Virtual Signalling: What virtual status can tell us about the future of brands


Consumers’ desire for entertainment, novelty and status can be realised just as effectively without the physical footprint that is proving so damaging to the planet, explains Patricia McDonald from Dentsu Creative.

I was recently introduced (amidst considerable protest about how homework is so unfair) to the Times Table Rockstars platform. For those unfamiliar with how and why homework is so very unfair, schoolchildren complete maths assignments for which they earn virtual currency. Rewarded with virtual coins they can upgrade their Rockstar avatars with new guitars, better hair, cooler dance moves, and so on.

What amazed me was how instantly and completely my children embraced the idea of virtual currency and virtual status, immediately planning how to spend their “coins” and intuitively understanding that a cooler avatar conferred real status among the under 10s.

Of course, they’re not alone in that. In the last 18 months, we have seen an extraordinary transformation in the perceived value of virtual goods and services. Virtual art changes hands for six figure sums. A collection of Bored Ape NFTS was auctioned at Sotheby’s in September for over $24m. Luxury brands from Gucci to Balenciaga are experimenting with virtual products and in-game partnerships.

A generation is coming of age that does not assume that virtual products, experiences or encounters are inherently any less valuable than those in the physical space. This creates a step change in how we think about brands, products and experiences.

CMOs are embracing virtual experiences

Our recent Isobar CX Survey of 800 CMOs across the globe revealed that clients across the board are also taking virtual experiences, products and services more seriously. COVID-19 has not only accelerated the digital economy, it has changed forever the way we think about all things virtual or remote.

Eight-six percent of CMOs agree that a majority of the interactions customers have with brands now happen online. They also agree that virtual products and services will play a much greater role in their future customer interactions.

When asked which changes will persist post COVID, 47% of CMOs believe that greater use of virtual experiences such as AR try-ons and remote consultations is here to stay, while 42% agree that an increase in the value of virtual events and virtual products will persist. Thirty-five percent have already implemented more remote products with 31% planning to do so in the near future. 

It’s easy to mock or to marvel, of course. The notion of spending real money on virtual products or digital art can seem absurd or unbelievable. Particularly in a climate where many are struggling with very real supply chain issues.

Yet we’ve long known there is little correlation between the intrinsic value of, say, an artwork or a luxury handbag and the price people are prepared to pay for them. Damien Hirst’s recent experiment, The Currency, highlights this tension. Ten thousand A4-sized artworks in Hirst’s familiar dot print style each sold initially for $2,000 dollars. Each artwork is also an NFT. By June 2022, collectors must decide whether to keep the physical artwork or the NFT – the other will be destroyed. The results will be a fascinating commentary on the value of virtual.

Creating a sustainable future

Why now, we may ask? Why have we suddenly seen a step change in the value of all things virtual? The pandemic is undoubtedly one compelling reason, as overnight so much of what we took for granted in the physical space moved online. The coming of age of a generation of gamers is another. 

Perhaps another compelling reason, conscious or unconscious, is the climate emergency.

The uncomfortable reality is that if we are to make a sustainable future possible we must consume less, use less, make less and discard less. It is a deeply uncomfortable reality for an industry obsessed with more. More growth. More units. More sales. More shoppers.

Yet what the rise of virtual fashion and virtual events show is that it may be possible, at least in some sectors, to decouple revenue growth from our impact on the planet. Our desire for entertainment, novelty and status can be realised just as effectively without the physical footprint that is so damaging to the planet.

(It is important to note, of course, that NFTs today have a significant energy footprint; innovation in the field of renewable NFTs is progressing however and NTFs are one virtual technology among many).

Many years ago I was lucky enough to work with one of the first UK mobile networks. “We sell vibrating air” was a mantra the team were frequently reminded of. Charles Revson famously said, In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope.”

When it comes to wrestling with the changes needed to deliver a sustainable future, there is a truth of our industry hidden in plain sight. We have never really sold the product. We have always sold the promise, the hope, the air. With the technologies now at our disposal we can sell the promise more effectively than ever, making that promise tangible in new ways that are much less dependent on bricks and mortar, canvas and fabric.

A whole new set of craft skills will be needed to make this promise a reality, at the intersection of craft and innovation. Again, clients are aligning around this opportunity and asking for our skills:

  • 85% of CMOs agree that an online store should feel as distinctive as an offline store,
  • 86% of marketers say creating brand design systems for a multi-sensory world is increasingly important,
  • 83% agree that gaming represents a new storytelling opportunity for marketers.

The opportunity is there, not only to push new boundaries in what’s possible, but to make a real and sustainable (in every sense) difference to how our clients go to market and how that impacts the world. To help businesses make the fundamental pivots needed to achieve a future that is less dependent on the relentless consumption of resources and more dependent on our ability to weave stories and imbue value in the intangible.

Thorton Wilder once wrote, “The future is the most expensive luxury in the world,” but it is also, undoubtedly, the most precious.

This article first appeared in

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