Marketing’s New Manifestation: Why Avatars Best Represent Online User Engagement, Part II

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In this light, we can see that creating a brand device that is scarce, affords new powers, and makes an avatar more “cool” will reward the most active members of a community and thus encourages these connectors to be agents of the brand. The campaign becomes a win-win-win proposition: Scion’s brand within the world becomes the essence of cool, Whyville is enriched by a unique addition to its service, and the Whyville user’s experience is enriched by an avatar-enhancing tool.

Once a brand is positively established within a virtual world, the potentials for deepening the customer relationship inevitably increase. Toyota and Whyville, identifying the great success of the Scion campaign, are further building on their synergy by adding a Toyota Financial Services presence to Whyville. In a perfect example of the practice of teaching the consumer about the value of a brand instead of preaching, kids in Whyville will gain their first exposure and understanding of the somewhat complicated world of financing by being able to take out virtual auto loans to finance their virtual Scions. The power of this kind of interaction can not be overstated.

Consider that people of all ages tend to approach complex or little understood tasks and processes with a sense of fear. We naturally fear the unknown. However, in a virtual space, consequences are greatly reduced, and the unknown becomes a much less fearful endeavor. So, similar to the way in which people are more likely to talk to a stranger in a chat room as opposed to a crowded bar, they are more likely to try out something new or frightening in a virtual space. However, even though these ventures into the unknown occur in a virtual space, the benefits of the interactions often carry over into the real world.

As an example, a few online relationships established in the virtual realm of Second Life have already resulted in real world marriages. Knowing this, is it so difficult to see that a kid who has navigated the complicated process of taking out an auto loan in Whyville will then seek out a similar experience when the time comes to purchase their first real automobile? It may not be a given, but a natural tendency has certainly been established through a process of both brand recognition and brand education.

Looking at Scion’s Whyville campaign, we can learn a lot about the various steps needed to effectively market to an avatar. The first important step was identifying a need within the virtual community that the brand could satisfy. Whyville is a virtual town of considerable size, but the only options for locomotion have been walking around or taking the school bus. Scion was able to enhance movement by offering a new way to get around town.

Being the first to identify this need, and providing it to such a young audience has enabled the Scion brand to capture an unprecedented level of brand recognition with the kids in Whyville and their understanding of what the car ownership experience can mean. Another important step is creating brand value within the virtual world through scarcity.
By making the car an expensive purchase, scarcity and value were instantly attached to this new experience, while a direct route to reaching the all-important “connectors” was established as a side benefit. Then there is the original branding message outside of the virtual world to consider.

Though being the first brand in a new space can be a valuable endeavor, it means little if the original branding message is not preserved. In this case Scion remains in keeping with their branding’s customized to the individual message by offering virtual xBs that can be customized to the user’s tastes just like with the real life xB. The last important step was tapping into the social factor of online meeting places.

This requirement was met by allowing a virtual Scion owner to pick up their friends and drive around town together, creating a new, visible social unit within the greater whole.
Taken together, we see a campaign that has:

1. Satisfied an unmet need.
2. Created scarcity and value in the digital realm.
3. Created new consumer experiences.
4. Tapped into the power of social connectors.
5. Enhanced the original branding message.
6. Played into the users’ sense of community.

Are you excited yet? These virtual spaces populated by avatars of self projection and all the new paradigms of consumer engagement they offer remain a predominantly untapped marketing opportunity. They remind me of a trip I recently took to Iceland. While Iceland is a considerably advanced, developed nation, I was surprised by the relative lack of international branding that could be found on the streets and stores of its flagship city, Reykjavik.

It is nearly an undiscovered country of branding opportunity.

That is except for one unmistakable icon, the Coca-Cola logo, which could be seen just about everywhere, on billboards, restaurant signs, vending machines and on the bottles for sale in countless shops. Coke’s masterful spread across the globe during and after World War II is a thing of branding legend. Before anyone else, Coke figured out how to turn a brand into an international phenomenon. Fast forward to today where we discover a whole new world of uncharted territory coming to exist within our ever expanding virtual realms.

Presented with such an opportunity, the question every marketer should be asking then is, who will be the Coca-Cola of this virtual frontier and thus be the first to successfully capture the imaginations of these pioneers of our digital age where they live?

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