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So near yet so far: Virtual brand spaces

Exhibitions are cancelled, showrooms closed. It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to shut down all spatial experiences of their brands. But is there really no alternative? Creative Director of "MetaSpaces", our unit in Berlin that specializes in spatial design and brand physicalisation, Stephan Maus, answered some questions on developments, trends and solutions that are emerging in the field of spatial staging of brands. Here comes part one.

1. What trends are emerging in the spatial staging of brands?

In the context of spatial brand staging, involved presentation and participation scenarios are of increasing importance. In recent years, the degree of involvement of a previously rather passive public has grown consistently. In many, it is possible to see the effort to bring people into an actual dialog with brands, instead of presenting them with something to be amazed over. Formats such as the classic trade fair are visibly losing their significance - and not only since Covid-19 Exhibition stands at last year’s IAA or other leading trade fairs are becoming smaller year on year and are staged with less expense. Some well-known manufacturers do not make an appearance at all and are financing new ways. They no longer focus on exchanges within the industry, on offering leading and order trade fairs - they are concentrating on targeted discourse and present themselves and their products closer to the consumer.

And what is the impact of the current crisis on the subject?

The current situation clearly represents a turning point. We talk almost daily with companies who currently no longer reach their target groups in the usual way. Retail, trade fairs, events or visits to headquarters - all of this can only take place under large restrictions, if at all. If you as a company find that your image essentially depends on how well Skype or Zoom work, this can be very frustrating. Independent brand experience quickly falls into bad ways when there is daily improvisation with the available tools.

How do you confront this challenge?

The current situation is the ultimate catalyst for processes which already stood out clearly before. We therefore understand it rather as a booster for new ideas.

If, for example, a few weeks ago, companies were searching above all for fast options to present the already designed, but canceled, trade fairs by way of a VR tour for a public with little interest, there has to be some reorientation. The realization that they are no longer bound to the usual limits of spatial size, constructive implementation or construction costs, creates new scope for more creative approaches which comprise more content, such as the virtual brand space.

2. What is a virtual brand space?

The idea is simple. A virtual brand space strengthens a company’s digital presence in that it connects different brand subjects and channels with one another in an exciting way. It is therefore not understood as a competition, but rather as a modern addition to existing offers, such as the existing web-site. This is not a rigid structure, but rather a flexible and expandable plat-form.

This includes not only the presentation of products and services, but also of normally external communication tools like online chats, video conferences or webinar events.

The visual implementation of such a platform can be designed objectively, abstractly or imaginatively according to the requirements of the particular brand identity. Users move through this virtual brand cosmos either freely or along a pre-defined storyline. If they want, they will receive help to orient themselves and more in-depth information (hot spots or touch-points). The exciting and surprising spatial self-discovery of the brand and its products by the user as “explorer” combines with new perspectives, actions and interactive offers.

The degree of reality when spatially using such a place can be controlled differently. Using hot-spot based tours, the points of a User Journey can be pre-defined relatively well. Real-time based tours convey a higher degree of freedom, but must also take the abilities of the user into account. (Not everyone is an experienced gamer.) In some areas of application, the experience factor is also increased by the customization on special technical devices, such as VR glasses (like from Samsung, Oculus, HTC). The visual experience thus becomes even more realistic. For general use, the technical requirements as well as the expenses to instruct people in this technology, which is currently not widely distributed, is mostly too high.

3. What differentiates physical spatial staging from virtual? Can you transfer principles of brand staging into the virtual space?

It is also essential in the virtual space to have a consistent storyline and stringent storytelling for the brand and its products or services, and to guide the visitor through the virtual space to e.g. a highlight and the most important touch-points.

The limit of the brand space and the spatial program must also be clearly recognizable in virtuality - being able to orient yourself at any time is a decisive criterion when guiding a visitor. The freedoms in a playful staging are however greater than in a physical space. Exciting or surprising moments between the visitors and the brand can be created again and again.

4. Can a virtual brand space replace a physical space entirely? Where are the limits for the virtual space? How can physical and virtual space expand practically?

Tap the rim of a Porsche 911, try out a new cockpit or a freshly prepared food, remember the handshake the last time you met with friends or good business partners. The advantage which physical brand spaces like trade fairs or retail stores still have over the virtual spaces are the tactile impressions and the real face-to-face experience. Personalized chats and other online dialog tools can compensate for information functions from sellers or consultants, but cannot make up for the emotional situation of real contacts. Trade fairs in particular are also still meeting points to “see and be seen” and for spontaneous discussions.

A physical space constitutes an experience with all your senses. All of this is possible in the real space, but is only very limited in the virtual space. Personally meeting and interacting with other people is essential. You notice how important personal contact is or indeed how much it is missing during this corona crisis. From this perspective, a virtual meeting cannot yet replace a personal meeting exactly. But something is currently changing in social perception, above all among the younger generation. Take the gam-ing industry: Multiplayer online games, for example, are an indication that virtual spaces, if they fulfill particular criteria, can cover many aspects of social interaction. Friendships are made here, without people meeting in person. This shows where the journey is going.

To summarize: When we consider the spaces relevant to us (exhibition stands, shops and experience worlds), these have very different functions. These can be portrayed virtually with varying success. The physical experience of a space and the “real” interaction between people cannot yet be simulated 1:1 in the virtual space with the current state of the art. This will however in all likelihood become closer in future.

In any case, the greatest potentials are not produced by delimiting the two worlds, but rather through the many possibilities of combining them. This is because the virtual space is always interacting with the physical space. We are of course therefore also interested in where the virtual application will be made use of and how it integrates into surroundings - e.g. in a holistic office concept.

_Stephan Maus is Creative Director at MetaDesign Berlin
_Image: © MetaDesign. View on virtual MetaDesign island