Retailers are rushing to the metaverse, but at what cost to their brand?

Op-ed

Ever since Facebook rebranded as Meta and announced it was investing $10 billion in creating a virtual world, the term metaverse has exploded and initiated a flurry of announcements from other big tech firms. Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and Apple all have skin in the game; and their investments in platforms and devices are helping to make the metaverse feel tantalising close. 

Big tech’s appetite for the metaverse reflects the potential for businesses to make eye watering sums of money. Goldman Sachs recently said it values the metaverse as an $8 trillion opportunity in revenue and monetisation. 

Not to be left behind by high tech, big brand retailers are also staking a major claim in the metaverse. Brands like Ralph Lauren and Estée Lauder have made announcements in recent weeks about their intention to explore the metaverse as a new sales and engagement channel. Walmart is said to be considering its own cryptocurrency to support its move. 

These retailers and others will join a growing list of early adopters, with perhaps the best-known example being retail fashion brand Vans and gaming company Roblox. In September 2021, the two brands teamed up to create ‘Vans World’, an interactive virtual skate park that gives fans a way to express their individuality through avatars. Skate fans can practice their virtual skate skills and browse, customise, and buy exclusive Vans gear. In essence, Vans World provides Vans’ customers with a way to combine their passion for fashion and gaming, while sharing it with others online. Charging towards new digital frontiers to create memorable customer experiences is clearly exciting. 

However, risk to brand equity looms large in the metaverse. Privacy, data, and trust are already under great scrutiny in existing digital environments, and there are real fears that dystopian worlds could be created – even if unwittingly. 

It’s my view that the metaverse will exacerbate the risks, becoming the perfect hunting ground for cyber criminals and hackers. Let’s face it, criminals will know that policing nefarious activity will become much harder as jurisdictions become blurred. Fraud, extortion, theft, and social engineering are all crimes that could be more easily executed at scale, so retailers need to be acutely aware of the consequences for their brand and business.

It’s easy to see why. Retail is one of the most cyber-attacked industries after banking and government. Malicious bots scraping price sensitive data and credit card information from e-commerce sites and major attacks on supply chains are daily occurrences. 

Four questions that must be answered

While some retailers are taking early advantage of the metaverse, others will wait to see how things play out. Some simply won’t have the technical infrastructure to support a metaverse strategy. Even those that sit on the sidelines, however, can’t ignore the digital virtual world. It’s coming. That’s a given. The question is, how do retailers prepare for it? 

For starters, there are fundamental questions about brand, trust, data, and security that every retailer should answer when developing a metaverse strategy.

How will I protect my brand?

Retailers need to think about brand when setting up shop in the metaverse and how they are going to protect that brand from abuse. 

When consumers walk down the high street in the real world and enter a clothing store, they use visual and sensory clues to assess the validity of a brand. These signals help the consumer build trust with the brand and learn to tell the difference between one apparel store compared to another. The stores all have a certain feel about them irrespective of the logo on the front door. 

When consumers enter the metaverse, however, how will they be able to differentiate real brands from counterfeits? How can the sensory set of clues they rely on in the real world be replicated in the metaverse? How can a consumer be sure an advert is genuine? Or that a pair of jeans aren’t a knock off? Without the right forethought, preparation, and protections, the metaverse could quickly distort a brand’s values.  

How will I know what or who I can trust?

There is no security guard at the front door into the metaverse, just as there isn’t online. Typically, usernames and passwords, perhaps even fingerprint, or face recognition technology are used to verify individuals before they log in. Is that enough for the metaverse?

Retailers need to think through how they will determine whether a customer walking through their virtual store front is an authentic customer or a fraudster. What will they do if they discover visitors aren’t who they say they are? How can they protect other users from abuse? Avatars make the process of authentication more complex than ever before. Businesses that think they can just lift and shift their current verification process to the metaverse are far from ready for the new era.

How will I manage data processing at scale?

The metaverse will generate volumes of data on a scale not seen before. Aside from understanding how this amount of data will be stored, managed, and analyzed for business insight, customer experience improvements and sales growth, companies must also ask how it will be protected. How can sensitive data be classified so that it is secure? What data protection assurances can be offered to individuals that use a retailer’s metaverse service? 

Wrapped up in these challenges is also the much bigger question of whether data privacy laws are ready for the metaverse. There could be some significant upheaval on this front. Retailers need to not only agree on their own strategy but also anticipate the way in which pressures could be exerted from governments, law enforcement organisations, and governing bodies. 

How do I keep my metaverse secure?

The metaverse is limitless. It therefore begs the question how do retailers deliver security at scale when there are already significant challenges safeguarding their digital assets on-prem and in the cloud? This is a time when best practice must be employed. Zero trust models must be adopted. Security must be built into all business processes — it can’t be an afterthought. Only then will the customers entering the metaverse and the brands living there be protected.

By Daniel Cohen, Radware vice president of cloud services

Op-ed

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