This story was originally published in Digiday, Modern Retail’s sibling publication.
On August 3, Ralph Lauren is launching the Polo P-Wing Boot, a physical shoe modeled after a digital Ralph Lauren garment sold inside “Fortnite” last year.
The release demonstrates how brands are increasingly experimenting with the metaverse as a product testing and commerce channel — but also how they are still determining how to connect the virtual and the physical in meaningful ways.
Ralph Lauren has been in “Fortnite” since last year, when the company launched a collection of in-game outfits and items inside the popular game. At the time, the total price of all of Ralph Lauren’s in-game cosmetics was about $20; this time around, the physical Polo P-Wing Boot will sell for $250, and the company is manufacturing only 200 of them, according to Ralph Lauren chief innovation officer David Lauren.
“Our gut is that it will be available for just a few minutes, because it’s the kind of thing that will sell out,” Lauren said. “Our hope is that this will be something that will go quickly, if people are engaged with ‘Fortnite’ and engaged with the experience.”
To support the boot sale, Ralph Lauren is also opening a custom-branded “Fortnite” experience named “Race to Greatness by Polo Ralph Lauren.” Designed in Unreal Editor for Fortnite by the development studio Beyond Creative, the virtual island includes a range of fun locations based on Ralph Lauren runway shows and other intellectual properties, but the boot is a focal point.
“We actually have it displayed in a really cool way. We want players to be amazed when they first see it, and to be able to actually walk around it and examine it and see all the details through ‘Fortnite,’” said Beyond Creative CEO Kasper Weber about the virtual boot. “It’s located in what we’ve called the P-Wing Building. The shoe is in the middle of it, and you can walk around it and look through the glass.”
To marketers at Ralph Lauren, this week’s so-called “phygital” boot release represents an unprecedented mix between the brand’s virtual and physical options. “Fortnite” players will be able to wear the boot on their physical bodies while also wearing it in-game inside a custom virtual environment built from the ground up with Ralph Lauren in mind.
The rise of virtual and in-game commerce opens up new opportunities for product testing for fashion brands. In recent years, brands such as Forever 21 have released items in metaverse platforms like “Roblox” in order to gauge their potential performance as physical items. One such item, a virtual beanie hat, was purchased by Roblox users over 1.5 million times before Forever 21 adapted it for a physical release.
Shoe brands in particular have leaned into the metaverse, with companies like Nike and Puma taking advantage of sneakerheads’ natural affinity for collectibles and cutting-edge tech to develop their own virtual commerce opportunities. The release of Ralph Lauren’s Polo P-Wing Boot is the latest example of an established fashion brand valuing the input and preferences of this new type of virtual consumer.
But while Ralph Lauren’s latest foray into “Fortnite” certainly draws connections between the physical and virtual, it represents more of a stepping stone on the path to virtual commerce than a truly metaversal commerce opportunity for the brand. For now, the physical boot is available for purchase exclusively via RalphLauren.com — meaning there is no way for gamers to make the purchase directly through “Fortnite,” even if they already own the in-game version of the shoe.
Without including commerce opportunities directly inside the game, “phygital” releases like Ralph Lauren’s are arguably more of a future-facing marketing move than a genuine opportunity for brands to carve out a new commerce channel.
“If you want to meet your consumer everywhere they are, you should be offering the same items, both virtually and physically, and have them connected — and it is actually not that hard to do that,” said Justin Hochberg, CEO and founder of Virtual Brands Group, the company behind Forever 21’s Roblox presence. “If you want to use it as a marketing funnel that actually connects with your consumer, that’s what you need to do. Other than that, it’s just another way of creating a billboard.”
Ralph Lauren isn’t planning to pause its expansion into the metaverse here. The brand recognizes the need to create direct virtual commerce opportunities, and although it has no plans to sell the P-Wing Boot inside “Fortnite,” it is very open to allowing customers to purchase garments directly through games and other virtual platforms in the future.
“Ultimately, we want to do anything and everything that’s authentic to ‘Fortnite,’ so if the consumers and users on ‘Fortnite’ want to shop in ‘Fortnite,’ and make it available, that would be great,” Lauren said.