I, Robot

Virtual influencers have been proliferating over the past three to four years, with examples springing up all around the world and some garnering millions of followers. While they still are relatively few in number and are just starting to gain mainstream awareness, several have been in the news in the past couple of months.

Sometimes referred to as robot influencers, virtual influencers are, as their name suggests, digital creations, whose behavior and interactions are driven by artificial intelligence. They have hometowns and backstories, an active social media presence, embark on careers as models, actors, or musicians, sign endorsement and product placement deals with brands, and can be outspoken on politics or social issues such as the #MeToo movement or racial equality. Some look very human-like—their followers have been known to be shocked when finding out they are not real—and they sometimes interact with live influencers in photo shoots or videos. Their beliefs, tastes, and lifestyles are tailored to and shared with their fans, for maximum resonance.

Several recent deals have involved virtual influencers:

  • Noonoouri “collaborated” in June with British hat designer Stephen Jones, who created his new couture collection with her in mind. Noonoouri was developed by graphic designer Joerg Zuber, who is based in Munich. The virtual influencer wore the collection in photographs and in a film that debuted during virtual London Fashion Week. Some of the other brands Noonoouri has worked with include Dior, Valentino, KKW Beauty, and Tommy Hilfiger.
  • Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela, signed with CAA in May. Developed by L.A.-based digital studio Brud, she is a 19-year-old Brazilian-American musician who appears in fashion magazine photo shoots and on Spotify, where her songs attract 80,000 streamers per month. She has appeared at Coachella, modeled with real-life model Bella Hadid, and released music with Teyana Taylor. She also has several digital friends (e.g., Bermuda and Blawko) who are virtual influencers in their own right. Lil Miquela, whose endorsement roster includes the likes of Calvin Klein, Givenchy, Prada, and Samsung, took off on YouTube in 2016 and is often acknowledged as one of the first stars among virtual influencers.
  • Liam Nikuro, created by 1Sec and introduced in 2019, announced an endorsement agreement in April with the NBA’s Washington Wizards. He appealed to the team because of his popularity in his home country, Japan, which the Wizards had targeted as a potential growth market for new fans after drafting a Japanese player, Rui Hachimura, last year. Liam is billed as the first male virtual influencer to come out of Japan.
  • Knox Frost, a 20-year-old virtual man from Atlanta, paired with the World Health Organization in April to help encourage young people to be more diligent about mask wearing and social distancing to support the fight against the coronavirus. The deal was brokered by branded content agency Influential.

These recent deals represent just a taste of the expanding world of virtual influencers. Some examples are well established and have wide followings. They include Shudu, a South African woman created by British photographer Cameron-James Wilson who has worked with Balmain, Fenty Beauty, and Swarovski and has appeared at the BAFTA Awards, and Imma of Tokyo, whose tie-in partners have included Burberry, Bape, Dior, and Puma, the last with her brother Plustic Boy. Other up-and-coming examples from all around the world include Ava (Singapore), Nila (India), Mar.ia (Mexico), and Hanna Stein (Germany), among many others. Some brands have also created their own digital influencer/spokespersons.

Some of the advantages of working with virtual influencers include their availability to work 24/7 and to “appear” in places that real influencers cannot do safely (a desirable trait during COVID); the fact that they are cost-efficient (no teams of stylists or hair and makeup specialists needed) and eco-friendly (no travel); and the fact that they tend to accumulate global followings. They also have the ability to morph as their algorithms detect changes in their fans’ needs and interests. One research company, HypeAuditor, found that virtual influencers benefit from nearly three times more engagement than live influencers.

So-called robot influencers also come with less risk of behavior issues than their live counterparts; although they do state their personal opinions, some quite controversial, they will likely not go to jail. This is a benefit that seems particularly appealing of late, with the FBI searching the home of Jake Paul and the arrest of Alan and Alex Stokes; both recent incidents are related to pranks organized by these real-life influencers.

On the other hand, one of the things that makes live influencers attractive is their authenticity, and virtual influencers are the opposite of that. In addition, some of the current popularity of digital influencers may be attributable to their novelty, suggesting that mainstream customers may move on quickly. Virtual influencers also have generated some backlash for their looks, which most often reflect an ideal that goes against current trends of acceptance in beauty and fashion. And some observers have questioned whether it is appropriate for white men to be the creators and decision makers behind virtual women of color, as is the case with Shudu and some other virtual influencers.

That said, brands certainly seem to be interested in tie-ins with virtual influencers these days. Most commercial activity so far has involved modeling, product placement, and/or endorsements. But can licensed collaborations be far behind?

A reminder that the next edition of Raugust Communications’ monthly e-newsletter will be published tomorrow, Tuesday, August 18. The Licensing Topic of the Month examines some of the ways licensors and licensees are trying to create satisfying experiential initiatives in the virtual world, while the Datapoint research spotlight takes a look at the licensing strategies of the top quick-service restaurant chains. If you are not already a subscriber, you can sign up here.

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