Influencer marketing has played a key role in gaining popularity for luxury brands worldly and in China especially for many decades.

Now, with the development of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality; an appetite for cutting-edge technologies by brands as well as a huge population highly digitalised like China, using virtual influencers for marketing is a phenomenon that has been gaining momentum in this country and will be undoubtedly going further.

This article is dedicated to expressing thoughts on this new exciting trend.

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Numerous brands have led the movement

Virtual influencers refer to influencers who are not real humans but robots or digital creations.

There is a whole host of well-known virtual and AI social media influencers in the world right now such as Sophia the Robot, Lil Miquela, and Shudu active in the luxury and fashion arena.

Italian luxury brand Gucci came to the spotlight for cooperating with Erica, an artificial KOL in its marketing campaigns in China. The 23-year-old Japanese girl Erica is an artificial intelligence (AI)-generated robot created by Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan.

Erica, alongside Ishiguro and his clone humanoid robot Geminoid HI-4, was featured in Gucci’s WeChat campaign titled “Why are you scared of me?” on July 16.

In the campaign, Erica was dressed in Gucci’s new collection from head to toe. That has made the Italian luxury powerhouse the first luxury brand that uses virtual influencers for marketing initiatives in the Chinese market.

The campaign post on WeChat has quickly reached over 10,000 page views since its release and been liked by nearly 400 users. In a time when luxury brands’ visibility remains low on WeChat, not too many posts can break 10,000 page views.

Comments under it are quite positive. Readers are impressive by the imagination and coolness demonstrated by Erica in this Gucci campaign, and also, happy to be engaged with the brand on an intellectual dialogue on AI/robotics and the ethical dilemmas surrounding it.

Another cool virtual character that is properly the most popular one is Lil Miquela, who was created by artists Trevor McFedries and Sara Decou as a digital art project in 2016.

Lil Miquela is a Brazilian and Spanish model, 19-year-old and based in Los Angeles. With over 1.3 million followers on Instagram, Lil Miquela likes to post her daily life and interaction with her real friends and claim to support Black Lives Matter.

So far, her name has been associated with a great number of high-profile fashion and luxury brands including Chanel, Proenza Schouler, Veterments, and Moncler.

Her latest fashion venture was with Prada, which she took over the brand’s Instagram during the Milan Fashion Week in February this year.

Italian jeweler Buccellati worked with the influencer Noonoouri, on its recent social media campaign.

Noonoouri was created by Joerg Zuber, the art director of the creative agency Opium Effect, in late 2017. Ever since, she has collaborated with many esteem fashion houses, such as Dior, Marc Jacobs, Versace, and has grown into a fashion icon with over 307,000 fans on Instagram.

A few weeks ago, French fashion house Balmain announced that it had recruited virtual models Shudu Gram, Margot, and Zhi, into its “Balmain Army” – the high fashion label’s equivalent of ambassadors or spokespeople.

While Margot and Zhi are new digital fabrications created by and exclusive to Balmain, Shudu Gram has been in existence since 2017 and is the brainchild of British photographer Cameron-James Wilson. She presently boasts about 144k followers.

Balmain’s latest CGI models Margot (left) and Zhi (right), together with Shudu Gram

Vogue China recently announced that it will exclusively represent virtual influencer Noonoouri in all matters related to Greater China, including but not limited to Noonoouri’s operations, image management and creation, and all commercial management and negotiations.

This “out of box move” made by the prolific fashion magazine in China is a strategic one to take advantage of China’s celebrity economy, and a chance for Noonoouri herself to broaden her influence among the younger generation in China, especially Gen-Zs who are obsessed with the virtual world.

 

Why virtual influencers can be a good replacement of their human counterparts?

From the perspective of consumers, virtual influencers shouldn’t be something too new, too strange or creepy. Social media or other alike digital channels are already creating an unreal world where people can build and live with a perfect persona according to their ideals.

Human influencers in fact also have their image, voice, activities and reputation carefully curated and largely influenced by what mass audience expect from them.

Furthermore, Chinese young consumers are seen as having the celebrity culture in which they are greatly impacted by their idols as well as the anime-comic-games (ACG) culture in which they are familiar with and fond of animated characters that have their favorite personalities.

Therefore, computer-generated KOLs who are not only humanlike but also beautiful, cool and talented can easily attract attention and capture hearts of young audience who are digital natives and receptive to trends.

Additionally, virtual influencers are less risky in the sense that they can avoid human mistakes or controversy, which can affect their reputation as well as the reputation of brands they are representing. Real people will age, get sick and start scandals. Virtual humans won’t have problems like that.

It is, furthermore, easier to work with virtual KOLs than any human celebrity because brands will have more control over what and how KOLs will transmit the message of brands to their audience.

Brands can also save a lot of cost sponsoring trips, organizing events or other offline activities for their human KOLs. Instead, brands can focus totally on the digital aspect when they do influencer marketing.

Finally, it’s also a way for companies to show they’re creative and on the cutting edge of technology.

 

Everything has its own disadvantages. Virtual humans may further exacerbate the living style of young Chinese people that keeps them away from reality, forgetting about authentic values, undervaluing offline human interaction, or not being able to distinguish between the real life and the virtual one.

However, it is exciting to think of all possibilities the virtual influencers can bring with the imagination of their creators and ambition of brands to non-stop fascinate consumers.

 

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