natural, organic thing. It [previously] felt weird to me that Facebook was the name of the organization, with so much happening underneath it [with other platforms like Instagram]…. Strategically, I’m not surprised it was done. I’m surprised it wasn’t done sooner.”

Joel also believes that the rebranding will have little immediate impact on advertisers, though it could far, far down the line if “Meta itself becomes the more dominant brand because that’s what they use as a core product for whatever the metaverse product is that they’re launching,” he says.

From his perspective, Wykes says the fact that virtual goods and experiences are already being sold through gaming platforms like Fortnite and Minecraft should create fertile ground for expansion by retailers and advertisers into the VR and AR spaces, although he says the hardware and software still have to catch up.

Wykes isn’t confident that Meta will be the driver of user adoption when it comes to the technology, and expects the name change to be the first salvo in a showdown between Meta and the other major players – including Apple, Alphabet/Google, Samsung, Sony – for virtual and augmented reality supremacy. He says they “are investing hard into the next iteration of what we know today as the Internet.”

He says there have been four “massive evolutions of brand engagement: print to TV; TV to computer; computer to mobile; and now the phase of moving from mobile to headsets and glasses,” which presents a large opportunity for advertisers.

The resulting shift, says Wykes, will change how audiences absorb brands, and that brands themselves will exist in an “always-on, fully-immersive digital world.”

“If you’re sitting at your desk and you’ve just finished a can of Coke, [VR glasses could] recognize that there’s a can of Coke in front of you,” says Wykes. “It can then use Amazon to buy you more Coca-Cola. So the tech understands objects, activities, locations, making it very easy to connect that data in real time to anticipate what you’re looking at, or what you’re doing, and then what products would be most appropriate, either for product placement or for driving to sale.”

Wykes identifies two VR categories that will first gain traction: virtual goods, and virtual events. Similar to gaming platforms Fortnite and Minecraft, advertisers will be able to sell virtual goods at virtual events, creating sponsored e-sports or product-sponsored locations, games and contests.

“On platforms such as Facebook Horizons, the offer to create a unique and digital self that represents your likeness and how you want to be seen and perceived in the metaverse already exists. As the virtual world takes shape, this will range from what brand of clothing you wear, the brand of furniture you’ll have in your virtual home to NFTs,” he says.

Wykes believes Meta needs to improve its functionality in the VR/AR space through adaptive technology before any of this is adopted on a wide scale, and he believes Apple will be the company that bridges that particular gap.

“They’ve been working towards this future right under our noses,” he contends. “The latest Apple Watch now reads your wrist and hand movements to turn simple gestures into actions on your watch. It’s a virtual controller for your future headset.

“As we’ve learned, Apple is definitely good at combining the intuitive nature and the universal practicality of the hardware with the same user experience and easy adoption towards the software as well. Although, Apple has yet to come to market with a piece of hardware that is really going to drive mass adoption. But they haven’t really gone wrong with any other product. They’ve dominated every single market they’ve gone into. Tablets, watches, phones, you name it. They bat one thousand even though they’re virtually always the last to market.”

Joel is bullish on the VR and AR reality world, but he thinks advertisers will follow a historic, traditional pattern when it comes to getting involved in the future of this new technological landscape.

“It’s a story we’ve heard time and time again. I was very much engaged when Second Life came around, and I think all the things we talked about back then we’re going to see again – sponsored branded advertising, owning areas and having your own environment that people can shop in,” Joel says.

“The results of this in terms of advertising will be the same results of any media platform in the history of places to advertise – which is, if people are there and engaging, advertisers will want to be there too. There will be a trickling in of brands who are willing to experiment; or claim a first, or try to be the first, or try to run for PR. And then ultimately, when we have a mass audience [in the metaverse], we’ll start to see the opportunities really develop. The brands will drive the innovation because often the platforms are so stuck on being big and trying to do something different, that the advertisers wind up coming up with a better idea. So, we’ll follow the eyeballs.”