With Marchionne at Fiat’s helm, corners were cut at Lancia. Yet, the company indulged in a pointless, bandwagon-jumping, and failed marketing drive in Second Life.
I thought the gross mismanagement of Lancia at the hands of Fiat had been exhaustively detailed, both here and in other corners of the internet. Recently, though, I spoke with an old friend from my university years, who like me, owns a third-generation Delta. It had been a while since we last spoke, so our Skype call lasted a while, as we talked about all manner of things – from our family lives and our jobs to the things that interested us back then.
One of those things was Linden Lab’s once-overhyped, but now largely forgotten 3D, sandbox-style, virtual world named Second Life (SL for short). As young, wide-eyed PhD candidates looking to explore the capabilities of contemporary virtual reality platforms for collaborative design and simulation, we had both dabbled with it. Seeking to attract investors looking for a quick buck, LL’s founder and CEO Philip Rosedale made extremely bold claims about how SL would replace the web as we know it. Despite his spin, SL was not the first sandbox-style virtual world – this title belongs to Active Worlds, launched in 1995.
Of course, Rosedale’s promises never materialized. Being a virtual sandbox, SL relies on user-generated (read: mostly made by amateurs) content. It’s also a high-resolution, online, 3D environment where data (lots of data!) is transmitted in real time and 3D models are rendered – again in real time. These factors mean you absolutely need a reasonably high-performance (read: costly) 3D gaming computer connected to a stable, reliable, unmetered, and fast broadband connection. Otherwise, it’s going to be excruciatingly slow and very ugly to look at. So, it has a non-trivial cost of entry. And you can’t use it through your web browser: you need to download and install a dedicated viewer application in order to use it, and its learning curve is substantial.
Also, if you want to have a somewhat permanent build in SL, you need to rent virtual land, which doesn’t come cheap: full-capacity (footprint is always the same – 256 x 256 meters) regions cost around €300/month. A lower-capacity (i.e. how many objects and avatars can be hosted on it) type of region called a homestead costs around €130/month. Of course, you can rent a parcel (a smaller plot) for far less money, but its capacity is more limited, according to its footprint.
Furthermore, when it came to social networking capabilities, Facebook and other already-existing social networking services (including Yahoo!) literally wiped the floor with it. As one can guess, SL could never possibly be for everyone, and it could never attract the hundreds of millions of users Rosedale promised. In fact, its active user numbers remained stuck at roughly 900,000 – without counting the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of bots and duplicate/throwaway accounts.
So, was it a failure? Not by a long shot, actually. Its user base may be small, but it’s extremely dedicated and enthusiastic, and its internal virtual economy generates healthy profits both for the company and for a number of talented users who have decided to make a living by creating and selling content for SL and other similar platforms. In fact, it’s profitable enough to justify continued investment, and today’s SL is far more advanced than it was in 2007.
Now, what does Second Life have to do with Lancia? Well, while the hype machine was revving, a number of brick-and-mortar corporations set up offices in SL, perhaps as a way to attract and contact potential customers or as virtual offices for teleconferencing. Having visited some of these virtual offices, I couldn’t help wondering what they were thinking. One of these companies was Lancia – in fact, they were rather late to the party.
At the time, I couldn’t help wondering why they would even bother: most of SL’s users (called residents) lived and live in countries where Lancia doesn’t even sell its cars in the first place: the USA, Canada, the UK. Also, given that this was in the days when SL’s graphical capabilities were still rather primitive, the virtual renditions of Lancia’s automobiles were crude caricatures, as you can see below.
And then, it was reported that the third-generation Delta would debut in Second Life, before its unveiling at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show. Again, why? Due to SL’s technical constraints, no more than one hundred people could possibly attend it – let alone that SL’s demographics made it unlikely to resonate with the vast majority of the user base. Besides, as mentioned, SL’s graphical capabilities at the time only allowed for really crude models – there was no way an SL-specific model of the Delta of that era would do justice to the real world design. At the time, I didn’t pay attention to Lancia’s SL-related announcements. I simply wasn’t interested in virtual corporate presences any more, as they offered nothing an ordinary website didn’t. So, I skipped the Delta’s virtual debut.
If you sit down to read Richard’s review of the Delta again, you’ll understand that its potential was hampered by a lack of proper development. Yes, it had a sprinkling of upmarket materials (lovely Poltrona Frau leather, alcantara, Benova imitation leather on the dashboard fascia, fade-and flake-proof double-shot buttons on every illuminated switch), but the rest of the car was let down by some serious penny-pinching that you could see, feel, and hear. In fact, I recall Marchionne’s lieutenants bragging about how they developed the Delta very quickly and on a shoestring budget.
Now, let’s get back to Lancia’s attempt to make itself visible in Second Life. I don’t know exactly how much money was spent on Lancia’s virtual premises, which were named Lancia Village. At that time, the norm for the development of a corporate presence in SL was €50,ooo. Given that Lancia rented not one, but four regions, I believe its budget was more to the tune of €75,000, perhaps even higher. Given what we already know about the platform’s demographics, technical capabilities, and reputation at that time, this expenditure seems rather extravagant and totally at odds with Marchionne’s drive to do things as cheaply as (in)humanly possible.
It’s no surprise that Lancia Village followed the footsteps of so many other corporate presences in SL and never gained any meaningful traction. In all honesty, the four regions it consisted of didn’t live up to the expectation SL residents have of the places they visit. There are all sorts of publicly accessible places in SL to cater for just about every taste: from museums, art galleries, and libraries to dystopian post-apocalyptic cyberpunk cities, from virtual airports and harbours to shopping venues (fashion, furniture, etc.), and from support groups for marginalized people to strip clubs and brothels. And that’s not counting the thousands of photogenic landscapes and cityscapes where shutterbugs can take photos to share on Flickr, DeviantArt, or on their blogs. One principle that unites all of those tremendously varied virtual places is that their creators and managers aim to make them perform a certain function, in tune with the expectations created by their design and identity, and to make them interesting.
With that in mind, what was the Lancia Village? Essentially, it was a virtual car showroom. What do users expect of such a place? To see a collection of vehicles, learn about them, test drive them, and also have the opportunity to buy them. Lancia apparently made the same mistake all other car manufacturers made: they didn’t offer any virtual Lancias for sale, either at their virtual showroom or on SL’s online marketplace. No one’s ever seen a virtual Musa, Ypsilon, Delta, or Thesis parked or moving around in SL. This makes it obvious that neither Lancia nor its SL contractor (sorry, I meant solution provider) did any kind of homework.
The Lancia Village went offline in June 2009, never to be resurrected. For all the publicity its founding was given, its demise was quiet and unceremonious. About as quiet as it was when it was online. The only trace it left in SL is its inworld (i.e. you have to use the dedicated viewer in order to interact with it) group, which still exists. But don’t be fooled: it’s still there not because anyone at Lancia is dedicated enough, but because SL still doesn’t provide group managers with an explicit way to delete their groups; they’re automatically deleted some time after everyone’s left or been ousted (ejected).
So, it’s more of a case that no one at Lancia, or its solution provider, bothered to take the necessary steps to ensure the group would be deleted. Currently, it still has 194 members. Judging by their choice of usernames, most of them must have been from Italy, Lancia’s core market. Of these people, only six logged in to the platform in 2021. There are four others whose last sign-in was in 2020. All others left SL years ago – about half of them in 2008 and 2009, with some extending their presence into 2010.
As one can imagine, since the majority of SL’s users couldn’t buy a Lancia in real life, Lancia Village was largely a folly. But could it have been useful? Or, at least, less of a folly? The answer is yes – emphatically so. They could have used it to make Lancia known and relevant again outside Italy, and even to regain some control over the narration of Lancia’s history, which is something Lancia badly needs. We all know this narration had been hijacked by tabloid scandal-mongering “journalism” decades ago.
They could have hired a professional 3D game asset creator and a professional scripter (programmer) on a full-time or per-project basis, to ensure that the virtual Lancias would look good and drive somewhat less badly than other SL cars. Of course, they should sell them to users. They could have made a museum area, complete with all sorts of interesting facts and factoids. They could have hired a few hosts/hostesses and DJs to organize events and parties with themes relating to Lancia and Italy. They could have recruited some of SL’s more popular bloggers to write about their virtual presence, their virtual products, and their events. And so on, and so on.
Would this have cost more than they already paid? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Remember, they rented four full regions for a year and a half, which set them back about €21,600 for tier alone. Other corporate entities made do with just one. Would it have been profitable for Lancia to do what I suggested? In all likelihood, no – even if they rented just one region. But what matters is that a more involving and properly-managed SL presence would be far more meaningful, and it would give them unprecedented control over their image and perception.
Furthermore, Lancia would gain the experience to leverage the growing popularity of modern 3D games. They could license high-quality 3D models of their cars to other virtual worlds, 3D asset marketplaces (such as CG Trader, Turbosquid, or Sketchfab), and gaming studios. This would not only bring them some revenue from licensing fees and/or direct sales, but also make them look cool and relevant to an audience that’s way too young to remember the Fulvia HF or the flawed charm of the Gamma Berlina – or the largely fabricated Beta rust scandal.
What they did instead was, as I said, make the same mistakes as those that came before them, and so their endeavour was a complete waste of money. They made a static, boring build that someone would explore for about ten minutes and then leave, never to come back. Then again, that’s what happens when, for all your expensive degrees, you have no meaningful grasp of marketing and are too much like James Thurber’s scottie who knew too much to ask and learn what makes a successful, engaging, involving, and even profitable virtual presence.
Sources, quotations, & acknowledgements:
 Swimming in the Bight – Lancia Delta review : Driven To Write, 29 August, 2017
 Today Second Life, tomorrow the world – The Guardian, 17 May, 2007
 Nasce il Lancia Village su Second Life – Blogmotori.com, 25 January, 2008
 Tom Armitage: Second Life used for a first look – Autonews.com, 18 February, 2008
 Lancia Delta To Be Unveiled On Second Life The Day Before Geneva! – Motor1.com, 19 February, 2008
 Double-shot moulding – Deskthority Wiki