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The rise of virtual influencers (and what this means for the future of influencer marketing)

Having grown up in the era of CGI-driven sci-fi and fantastic wizarding worlds, it is hardly surprising that the millennial generation is our most creative yet. 

In fact, in a matter of decades, if not years, most of our favourite TV shows and movies have been reduced to mere childish visions of today’s reality – from humanoids and flying cars to artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Somewhat unprecedented is the stratospheric rise of social media, which has made face-to-face communication seem less effective than emojis and memes. 

We have already talked about how the age of Insta-feeds and Snapchat has given way to influencer marketing, and the UAE is no exception. An engaging interview with one of the region’s top influencers, Naomi D’Souza on our blog, MarkeThink, revealed how the new paradigm is changing the marketing game in many industries. Now, we turn our attention to a new addition to this fascinating family, called ‘virtual’ influencer marketing which, as the name suggests, involves digitising the role of a human influencer. But how exactly does it work and what should brands consider before jumping on the bandwagon?  

Miquela 


Brud, an LA-based tech startup that specialises in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, is credited with creating Miquela (@lilmiquela), the world’s first virtual influencer. However, the idea of a ‘virtual celebrity’ was not born with her.

The band Gorillaz, which has been making us groove since the late ‘90s, and Hatsune Miku, a schoolgirl resembling a common anime character (because of her long, curly turquoise twin-tails), was designed by a Japanese developer to sell a voice synthesizer called Vocaloid. They’ve been around for years. It wasn’t until only a couple of years ago that the idea of virtual influencers went mainstream and gained traction.

Miquela is an Instagram influencer who first popped up on everyone’s feeds in 2016. With brand endorsements like Chanel, Proenza Schouler, Supreme and beauty brands like Ouai (who deployed her for her silky smooth ‘hair’, despite the fact that her hair is...well, digitally rendered), Miquela’s portfolio will make any influencer, digital or human, green with envy. If that wasn’t enough, fashion magazines including V and Paper have all talked about her, and Prada recently invited her to take over the brand’s Instagram page during their show in Milan just a few months ago. With 1.3 million followers on Instagram, Miquela has become a force to reckon with.

At the same time, Shudu Gram (@shudu.gram), created by London-based fashion and beauty photographer Cameron James-Wilson, is said to be the world’s first virtual supermodel. She first came into the spotlight when Rihanna’s beauty brand Fenty Beauty re-posted an image of Shudu, a dark-skinned model, on their Instagram page (unfortunately, due to widespread criticism over the use of a digitally-rendered ‘model’, the post has since been removed). Though Cameron says he’s only contributing to strengthening the racial equality movement, many have criticised him for spending days working on a single Shudu post instead of casting and working with real models.

Toby Miller, Director of the Institute for Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University (London) compares a virtual influencer with a doll. “Dolls are a means of capturing who we are and passing that on in representational form to young people. They go beyond images and words and into three dimensions, and are malleable by the youngest person”. Cameron also draws on a similar analogy with Shudu, referring to her as a mannequin that he can position in different poses and give expressions to, just like with a dress-up doll.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that fashion brands see endless possibilities in the likes of Miquela and Shudu. With the option to control and have the virtual influencers behave, pose or act a certain way, brands can mould and create perceptions in the consumers’ mind in precisely the way they want.

Would you consider deploying a virtual influencer for your brand or product? Consider the following pros and cons:

Pros

• Virtual influencers mean more autonomy in deciding how you want your product to appear on the influencer’s feed, unlike the present-day struggle between a brand and the influencer on how the product needs to be promoted.

• You can worry less about getting a cookie-cutter approach for your brand endorsements. Instead of being confined to standard post formats, you will likely have more creative freedom over design aspects and be able to craft a more authentic online presence for your brand.

• The potential for controversy is also lower. Chances of a virtual influencer like Miquela or Shudu having a wardrobe malfunction or have domestic abuse cases filed against them are nigh impossible.

Cons

• A major setback is the fact that, at the end of the day, virtual influencers are not real. Plain and simple. One of the reasons why micro-influencers (and to some extent, celebrity influencers) are a huge success is because they’re real, and can be identified with to varying degrees. It’s the ‘human’ aspect of an influencer that ultimately creates a connection with the audience.

• Virtual influencers are bound to set unrealistic expectations for men and women alike. With standards for beauty, style and culture being redrawn, young people in their formative years will feel compelled to mimic such standards without considering any repercussions on their mental and physical wellbeing.

• When we see any influencer endorsing a product, they try out the product and provide their experience with it. This adds the much-needed touch of authenticity that the audience appreciates. However, this is lost with virtual influencers, because they are never really going to try on a dress or a shade of blush by any brand, big or small.

Right now, it’s too soon to be making conclusions about the longevity of this new marketing innovation.

Every celebrity has an expiration date. Consumers have been known to tear down empires but have also helped them rise from the ashes. Predicting the staying power of virtual influencers is no different. Whether we find it unsettling or are intrigued by the meteoric rise of such virtual influencers, the fact of the matter is that they’re here to stay. For many, it may be a source of entertainment but when we try to ‘influence’ consumers with unrealistic figures, there is bound to be backlash. In the end, brands should carefully consider embracing this new standard since our culture is taking leaps in all things digital, but they would be well advised to be responsible and transparent with their marketing efforts.

What do you think about the rise of virtual influencers? Leave a comment below and we’ll have a real human respond to you!