By  on April 30, 2007

Virtual universes are no longer solely the domain of Star Trek enthusiasts. Beauty companies are among businesses now tapping into a whole new world of opportunities online, where tuned-in internauts are living double lives-and spending money.Virtual, three-dimensional worlds, such as Second Life, There, Cyworld and Virtual Laguna Beach, allow people to create computerized versions of themselves, called avatars. These can hold jobs, have hobbies and do everyday activities, such as dine at a restaurant. With the click of a mouse, avatars can chat with each other, go shopping, dancing or bowling and create things to fly around with-from vehicles to wings. At press time, Second Life counted 5.5 million residents. These can buy and sell items using "Linden dollars," a currency named after the site's parent company, Linden Labs. In any typical 24-hour period, the equivalent of $1.5 million (?1.1 million/£745,000) changes hands.Such sites have become incredibly influential, since they reach a wide demographic.In South Korea, for instance, 90% of the population under the age of 20 uses Cyworld, a 3-D social networking site, according to Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Inc. tracking firm.These new worlds serve a multitude of purposes. Candidates running for office in France, for example, opened cyber headquarters and held election rallies there, while some couples have even hosted "wedding" ceremonies. Beauty and fashion brands are also catching on to the medium's power to create buzz about real-world products. Virtual (and real) merchandise is traded regularly, as well."When you open any magazine-from technology to fashion to lifestyle-they're all talking about Second Life," said Justin Bovington, chief executive officer of Rivers Run Red, a Londonbased "immersive spaces" agency established in Second Life since 2003. The company has engineered launches there for brands, such as Calvin Klein and Reebok."Culturally, people are becoming more comfortable with the idea of having an avatar and being in a 3-D space," added Betsy Book, director of product management for There.So true-to-life are these alternative web worlds, in fact, that American Apparel fashion label opened a store in Second Life in June 2006. And L'Oreal Paris held a Miss Second Life beauty contest in March, where the event's 250 participating avatars received virtual powder compacts and lipsticks. The company will hold similar promotions every two months to promote its color-cosmetics collections."The aim was to be present through a medium that embodies modernity and high technology," said Laurent Heckmann, managing director of Paris-based Internet agency Andrea Media, whose Second Life division Aspire ran the contest for L'Oreal. "It's a new world of communication." And virtual worlds aren't just attracting women, either. The online gaming sector has long enjoyed a large male following that's paved the way for men to feel at home in other virtual environments."The Internet is a huge way to reach men," said Odile Roujol, general manager of L'Orealowned Lancome International, who added 60% of Second Life residents are, in fact, men.Beaute Prestige International (BPI) has taken note. For its recent Fleur du Male scent, the company's license Parfums Jean Paul Gaultier invited people in March to log into Second Life and visit a "Garden of Eden." There, their avatars were given flowers to wear, could listen to music and sip champagne during an hour-long garden party."It's a site of creativity," said Matthieu Prat, BPI's multimedia director. "It was an additional way to promote the launch [of Fleur du Male] among men."Lancome promoted its Hypnose Homme scent on Second Life in early March.Executives say Second Life initiatives boast numerous benefits-they not only create awareness among the highly lucrative and influential teen market, they also cost considerably less (up to 70%) than traditional TV and print advertising. Once more, they are good vectors for getting products out to consumers.When Coty Inc. introduced its youth-oriented Calvin Klein ckIN2U fragrance masterbrand in March, for example, avatars in Second Life liked to people in the U.K. could access an especially created site to obtain samples for their counterparts in the real world. Similarly, BPI organized a treasure hunt in Second Life to encourage its residents to search for hidden virtual bottles of Fleur du Male so as to win flacons of the actual scent. Meantime, the real-life person behind avatar Isabelle Sampaio, who won Miss Second Life, was given one year's supply of L'Oreal Paris products.In addition to acting as a sampling and advertising vehicle, virtual words can also operate as real-time product-testing locales, enabling marketers to understand consumer trends and try out product prototypes.Last year, Bovington's agency trialed trends for Reebok, for example. For this, avatars could customize their sneakers by choosing from 64 color variations for soles and heels. And these shoes could be changed as often as they liked and ordered in real sizes for use in the offline world."What you're doing is allowing people to have a relationship with the brand before they make the decision to buy it," he explained.People tend to be more experimental with their look in virtual worlds such as Second Life, since there's less to lose there than on earth- both personally and financially, according to Bovington. He added such sites therefore make ideal platforms for experimenting with makeup for both women and men."It's the ultimate doll's house," he said. "Just like in real life, people want to make their avatars look really beautiful."It's not surprising, then, that items related to customizing an avatar are the biggest sellers on Second Life. According to a Dec. 2006 study by Paris-based Second Life market research agency Reperes Second Life, of 400 denizens interviewed, 87% had bought clothing, 70% had acquired body parts and 63% had purchased accessories.Members of There tend to visit the site's spa, which also acts as a beauty center, to customize their avatars before exploring the rest of There's world, according to Book. So far, the site has carried out marketing initiatives with Levi's and Nike, while beauty brands have yet to make their presence felt there."There are huge opportunities in product placement and sponsorship of avatar cosmetics, hairstyles and accessories," said Book.Enthusiastic though many marketers are about brave new virtual worlds, some advise caution. They note it is hard to track the success of such online campaigns, especially when it comes to real-world sales. Further, marketing outcomes are not always easy to gauge, since blogs are currently the only source of feedback.After the L'Oreal Paris competition, for example, some disgruntled participants filled pages of Aspire's blog with comments accusing the agency of favoritism and elitism. Responding to ckIN2U's launch, where Second Life residents could pick up virtual bottles of the new fragrance and chat with each other through the text bubbles emitted instead of sprays of scent, one blogger asked: "What is the point of launching a fragrance in a virtual world in which one can not smell?" (Bovington's counterargument is that TV advertising is similarly odorless.)Some virtual world residents are wary of incursions from multinational companies into their space, which has until now been largely formed by private individuals. Denizens have even been known to form avatar rallies and demonstrations in brand-created areas. However, the lather of excitement created by such events can also be beneficial to brands. Media reports about the invasion of a Reebok store in Second Life by an organization dubbed the Second Life Liberation Army led to three-times more traffic than usual-and three times more sales, according to Bovington."It was so successful, we were accused of doing it as a viral campaign," he quipped.To avoid upsetting virtual-world residents, some brands have taken a softly-softly approach to marketing."We didn't arrive like a huge armada," said BPI's Prat, who worked with a well-known French blogger Stephane Gallieni on the Fleur du Male launch on Second Life.Lancome, meanwhile, simply placed bottles of Hypnose Homme at traffic-heavy areas of Second Life."We didn't want to create an island or build the castle of Lancome," explained Michel Capman, vice president of interactive marketing and customer relationship manager at Lancome International. He added the company sought to create added value by allowing residents to duplicate their fragrance bottle and start receiving messages by a mere touch of the virtual Hypnose Homme flacon. The brand didn't even provide a link to its own e-commerce site."If we did that, we'd have had issues with residents," said Capman. James Wagner, a journalist and blogger, who spent three years embedded in Second Life, maintains most residents are not aware or interested in real-life brands there."There is already a thriving user-made fashion industry that is far more stylish, dramatic, and-above all-more unique than anything that [established brands] have to offer," he said. Brands acknowledge that given the practically untrodden virtual terrain and new consumer habits there, it's impossible to replicate marketing techniques from the real world."We are more in a logic of test and learn," said Prat."Second Life is like the web was 10 years ago," said Capman. "People are asking: 'What is it? Is it dangerous?'"Yet, it's growing every day," he said.

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