Imagine getting into the metaverse — ironically.
That's what Heineken did this week when it said that the launch of its "virtual beer" in a "virtual brewery" in the virtual online space Decentraland was actually just a gag.
"Our new virtual beer, Heineken Silver, is an ironic joke," said Bram Westenbrink, the brand's global head, in a press release. "It is a self-aware idea that pokes fun at us and many other brands that are jumping into the metaverse with products that are best enjoyed in the real world."
Heineken even touted how the pixelated lager is made with "Binary Coded Hops grown by NPC (non-player character) farmers."
Here's the thing: the Dutch brewing company actually did open a bar in the metaverse, and whether it bought, rented, or leased the digital property, that requires money — real money.
So raise a virtual glass, Heineken. You just jumped on the metaverse bandwagon.
Courtesy of Heineken
They're not the only major brand to get on board since Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg popularized the concept last October. In fact, they're in pretty good company these days.
Sneaker giant Nike is all in on the metaverse, filing several trademark applications for virtual items and acquiring a digital studio that specializes in creating NFT sneakers.
JPMorgan, famously skeptical of crypto, just opened a virtual lounge in Decentraland and put out a report estimating that the metaverse could eventually generate $1 trillion in yearly revenues. United Kingdom bank HSBC, meanwhile, set up shop in rival metaverse domain The Sandbox.
Even CVS Pharmacy is poking around in the metaverse, as it pursues a patent for "downloadable virtual goods," including "prescription drugs, health, wellness, beauty and personal care products." (Cheddar, of course, recommends consulting your doctor before trying out any virtual meds.)
Behind the hype, however, these companies are still just dipping their toes into the metaverse, and while most haven't tried to pass it off as a joke like Heineken, they are proceeding cautiously.
Molson Coors, for example, which beat Heineken to the punch with the opening of a branded virtual bar during Super Bowl LVI, didn't just dive headfirst into the metaverse. The Miller Lite-maker saw the venture as a calculated risk, which could lead to more investment later.
"We didn't buy property in Dencentraland," Sofia Colucci, global vice president of the Miller Family of Brands, told Cheddar. "We rented because it was us testing and learning. As these spaces continue to build out, the initiatives that we do will have a broader scale and reach consumers more widely."
The company also had a compelling reason for taking the risk. Molson Coors is essentially shut out of Super Bowl commercials, due to Budweiser's exclusive contract, which explains past experiments such as an 8-hour YouTube video/soundscape called “Big Game Dream” in 2021.
"I'm very happy that we did it for a specific reason, rather than just saying we're going to jump into the metaverse," Colucci said. "We knew that we wanted to get this attention during a certain time."
She also admitted that the hype generated around the announcement was part of the appeal, not just the actual engagement with customers within the metaverse itself.
This is a crucial point when you consider that most metaverse platforms have relatively few active users at the moment compared to most social media and gaming platforms.
Decentraland, for example, has just 18,000 daily active users and 300,000 monthly users, while The Sandbox has just 30,000 monthly users. Compare that to gaming platform Roblox, which has 201 million and the value proposition for a brand like Molson Coors or JPMorgan becomes less clear.
Colucci agreed that the metaverse isn't exactly bustling at the moment, but stressed that brands like Miller Lite can have a role in drawing more users. In other words, the company is balancing the need to meet customers where they are, while also building something so they will come.
JPMorgan's report on the metaverse noted that these kinds of early investments in something as unknown as the metaverse can be hard to strategize around but are relatively low-risk: "It is difficult to base a business strategy on such a dynamic space, characterized by explosive growth and the continuous innovation of new entrants. However, the costs and risks of engaging early and consistently in order to build internal intellectual property, develop hypotheses about future business models, and identify ecosystem partners and collaborators are relatively low."
The self-taught artist J. Demsky, who helped design Heineken's virtual beer, perhaps articulated best the motivation behind companies' efforts to make the metaverse a reality: "I hope people love my interpretation of what virtual Heineken Silver could be like if it had a flavour.”
The "if" is key there. In many ways, these early-adopters are trying to give the world a taste of what the metaverse would be like if it actually was widely used and embraced. For now, though, we'll just have to throw back some pixelated suds and see if they taste like anything.