Home » INDUSTRY » The rise of virtual influencers in influencer marketing
Digital models of the Balmain Army - Margot, Shudu and Zhi.

Over the last few decades, machines and ‘robots’ have been accused of replacing humans in doing mechanical work around the world. We’re not sure if being the face of fashion brands and music bands count as mechanical but here too humans are being replaced by computer generated characters. Shudu, Lil Miquela, Margot, Zhi and Liam Nikuro are just some of the more popular names among what is called ‘virtual influencers’.

With the growth of social media came social media influencers. As Sam Bradley, Assistant Editor of The Drum puts it, “Influence is big business, Instagrammers, Youtubers and TikTokers are now considered an essential part of the marketing mix.” As such, influencers on social media have built reputations off of their knowledge and expertise in specific domains. These topics could range from fashion and beauty tips to health and career advice, from travel and financial discussions to cooking and film making – everything is now available on social media platforms.

Influencers make regular posts, called content, on their topic of preference to their social media channels for their ‘followers’ to engage with. Their success is counted basis the amount of followers, views, likes etc. they can garner. This is also what defines how much money they make. Brands like working with social media influencers as a means to create trends, promote products, services and more.

In the attempt to gain more control over the output of influence, some marketers are removing humans out of the equation completely. Virtual influencers are created to play the same roles. The creators of these virtual figures choose the way their creation looks, dresses, acts and even sounds. All of their characteristics are carefully studied and created basis the objectives they are to meet.

Virtual Influencer Agencies (VIA) study and analyse discussions over several social media platforms using machine learning, create backstories for their influencers and build a personality based upon it. His or her aesthetics – colour of eyes, hair, clothes, voice etc. – is done so to appeal to a certain audience. Watch this to get an idea of how it’s done:

How do Virtual Influencers work?

As the name suggests, they are non-human computer generated people and are increasingly gaining popularity around the world. Virtual Influencers are birthed from armies of digital artists that post images on their social media profiles.

In addition to their aesthetics and personality, the creators also decide who they hang out with, fall out with, date and collaborate with. The agencies get to keep all of the money these influencers make through brand deals.

The actual date of creation of the first virtual influencer is not known. Their creators are not yet well known either. Los Angeles based startup Brud is on of the more familiar startups in this space and even their website is quite obscure – to say the least – then again, that’s probably part of the allure. Brud is the company behind one the most popular virtual influencers on Instagram, named Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela.

 

 

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Miquela is an influencer, model and singer. Supposedly more than 80,000 people stream her songs on Spotify every month. She has even collaborated with brands like Prada, done interviews from Coachella and recently did a campaign with Calvin Klein alongside Bella Hadid.

Virtual Influencer Lil Miquela and Bella Hadid

Lil Miquela has collaborated with brands like Prada, done interviews from Coachella and recently did a campaign with Calvin Klein alongside Bella Hadid.

The startup has even raised millions of dollars from Silicon Valley and New York which reportedly includes names like Sequoia Capital, BoxGroup, SV Angel and more. While the success of Lil Miquela seems legit, just how real is the model herself? In the words of Brud, “As real as Rihanna.”

Other than Miquela, Brud has also created Ronald F. Blawko aka Blawko and Bermuda. Initially it was believed that Bermuda was created by Brud’s rival company Cain Intelligence and Bermuda was hacking Miquela’s account. Later it was revealed that there is no Cain Intelligence and Bermuda is very much a creation of Brud. An investor close to the company was quoted saying that Brud was using conflict to introduce their characters, “as the Kardashians always have.”

In addition to Miquela and her lesser known contemporaries, there are several more virtual influencers in (for lack of a better word) ‘existence’. Shudu Gram, better known as Shudu, is an Instagram model fabricated by photographer Cameron-James Wilson. She is an incredibly realistic looking CGI model and her bio states she is ‘The World’s First Digital Supermodel’.

 

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Imma is Japan’s first CGI fashion model created by CG company ModelingCafe. They transpose her 3D animated head onto a real-life body and background image. Her hyper-realistic features are all thanks to female engineers working on the project who perfect her look. With her signature bubblegum-pink bob, Imma has modelled for brands like Burberry, Bape and Dior and posts videos on TikTok. What’s more, she’s even appeared on the cover of Grazia China:

 

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Other known names include Laila Blue who ‘lives’ in Dubai and was created in 2018. She is supposedly, half-French and half-Lebanese. Laila is the first virtual influencer out of the Middle East.

 

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Created in Munich, by a 43-year-old graphic designer named Joerg Zuber, Noonoouri has some 363k followers on Instagram. She lives in Paris and has worked with brands like Tommy Hilfiger Versace, Marc Jacobs and Dior. She’s also done advertising for Kim Kardashian’s makeup line, and is a ‘friend’ of Naomi Campbell.

 

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Another one out of Japan, Liam Nikuro, is a music producer, a self-professed Hachimura fanboy and Japan’s first male virtual influencer. Developed by 1Sec Inc. he is a Japanese-American mix and has about 15,000 followers on the gram. Liam focuses on popular culture and AI.

 

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Italian fashion retailing company, Yoox has also created an influencer named Daisy. According to Paolo Mascio, president of Yoox, Daisy is to “become the personification of Yoox.”

 

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Virtual influencers are not far removed from their real-life predecessors. It’s well known that the people who promote brands on social media platforms often project a version of themselves that is more shiny and happy than ‘real life’. The shift can basically summed up as: social media, so far, was about real humans being largely fake and now it’s about fake humans trying to keep it real.

What’s in it for brands?

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Digital models of the Balmain Army – Margot, Shudu and Zhi.

As much as we, as individuals, feel the need to be updated with the latest happenings of our favourite brands and their marketing campaigns, the brands themselves need to be in the know even before us – and stay ahead of the curve.

Virtual influencers have already reached millions of followers from people around the world. Thus, brands that collaborate with them open themselves up to huge audiences with a range of benefits.

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest benefits brands get is control over the influencer and messaging. Being that virtual influencers are completely digital, they are available at all times of the day and any part of the world. In addition, since they have no private ‘life’ there are no risks involved either. Unlike human influencers, remaining camera ready, dealing with online trolls and keeping sponsors happy are some things that just do not apply to these digital beings. Neither do they have an off day or need a day off.

When you could create an ideal brand ambassador from scratch to market you products or services, why would you hire social media influencers, celebrities or supermodels? And that’s what fashion label Balmain did in 2018 when it commissioned Shudu’s creator, Cameron-James Wilson to design and fabricate a ‘diverse mix’ of digital models – including an Asian woman named Zhi and a white woman named Margot – as part of the Balmain Army. Balmain received mixed reviews for the move. Some commentators hailed the brand as progressive while others thought it to be a step in the wrong direction. Along with the latter’s arguments came the mention of jeopardising work opportunities for human fashion models.

Virtual influencers in the gaming world

Influencers are one of the main differences between marketing for traditional sports vis-a-vis esports. Esports does not get much traction and attention in mass media compared to main stream sports. This is both, a boon and bane. It makes fans and players tune in to influencers to keep up with the culture and community.

Being that esports influencer marketing is relatively new, brands still don’t have to pay nearly as much just yet. Since the community is also still smaller, the consistent conversation and ROI is also better. All in all, esports influencers could bring something even more appealing in contemporary marketing. And virtual reality goes hand-in-glove with the world of gaming.

Popular Twitch streamer Imane ‘Pokimane’ Anys recently announced that she’s becoming a VTuber, meaning she’ll be making her debut as a Virtual Youtuber – where streamers present themselves as animated avatars. Pokimane has over 5 million followers on Twitch and YouTube.

The VTuber community is pretty large and centred around Japanese-speaking digital avatars. More often than not, fans tune in to watch their favourite Vtubers live stream, entertaining them with conversations, singing or dancing. It is slowly making its way to other countries around the world. With Pokimane becoming a VTuber, she adds new perspective and atmosphere to her virtual persona.

 

‘Seraphine’ first made an appearance on social media in June. She stared by posting selfies to Instagram and tweets mentioning her desire to share music and her hopes to “connect with people.” Come August and she was releasing songs on a Soundcloud account.

But who is Seraphine? Well, she’s an animated character and she’s dropped several League of Legends easter eggs in her posts which sparked rumours of her association with it. Later, Riot Games did go on to confirm that she is a digital influencer and artist, much like the other virtual bands they created before her – True Damage and K/DA.

 

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True Damage is a virtual hip-hop collective who debuted their single, Giants, at the 2019 League of Legends World Championships to a sold out crowd.

The group is based on characters from League of Legends and fronted by artists Becky G, Keke Palmer, rappers Duckwrth, Thutmose and Soyeon – a rapper and singer from K-pop group  (G)I-DLE. Riot Music Group head, Toa Dunn said he was looking forward to seeing the response of both gaming fans and music fans and thinks that the two worlds are more connected than people might think.

Later, they even created a virtual K-pop girl group called K/DA with popular League champions Ahri, Akali, Evelynn and Kai’Sa, voiced by K-pop group (G)I-dle members Miyeon and Soyeon and American singers Madison Beer and Jaira Burns. They released a track called Pop/Stars.

The four-person virtual band is making a comeback and have released a new track called ‘The Baddest’. This track will be included on their EP which will be released in November this year. The vocal line-up, however, has been shuffled a bit – while Soyeon and Miyeon of K-pop group (G)I-DLE remain, Madison Beer and Jaira Burns have been replaced by Bea Miller, an American artist and former X factor contestant and Wolftyla, a singer-songwriter that first rose to fame by posting funny videos on Vine.

It was also announced that Seraphine will be collaborating with K/DA on an upcoming song. Seraphine said in a tweet, “I’ll be working with them to help produce their album and (gasp!) feature on an upcoming track.” K/DA in turn tweeted this:

Riot Games experimented with virtual bands earlier too. The company created a fictional metal band back in 2014 with League champions Karthus, Kayle, Mordekaiser, Olaf, Sona and Yorick. Their debut EP, named Smite & Ignite entered the Billboard Top 40 and even reached number one on the iTunes Metal and Rock charts. In 2017 they released a second album called Gasp of the Undying which included cameos from Noora Louhimo, Danny Lohner of Nine Inch Nails and Motley Crue founding member Tommy Lee.

While most like to hide the people voicing these virtual characters to maintain the illusion, Riot is more than happy to show off the human half of their fictional acts. But why would they choose to do this? To advertise League of Legends of course. How? Here we go…

The free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) was released in 2009, in the world of gaming that would seem like ages ago. Despite the launch of several successful games left, right and center, like OverwatchFortnite and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, it has maintained its relevance and popularity. Since it may be looked upon as an ‘old’ game, it needs to find new ways of attracting younger players. Thus, Riot keeps adding new champions and game modes. Rumours are abound that Seraphine too may be the latest champion added to the League’s list. Riot has also done tie-ups with sponsors including Nike, Mercedes Benz and Shell. In 2019, Louis Vuitton created a Trophy Travel Case for the League of Legends world championship.

These sponsorships and brand tie-ups are just another gateway to attract newcomers – introduce themselves to varied audiences and vice-versa – and the same applies to the virtual bands they create too. You may not know the character Keke Palmer voices or even League of Legends in general but if you’re a fan of the music you might be inclined to checking it out, downloading the League launcher and giving it a go! Smart move for a company that has, to date, made just one video game.

Advertising is evolving

Communication is changing, evidently. Brands and advertisers are also changing how they communicate with us. But consider this, can you trust a brand and the message they are trying to put out when their brand ambassador’s very existence is at best ‘quasi’? On the other hand, how many people actually bother about such things anyway?

According to Virtual Humans, Riot’s Seraphine was reaching numbers “currently unheard of”. Supposedly, her Instagram posts were getting 35% engagement rates at a time when the average engagement rates were around 3-4% for most influencers. The high performing influencers were seeing engagements of 10-20% at best. What’s more, Seraphine’s collaboration announcement with K/DA got a 50% engagement rate. If virtual influencer’s get 10x more engagement than the average influencer, why would brands go anywhere else?

It’s no wonder then that the Russian Fashion Council kicked off Russia’s biggest, most widely covered fashion event using virtual influencers and models only. One of the virtual influencers to walk the ramp was Serah Reikka, who was also featured in Forbes magazine.

 

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Guess what, in addition to being a cosplayer, Serah loves playing League of Legends. According to her, gaming is a way to make new friends and “they don’t care if you are virtual or real!”

 

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With the success of these creations and more household brands like KFC using these technologies for campaigns, it is safe to say that we will be seeing a lot more of it. With the potential it holds, consumers must decide how they view these characters and if their actions and intentions are to be believed or not – much like now, it is likely going further to distort the line between reflecting reality and just digitally generated content for the sake of it.

On the flip side, there is a risk involved too, if consumers do not trust these influencers or buy in to the gimmick, brands will not achieve their marketing goals and might even take a hit in image. Anyhow, it does always boil down to the consumers to demand transparency from the creators of these digital personas and acknowledge their existence as nothing more than an ‘artificial’ program.

Having said that, the rise of virtual influencers does denote a shift in our approach to influencer mentality – with consumers either accepting or revelling against them. Despite the not-so-usual appearances, some parts of social media marketing will embrace these trends as ‘innovative’ and utilise them to their advantages. The conundrum for brands? They will need to adapt or risk falling behind.

While the classic sci-fi fear of our world being led by artificial intelligence is debatable, for now, there are millions of people following digital influencers.

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