Virtual World Concepts for CPG

Over the coming weeks this blog series will explore the benefits and challenges of applying virtual world concepts and technologies to CPG business processes.  Part I introduces us to virtual world concepts and how they can be leveraged in a 3D shopping experience.  Part II looks at the benefits of using virtual world settings like Second Life for design collaboration and consumer interaction.  And Part III examines the practical challenges of using virtual world concepts and technologies in our day-to-day business operations.

Part I – Virtual World Concepts for CPG: 3D Shopping

Residency in virtual worlds has grown exponentially over the past several years, spurred predominantly by gamers and avatar-based role players.  Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs for short) like World of Warcraft and multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) like Second Life are largely responsible for this explosion in popularity.  It is estimated that there are nearly 580 million people worldwide registered as users in virtual worlds today, and that number is expected to break the 600 million user threshold before the end of 2009.

The success of MMORPGs and MUVEs begs the question: can Consumer Packaged Goods companies leverage best practices from the virtual world to improve internal operations and better connect with customers?

Perhaps not from a purely literal standpoint (e.g., I don’t envision much use for a first-person shooter experience in many CPG business processes!).  But if we look instead at the underlying concepts and technologies used in successful MMORPGs and MUVEs, we begin to see opportunities to apply practices from these virtual worlds to our very real, bottom-line driven world. For example, we can apply the first-person point of view (POV) metaphor popularized in MMORPGs to the experience of a shopper moving through a 3D virtual retail environment.

Imagine you are a shopper walking behind your cart down a personal care aisle in a grocery store.  You turn your head right and left to see the hair care products positioned on the shelves and display units as you move down the aisle.  A particular item catches your eye.  You stop, turn to directly face the shelf where the item sits, and take a closer look at the item, noting how the lighting and shadows converge on the package, and how it looks compared to the items near it.  You note the price associated with the item and those around it.

Next you reach for the product, take it off the shelf, and examine it more closely.  You turn the package from front to side to back, establishing an emotional connection with the product based on the imagery and packaging material choices.  You note again how the lighting plays off the package as you turn it.  You read the claims, ingredient statement, and other copy.  You decide you want to buy the item so you place it in your cart.  You move to the next aisle…

Now imagine the entire experience happened in virtual reality.  And that every action that took place in that sequence – your movement through the store aisles, the movement of your eyes as they scanned the shelves, the choice to pick up and interact with certain products, the experience of the packaging, the decision to place items in your basket – was tracked and stored in a database for future analysis.  Furthermore, several of the products you interacted with in the shopping experience are just early-stage concepts – many months from being actually produced in a manufacturing setting, if at all.

This is an example of how the first person POV paradigm used so successfully in virtual worlds can be leveraged to improve our CPG practices.  The rich data collected in these virtual shopping excursions can be used to enhance our market research efforts around such things as shopper basket analysis, promotion planning, store layout, category management and planograming, and early stage product concept testing.

Beyond the inherent value of the data itself, we are able to collect it without having to create a single physical prototype – be it a retail store or the products housed in it – which saves us a tremendous amount of capital investment.  All we need is a workstation and some consumers willing to play the role of the virtual shopper.  Additionally, we are able to test product concepts very early in the NPDI process, allowing us to eliminate bad ideas earlier from our pipeline and instead focus our resources on winning product concepts.

So now let me ask you: are there other ways we can apply the first person POV metaphor popularized in virtual worlds to enhance our CPG practices?