Branding in the metaverse with Roblox

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The metaverse has taken the world by storm in the last year, but that’s nothing new for Roblox. In this episode, we talk to Christina Wootton, Vice President of Brand Partnerships at Roblox, about the power of community and her advice to brands looking to authentically come onto the platform.

Heather: While the metaverse has taken the world by storm in the last year, it’s nothing new for Roblox. In fact, the company has been at the forefront of the virtual world for over two decades—and today it’s stronger than ever. Post IPO stocks are surging, users are growing and Roblox continues to ramp up innovative and meaningful partnerships with brands such as Gucci, Chipotle, Disney, Netflix and many more. I’m thrilled to be speaking with the woman who is behind all of that: Christina Wootten, vice president of global brand partnerships at Roblox. Christina joined in 2014, which is decades ago in digital years, and has since helped bring the brand to the top of its game. Welcome, Christina.

Christina: Thank you, Heather. It’s so great to be here with you.

Heather: I think that there’s a misconception that Roblox is just one video game. For those who are not familiar with the platform, explain what it is and why you think it’s been so successful.

Christina: There are a few misconceptions about Roblox. A misconception is that it is one game. There are many, many experiences—millions—on our platform, and they’re all built by our community. Also, some of the experiences have gameplay to them, but a lot of experiences are really open worlds where you come to socialize and connect and just hang out with your friends.

So there doesn’t have to necessarily be gameplay within each experience. And we’re seeing this more and more, where sometimes it’s just somewhere where you go to experience entertainment or you can just share together, collaborate together. And then, if you think about how we are ushering in this new category of human co-experience, you can really imagine that, instead of viewing something or reading something online, it’s really jumping in with friends. And what we love is, we hear so many people who talk about the experiences on Roblox and talk about it as if they were really there. You can’t even tell the difference if it was in real life or if it was on Roblox. Take, for example, Gucci Gardens; that was an exhibition that was in Florence, Italy; during the pandemic. You could go to Florence, Italy; but if you couldn’t, you could still visit it on Roblox. And it was such a beautiful experience, because you can go in; you shed your avatar, so everybody started the same as a mannequin; and you go throughout the experience and grab patterns and colors from the environment. So you just went through this experience with friends, and you can dress up with the Gucci items, like the B bag. And at the end, you were all a work of art. In two weeks, we saw 20 million visits. And for anybody who wants to experience it, there’s really that accessibility and that opportunity— which we love. It’s just really so memorable for them.

Heather: First, the fact that, for most of us, being able to attend is impossible—not even given the restrictions because of COVID, right? So, it just provides access in this new way. And what I also love is that you’re not just experiencing it, you’re part of it—and that idea that you are the art. Why do you think fashion has been an industry that’s tapped into this in really exciting ways?

Christina: The fashion industry is so forward-thinking; they’re always trying to stay on top of trends. We don’t see this going away, because our platform is all UGC [user-generated content]. And so, our community will see what’s going on in the real world, and they’ll recreate things like that on Roblox. But the fashion industry, when they think about how users are expressing themselves, how people are expressing themselves in this space, your online identity is so important in the metaverse and how you represent yourself in this digital space. And a lot of times you meet somebody digitally first, then in the real world. And so that first impression is so important. Also, this world gives you an opportunity for experimentation. So, a lot of people like myself will watch a fashion show—and I love the dresses and want to wear them so badly. Maybe I have nowhere to wear it in the real world, or maybe I’m a little bit uncomfortable wearing it because it’s so fantastical. But on Roblox, immediately I will put it on because it’s just my avatar; it’s really a way for you to express yourself in a different way than you normally would in the real world. There’s a lot of co-creation and collaboration on Roblox, so you can give designs or colors to the audience and see what they come up with. It’s really fun to see that real-time feedback, what they’re looking for in terms of fashion and how they express themselves.

Then, a big one is sustainability. Fashion brands are looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Digital fashion and virtual goods are really the space for them to do that, because you can test products before they’re created in the real world and get that feedback. So, you don’t waste physical fabrics and products creating it.

And, of course, it is a great revenue opportunity. A lot of brands come to us, and they think of Roblox as a space that has this massive reach and engagement—which, of course, it does. Then, through virtual goods and digital fashion, it’s a massive revenue opportunity for brands.

Heather: I think I read that one of the Gucci purses sold for more than it was sold in the physical store. And that alone is such a unique but exciting proposition for brands.

Christina: It is. I think that blew their minds, because—it’s crazy to think—but that just really shows how important it is for people and how they represent themselves to their digital identity. And things people want in the real world they also want in this space—sometimes more so. We hear from Gen Z all the time that they value virtual goods sometimes more than physical goods—especially because of that sustainability element and just because it’s more environmentally friendly. We’re so excited for where fashion is going in this space. I think it’s just going to take off, really.

Heather: How do you think users view their digital identity as either different or the same as their actual identity?

Christina: I love the fact that you can be anybody that you want to be in this space. I think about that all the time, because we are a global platform—people from different cultures and different areas of the world. Maybe they can’t express themselves the way they want to in the world. So, this is the opportunity for them to do that, meet other people, be anybody that they want to be. I just think that opportunity is so special for anybody around the world. And, a lot of times, people find their communities on Roblox. Whomever they want to be, they find like-minded people and become friends and kind of go through these experiences together. So, it’s great that you can come in together with friends and meet friends and then really just explore and be whoever you want to be.

Heather: I imagine a lot of brands are coming to you and saying, we want to do something exciting. What’s the process of creating something that then is out in the world that we all can experience?

Christina: Yeah, it’s really funny, because I actually started working with Roblox over nine years ago. And in the early days, we would really go out and proactively pitch a lot of brands about Roblox and educate them on the platform and how they should engage with their users. And a lot of brands started coming on—the movie studios, Disney—and they saw massive engagement and really just kept continuing to be on the platform. We want to make sure we’re bringing the best brands to our community. So, we actually surveyed them. We asked them: Which brands and celebrities do you want to see on the platform? Which ones do you want to engage with? So, our team makes sure we go out and speak to those brands about authentically coming onto the platform.

At the same time, because Roblox is UGC, it’s an open platform. A lot of brands are coming on right now, and they’re connecting directly with our community of developers and UGC creators and working directly with them. We just saw this recently with Jailbreak, which is one of our top experiences and has 5.4 billion visits—which is absolutely crazy. And NASCAR came to us and said, “We’d love to be on the platform. Are there any experiences that would make sense for us?” We introduced them to the developers of Jailbreak. And in Jailbreak, there are vehicles; and people like to go in and drive the cars and race fast. So, they worked directly together, where we just made the connection, and they decided what this would look like to authentically bring NASCAR into Jailbreak. It launched, and in 10 days had 24 million visits. So, it’s just such a great opportunity for brands to not only create their own experiences or their own virtual items but also to work directly with the community and integrate into their experiences and work together with them.

Heather: What is something that you have discovered through research or just through observation that was surprising to you in terms of how people are using the platform?

Christina: We come onto the platform every day and see new experiences and new genres popping up. And that’s what I love about Roblox. It is user- generated content. So, with our community, anything they can imagine or they would love to create, they create on the platform, they’re building this. And I love just seeing what’s coming from their amazing minds—people all over the world and what they create. It’s something you could probably never think of yourself. If I tried to create an experience on Roblox, I would never, think about some of these ideas. And they’re just so fun and so popular.

I think one example could be Squid Games on our platform. You know, that is just such a popular series—and, as soon as it launched, our audience loved it. A lot of them were creating experiences based on red light/green light. They really do take something that they’re really excited about or something that they’re seeing in the real world that’s becoming really popular and will recreate something on Roblox. It’s celebrating their fandom and allowing others to kind of share that experience with them. You know, Netflix came out and just said that they were really excited about it, because it was a lot of promotion and awareness for the show. And Netflix loves the fact that this was a place where their fans could come together and celebrate what they love about the series. We’re seeing things pop up every day that are just really fun. And that’s why I think that we’ll continue to see that this isn’t going to stop. We’ll always find new, fresh content on our platform.

Heather: What’s so interesting is that we talk about collaboration, but I feel like this is a whole new definition of what collaboration is. It’s like this ecosystem of all of these players coming and trying to build something more meaningful. Is it a lot to keep up with?

Christina: We are seeing a lot of demand from brands, and the wonderful thing is that we have this great community of developers and UGC creators who are creating amazing content and are interested in working with our partners and brands. Sometimes we just make the connections with the brands and the developer community. So, I think that, because we have such a great developer community, it makes things a little bit easier. And we’re creating tools right now to actually make this easier to have a self-sustaining ecosystem, so that brands can seamlessly connect with developers and UGC creators and work directly together.

Heather: How do you continue to engage and support the developer community, which is such an important part of the Roblox community?

Christina: They are very important. One of our top values is to respect the community. Because they are the ones that are creating the content, they’re the ones that are creating the metaverse, we want to make sure that we’re always providing them the best technology and best tools—anything we can do to help them create and continue to build. We have a developer relations team that’s absolutely amazing and that works with our developers to make sure that they are able to continue to do what they do best. And then, in terms of brands and how they will work with the community, we’ll just make sure that they are also creators of our community; when they’re working on their own experiences and collaborating with developers, that they also have the tools that allow them to really come on authentically and make sure that their brand is resonating with the audiences and things like that. So those tools will keep improving and making it easy for brands to do what they want to do on the platform, as well.

Heather: I read a statistic that almost half of the users are women and that there’s huge growth that you’re seeing over age 13.

Christina: It’s so great to see that almost half our audience is female—because, when I started, it was very heavily male. That was almost nine years ago. And to see that audience evolve, and how much this really is for everyone, I think it’s because we have this flywheel where, the more experiences that are being developed, the more people will come and share that with their friends. I think that we’ve seen such amazing experiences come onto the platform for anybody—experiences like Royal High and Fashion Famous and where it’s really evolved around self-expression and fashion and things like that. Also, the 17 to 24 [age group]is our fastest growing demo. I think, again, the improvement of our technology—and the new experiences that are on the platform that really resonate well with all different demographics—is really helping to excite that older demo. We saw this with Gucci Garden. A lot of the participants that came and visited the Gucci Garden were over 13. The more developers are creating these amazing experiences, we’re just going to see this continue to grow. We really see Roblox as a place for people to work together, learn together. They can virtually shop and experience entertainment. There’s going to be so much there for anyone to come in and experience.

Heather: So, you’ve mentioned metaverse; and it’s interesting, because I think there was a time when people were wondering, as a marketer, what’s my social strategy? What’s my digital strategy? What’s my gaming strategy? And now, it’s: What’s my metaverse strategy? What advice would you give to them, and how do you see this evolving over time?

Christina: There is no other place where you can really engage your audiences like you can on Roblox. There is, again, that two-way conversation happening; you’re collaborating in real time. You can launch virtual items and, in hours, millions of people are already wearing it and talking about it. I think this is the future of how people will interact. And if you think about 12 to 15 years ago, when companies were thinking about how can I have my social media presence and have a social channel, they didn’t have anybody to work on that. They were hiring individuals or teams. The same thing is happening right now. When we’re speaking with brands, they are thinking: How can I enter this space? And who’s going to work on the strategy for this? So they are hiring individuals and teams. Also agencies are popping up that are helping brands learn how they can come onto this platform. Three to five years from now, every brand will have a Roblox strategy; and they’re going to be able to engage with their audiences in a way that they’ve never been able to do before.

Heather: There is something very unique about Roblox and about the culture—and about the people that are there. What do you think makes it so great? What about the culture has helped get the organization where it is today?

Christina: Oh, this is something that I’m probably most proud of. Since I started at Roblox, our CEO Dave has always had this vision; and he doesn’t really stray from that vision. No matter if things come to us with, maybe, a short-term benefit, he really takes the long view. And it’s always been built around bringing people together, connecting and shared experiences—but in a safe and positive environment. Especially having three boys, I think about how they’re going to interact in the future. And I see what we do on Roblox and how passionate our teams are around safety and stability, it makes me feel really good that we’re moving toward this future where, hopefully, people will interact online and in the metaverse and on Roblox in this safe and civil way; that, hopefully, we’re changing the future for the better; and we have teams that are dedicated to making the platform as safe as possible, but also that these environments are more positive; that you’re having fun; and when you leave the platform, the way your mental health has been impacted in a more positive way and not negatively, so you’re not feeling horrible when you get off the platform. We hear from so many parents of our users about how Roblox is getting them through so many challenges in the real world, whether that’s bullying or going through chemo or something like that. It just really is so special to me that we’re making this difference in people’s lives in a positive way. And that’s going to continue. That’s our number one priority. It really is about the fact that we care so much about our community and how we are, hopefully, changing the world for the better—because it is scary online. And when I think about my kids, and I really hope that more platforms will take this as seriously as Roblox does.

Heather: I’d be curious if there are things that you’re seeing emerge from your vantage point that might give us an indication of different opportunities for marketers and for brands as they think about the metaverse.

Christina: Years ago, brands were very closed to sharing how people could use their IP. A lot of brands are thinking differently now. They really want to involve their audiences, get feedback from them and allow them to share and create with them; and we’re seeing this. Vans has been very open to this—and Netflix, also. And, if you think about just how you can get that real-time feedback…when you think about Gen Z and how you can stay relevant to these new generations and involve them in the process because. I think, for them to really feel passionate and respect their favorite brands, they want to be heard…I think that openness for brands, they’re going to see such a change in getting that feedback before they ever create products or they ever release even movies or things like that if they’re getting the ideas from their fans.

Heather: A lot of businesses are talking about the great resignation and the war for talent, and I’m imagining people are clamoring to be able to work for an organization like Roblox. What do you look for when you’re looking for your next great hire?

Christina: I think that we’re looking for people who are aligned with our values. They’re going to respect the community; they’re going to take the long view. And I look for passionate people who are really going to work hard and be nice to people. That’s kind of what I live by. And so, if they’re very passionate about what they’re doing and want to do groundbreaking things, we’re always looking for that innovative idea that we can bring to the world. When we talk about civility, that’s the differentiator between Roblox and other companies. And if you see that passion within them, that’s just amazing.

Heather: I do think people want to work for places that they really believe in and that they feel proud to say, “I’m part of this, and I believe in what we’re doing.”

Christina: I think a lot of people want to have a purpose in what they’re doing. You spend so much time working; and when I really feel like we are doing such great things for the future of how people will connect, that kind of is what drives me.

Heather: You’ve worked with so many amazing partners. Do you have a dream partner?

Christina: I do. I think about the future of how people will come on to Roblox. And I love the idea of people coming together and designing together and creating different outfits and sharing feedback with one another and walking virtual runways. There are a few things that we’re working on and that I’m really excited about. When I think about my dream partnership or collaboration it’s around digital fashion.

Heather: Roblox really is in a class by itself, but are there competitors or other forces that kind of keep you up at night?

Christina: We have such a focus on what we’re building—and that comes all the way from our CEO Dave. Everybody else around the company is just so focused on what we’re building and where we’re trying to go—and, really, this new category of human co-experience and making the tools available to our community—that we are not really getting distracted We’ve always had this focus, and it’s really just taking this long view; we kind of just stay on that track. So, I wouldn’t say that we’re necessarily thinking about what all the competitors are doing, because we’re just so focused on what we’re building here.

Heather: This podcast is all about showcasing today’s rising leaders and icons. I’m wondering if you have an icon; and, if so, tell me.

Christina: Yeah, there are so many people that inspire me and that I look up to. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about Sara Blakely and what she did with Spanx and kind of where she came from, because it resonated a lot with me. And the fact that she was selling fax machines, just trying to get by, and then had this idea for Spanx and really just grew that out of her home and worked so hard. She is just so inspirational in terms of having this company and, recently, giving back to her employees by sending them all on trips and giving them $10,000 each to make sure they had such a great time…really thinking about who helped her get to where she is. I grew up with a single father who raised my two brothers and myself—just a really humble background—and really worked my way up to where I am today. But there are so many people who helped me along the way and gave me opportunities. I just think about wanting to give back, as well, and making sure that I’m always thinking about whoever helped me. Sara also has four children, and I have three boys. Just trying to balance that career with also being a working mom is so hard sometimes. I really go from waking up, from spending time with the kids, to working, and spending time with the kids, to working again…and it’s very exhausting. But if you love what you’re doing, it’s all worth it. So I just think about Sara, who has done such amazing things but was still able to have four children at the same time. It’s really inspirational to me, and I love the fact that, hopefully, people realize that they can do it. You can really have a career but still have the family that you want, as well. And, hopefully, you have a great support system and people who are helping you along the way.

Heather: What advice do you have for those who are struggling? Maybe they push off having kids, because they want to focus on their career or vice versa. Any advice for them?

Christina: Keep dreaming big. I know that it’s hard sometimes. I mean, everybody always asks me, like, “oh, how do you do it?” And I say, I just survived every single day. I have a really amazing husband, who’s very supportive; and we’re a team. We just balance each other out. When we need each other’s help, it’s almost like, “Tag, you’re it.” I think, you know, just don’t necessarily let the fear of thinking whether you can do it stop you.

Heather: I think that long view that you’ve said Roblox has taken to heart—to not just be this great tech company or be this great platform for developers but actually, fundamentally, improve the way we interact with one another—is pretty amazing. It’s a pretty big dream. And it makes sense that someone like you would be there. So I just want to thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us. We’re so excited to see what’s going to come next.

This article first appeared in www.lippincott.com

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