Why Coca-Cola’s in-game flavor announcement validates Fortnite as both an advertising and metaverse platform

Illustration of a person looking at a digital version of themself on a computer screen.

Gamers will be able to experience the next Coca-Cola flavor inside Fortnite before it hits real-world store shelves.

The beverage brand’s use of a custom-built Fortnite island to launch the limited-edition gaming-inspired flavor Zero Sugar Byte today is further proof of Fortnite’s maturation as an advertising platform — and shows Coca-Cola’s belief in Epic Games’ plans to build the metaverse.

Coca-Cola opened its Pixel Point Fortnite experience on March 28. The space is a neon-colored virtual world chock-full of references to Coca-Cola, including collaborative puzzles and mini-games inside giant glass bottles and Coke cans. It was designed by the Fortnite Creative arm of gaming company Team PWR, with creative input from Coke. “There were guardrails — we had to watch out from a brand perspective,” said Chase Abraham, a senior manager of creative strategy at Coca-Cola. “But we gave them a lot of freedom.”

Epic Games, the developer of Fortnite, was not directly involved in the activation. Instead, Coca-Cola collaborated exclusively with Team PWR to design the experience. As companies like PWR solidify their relationships with major brands like Coke, this kind of independent partnership is evidence that a robust creator economy is taking shape on Fortnite, similar to the rise of creator studios in Roblox.

“It just seems to be the elevation of Fortnite experiences — working with brands, bringing them to Fortnite alongside Fortnite’s official collaborations,” said Team PWR founder Lachlan Power. 

As for low-calorie Zero Sugar Byte, it’s the latest iteration of Coca-Cola Creations, a series of limited-edition Coke flavors that kicked off with the release of Coca-Cola Starlight in February. Starlight was purportedly a space-inspired flavor; marketing materials for Zero Sugar Byte describe it as “pixel-flavored.”

Another phrase that stuck out in Coca-Cola’s messaging was its description of Zero Sugar Byte as a “beverage born in the metaverse” — the persistent and immersive successor to the internet that some experts believe will emerge from gaming. Though Epic Games has been open about its goal to build the metaverse for years, going as far as to offer workshops educating brands about how to use its three-dimensional creation tool Unreal Engine, the past few years have seen competitors emerge from both social media and the NFT/blockchain space. Ultimately, Coca-Cola’s choice to introduce its first Fortnite activation as a metaverse play is an endorsement of Epic’s longstanding claim to the virtual world.

“For us, the metaverse just meant a digital place where people could come together and experience this,” Abraham said.

“By activating within Fortnite, I think they are taking a safe route, in that Fortnite is a huge game that’s brand-safe,” said Tom Sweeney, head of creative strategy at the social media and influencer marketing agency Fanbytes. “But, critically, they are recognizing that gaming and the ecosystems that have evolved from gaming are the fundamental parts of what we will come to recognize as the metaverse.”

In addition to giving a thumbs up to Epic’s metaverse aspirations, Coca-Cola’s decision to activate in Fortnite also indicates the game’s arrival as a major advertising platform. A multitude of major brands including Marvel, Balenciaga and the NFL have dipped their toes into Fortnite since 2018, but Coke’s involvement could convince even more to explore the game.

“Coca-Cola is one of those brands where I don’t think they are on the cutting edge; what they are is the gold standard of branding,” Sweeney said. “And so, when Coca-Cola arrives, and they say they’re tapping into this particular part of culture, that has, to me, validated it — and certainly from other brands’ perspectives.”

Regardless of Coca-Cola’s influence, brand involvement in Fortnite has increased considerably in recent years. As Coke worked with Team PWR to develop the Pixel Point experience, it was well aware of the potential for players to feel burned out on in-game brand involvement, ensuring that PWR built the island to stand alone as an entertaining experience.

“The ultimate goal for us is to deliver a unique, authentic experience every time, and Coke saw that vision straight with us,” Power said. “We were like, ‘we don’t want to just put a billboard in a creative experience; we want to be a part of this collaboration and a part of the experience that you guys are building in this world.’”

Sweeney believes that consumer burnout in Fortnite is a real concern — but not one that a major brand like Coca-Cola should be particularly worried about at this stage of the game. For now, seeing a brand like Coke get involved in Fortnite is still more likely to generate excitement among gamers than skepticism, particularly through gamer-built experiences such as Pixel Point.

“When a brand recognizes a game and legitimizes it, it becomes a point of pride for that game’s community,” Sweeney said. “They’ll say, ‘Coca-Cola’s sponsoring Fortnite — so surely that’s better than other games.”

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