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Marketing in the metaverse: Stella Artois sponsors virtual horses

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It is hard to believe, but it works. Marketers have discovered how to reach new clients during digital horse races, one of the fastest growing branches of the metaverse. The horses in these races do not exist in reality, but are digital assets. The world's largest beer brewer AB InBev, known for brands such as Budweiser and Stella Artois, takes part in the digital horse racing platform Zed Run.

Horse racing is nothing new to Stella Artois that has been the official sponsor of famous racing tracks such as Ascot. But sponsoring a virtual event with virtual horses is something different. On Zed Run players can buy and breed horses and take part in races. Virtual horses on the platform (built by Australian-based startup Virtually Human Studio), have already been sold for more than $150.000. With its history of sport sponsoring AB InBev was eager to be among the first to start a sport sponsorship in the metaverse.

Breed and raise your digital horses
„My role is to look at emerging technologies," says Lindsey McInerney, global head of technology and innovation at Anheuser-Busch InBev during an online seminar on marketing in the metaverse. „My thesis is that brands should parallel in the metaverse what they do in reality. We started to explore where communities in spaces are doing similar things to what consumers are doing in reality and how we can connect with them. Zed Run is a premium digital horse racing platform which is an Ethereum based game where you can own, breed and raise digital horses."

Within AB InBev two brands have a connection with horses. Budweiser is known for campaigns with its Clydesdales and stables in reality. „The other one is Stella Artois, that sponsored the most premium horse races in reality, and now we partner with the most premium digital horse race in the world. My side was not going to add value for AB InBev, but for the players, for the consumers of this Zed Run platform. It turned out to be a real big success."

Users feel attached to their digital horse
Virtual horse racing is now a big thing on the internet, but for outsiders not always easy to understand. The virtual horses on Zed Run are what creators refer to as 'breathing NFTs', non-fungible tokens that actually take on a life of their own. Users are able to name their horses themselves, but how they behave on the track is left up to algorithms based on characteristics such as their bloodlines and how removed a horse is from its ancestors.

The idea of taking care of your digital horse reminds of Tamagotchi, the digital pet from the '90s. Users now feel in a similar way attached to their horses. „It is about bridging the real with the virtual and developing an NFT you can connect with," explains Zed Run co-founder Geoff Wellman to the Miami New Times. „Each racehorse is unique, it will behave slightly differently and will take you on a different journey. We have traced stable owners who have traded their racehorse telling us they still keep an eye on how the racehorse is doing because of the connection they have with it.'

Stella Artois-themed skins
Vice magazine tried the Zed Run platform to find out how it works. The fun part is buying a horse. Can you afford the exclusive, expensive Nakamoto breed or do you opt for a cheaper variant? In terms of color, do you go for celestial blue or something else? The race itself takes place on a dark, futuristic racetrack somewhere in the metaverse. Each race has 12 horses, which you can enter based on your horse's previous performance. The algorithm that runs on the platform can lead to thousands of different outcomes. Ultimately, the Vice team was not the most successful, although their horse 'became a proud father to two offspring'.

Stella Artois created a set of unique horse breeds for Zed Run, complete with Stella Artois-themed skins and a 3D racetrack for users to enjoy. The 50 unique horses for the digital races were according to Forbes sold for millions of dollars. The experience serves as a nice example for other brands that want to experiment with marketing in the metaverse.

When the real and virtual world come together
On the long run real and virtual worlds may come closer together. AB InBev's vision is to include ways that involve the consumption of their drinks. During the virtual horse races, you might run into a friend and buy him a beer. That beer is then delivered to your home in the real world and consumed while you and your friend are watching the virtual races. Or you might buy a virtual t-shirt to commemorate the event, as Sifted magazine suggest, of which a real version will be delivered to your home.

The virtual realm is now receiving more attention from major brands. „This is something that people who are in to science fiction have talked about for a long time," McInerney says. „The pandemic has poured gasoline on all things digital. Now you are seeing Louis Vuitton and Warner Brothers, not small brands, enter this space. We have been excited about this for a while. This is now a space that traditional brands can enter and that has no confines of reality to entertain, surprise, delight and engage people in an alternate world." 

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