New York In Dell Factory, a white, futuristic

New York In Dell Factory, a white, futuristic space, visitors can sit down at a large drafting table lit by a red desk lamp to customize their own computers. Located on Dell Island in Second Life, this somewhat sparse space is where the virtual and real worlds intersect thanks to a unique service: Each machine is delivered to a visitor’s real home—reinforcing Dell’s brand distinction of customized computers.

Dell hopes the factory can win over Second Life residents wary that corporate enthusiasm will result in a community dominated by advertising.

“The corporations are held to a much higher standard” than other residents, said Giff Constable, vp of business development at The Electric Sheep Company, which developed the Second Life presence for Starwood Hotels.

Thus, brands invading Second Life are looking for ways to prove their virtual mettle, whether by adding new functionality, funding business plans or giving away land. General Motors is doing so by playing nice with the Second Life business community, a lesson it learned from Toyota. The latter caught flack for giving away digital Scions while “indigenous” Second Life automakers charge a few dollars, potentially undercutting the car economy. As a result of the kerfuffle, GM will charge the going rate for wheels in Second Life when it opens a Pontiac dealership on its Motorati Island later this month.

In general, brands are determined to keep a low-key presence. For instance, unlike MySpace and other new-media outlets, Second Life has so far not been viewed as a place for run-of-the-mill ad messages. Dell, Starwood, GM and others have set up their own island outposts—where people can choose whether or not to enter the brand—rather than dot the virtual land with billboards and other in-your-face placements. (One exception is a planned Times Square in Second Life, replete with garish overcommercialization, just in time for New Year’s Eve.)

Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Second Life parent Linden Lab, said brands have so far gone out of their way to respect Second Life’s mores, and those protesting their presence are simply a vocal minority. “The companies that have been coming into Second Life … are contributing to the community,” he said.

Giving back is indeed a theme for many brands. While Dell sought to give visitors a new experience, other marketers are taking a more direct approach. Public relations firm Edelman last week began a contest in Second Life to award seed money, an island and strategic help to a fledgling virtual world business. It has also started a video blog in Second Life that uses video game animation. Steve Rubel, svp of Edelman’s me2revolution unit, said a sense of community “is key in any social network.”

As for GM, it’s using a Motorati Island Web site to collect proposals for car-related projects from Second Life builders and will green light some of them to appear on its land, which residents must normally buy.

“We didn’t want to get corporate aggressive,” said Tor Myhren, ecd at Leo Burnett Detroit, Pontiac’s ad agency.

Starwood set up its virtual Aloft in Second Life before it appeared in the real world so residents could give design suggestions. At least one avatar-generated idea is being used: the hotel will include local art in the bar area. “We got a pass because we’re not pushing products,” said Brian McGuinness, vp of Aloft Hotels.

All this giving is not out of altruism, however. Brands like Dell say they see Second Life as a test bed that allows them to collect consumer feedback and explore new ways to connect with users in what some see as a harbinger of how the Web will evolve from its two-dimensional iteration to a 3-D immersive, decidedly social experience. “We believe this is where the Web is going,” said Ro Parra, svp and gm of the home and business group at Dell.

The risk of the freewheeling Second Life environment is active resistance. American Apparel found that out when its Second Life outlet was attacked by a rebel group fighting for “avatar rights,” only to have union protestors show up later to picket.

“Second Life is not for the risk averse,” said Drew Stein, CEO of Infinite Vision Media, which worked on Dell Island.