Tuesday 21 August 2007

Brand Protection in Virtual Worlds

The topic of branding should be close to the heart of any organisation setting up in a virtual world. In theory, this new environment should not pose any greater problem than existing communications channels, such as the web, TV or the printed word. However, there is one key difference between this and existing channels: it is an unknown.

I will use Second Life to illustrate my thesis - mainly because it is aVW that I know well, and it is still the VW of choice for organisations.

I don't have any facts and figures to back up my assertion, but I believe that many organisations come into Second Life following the efforts of employees who are already residents and avid advocates of virtual worlds. The objective, definition and approach for the subsequent build will normally fall to the marketing folks who are responsible for brand and channel exploitation. However, the dynamics of environments like Second Life, despite their initial superficial similarity to the real world, are not simple to understand and may often confound expectations. A lack of understanding of the technology, physics and social dynamics of Second Life can lead to well-intentioned but flawed deployments. It does not require an Einstein to see that a poorly thought-out deployment will inevitably reflect badly on an organisation's brand.

An alternative course may be to allow your advocates to run with the build. But your organisation is then dependent on these people understanding and working within the constraints inherent in protecting your brand. These are not necessarily skills I would expect from Second Lifers, who are far more used to behaving in a free and unconstrained manner within the virtual world.

The perceived route of least risk would be to employ a specialist company capable of advising on the marketing approach, as well as managing the construction of the site. There are many such companies plying their wares across a number of virtual worlds. But even this is not without its problems, as the number of corporate ghost sims will attest. More importantly, these companies can only ever act as brand consultants. The organisation itself retains full responsibility and accountability for the protection of its brand.

Consequently, there has to be a level of "brand policing" applied by the organisation on the work of its builders. But if the "brand police" lack Second Life experience, how qualified are they to assess the suitability of the build? They can ensure that the static look and feel meets brand guidelines, but assessing the "usability" of the build is far more complicated. I have seen more than a few sites that meet brand guidelines, yet deliver a wholly unsatisfactory user experience.

In my view, the approach must start with a private build, involving (and educating) the branding folks as soon as possible. Use specialists where appropriate, placing particular emphasis on brand conformance and usability testing, to ensure that both the static and dynamic aspects of the build fully satisfy the brand police. I would not be surprised to find that the brand guidelines are reviewed and extended as a result of the exercise.

Well... it's a thought.

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