In April 2016, an American-Brazilian influencer from South California called “Lil Miquela” posted her first pictures to Instagram. Fast forward just a few years and Lil Miquela had amassed well over two million followers on the social media platform.
Like many other social media influencers, Lil Miquela shares glimpses of her life with her followers, including pictures of her post-workout smoothie or snaps of her hanging with friends. Sounds pretty standard, right? Well not quite… there is something quite unique about this social media influencer.
Lil Miquela is not actually a real person. Every aspect of Lil Miquela’s virtual world is created and carefully crafted, pixel by pixel, by designers.
She’s a CGI (Computer Generated Image) creation of LA based startup Brud. Brud have experienced incredible success, having recently received $19.5 million in Series B funding, which brings their current valuation to $125 million. The company has gained serious attention from some very high profile investors, such as Sequoia Capital. This alone suggests that there is a future for marketing with virtual influencers.
Being a CGI creation hasn’t stopped Lil Miquela from becoming a real world success. The virtual influencer’s Instagram account has featured sponsored posts from a number of high-end and well known fashion designers, including Calvin Klein. She’s also posed with famous models such as Bella Hadid. And, she’s had some success in the music industry; the music on her Spotify channel has been listened to hundreds of thousands of times.
A New Generation of Social Media Influencers
Lil Miquela is not the only virtual kid on the block. A whole host of virtual characters have since popped up and are following in her footsteps. In fact, some brands are using virtual personalities as their main brand ambassadors.
KFC, for example, created a CGI version of the company’s founder Colonel Sanders. The virtual persona represents Sanders as a hip young man, emblazoned with tattoos of KFC-related catchphrases across his abs. CGI Colonel Sanders was a short-lived phenomenon. He appeared on KFC’s official Instagram page for just a couple of weeks. However, he proved to be extremely popular with followers. According to KFC, engagement on their social media decreased after the CGI Colonel Sanders marketing campaign ended.
Yoox have created their very own virtual influencer who helps market their online fashion brand. Their CGI humanoid influencer is known as Daisy and comes from Milan in Italy. Daisy lives the typical “it girl” lifestyle – shopping at expensive brands, eating in high-end restaurants and rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in the fashion industry.
Noonoouri is a virtual influencer who collaborates with some of the world’s most well-known brands, including Miu Miu, Dior, Gucci and Versace. She’s even “modeled” for Kim Kardashian’s make-up line. Noonoouri was the thought-child of German graphic designer Joerg Zuber, who created her to realize his childhood dream of working in the fashion industry.
Noonoouri stands out from other virtual influencers because she is not designed to look life-like. Rather, Noonoouri looks more like a 3D cartoon character. While not appearing particularly life-like, the virtual influencer has developed her own personality and a strong set of values. Noonoouri is vegan and is an advocate for sustainable fashion. This has perhaps been a contributing factor to her success in the world of influencer marketing.
Another interesting use of virtual influencers is when real-life celebrities use them as avatars or alter-egos. One such example is WarNymph, the virtual avatar of the singer Grimes. Grimes uses WarNymph on her social media channels to reach out to fans and to promote her latest music and albums.
How Can Virtual Influencers Change the Industry?
The advent of virtual influencers is certainly an interesting, if not slightly bizarre development in the advertising and marketing industry. Like any new innovative marketing tactic, the use of virtual influencers has advantages and disadvantages for both brands and their fans.
The Downsides of Virtual Influencers
Perhaps, some people will find this new cohort of virtual influencers slightly too disturbing. Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” in the seventies to describe the feeling of unease we get when encountering something that has the ostensible appearance of being human, but nevertheless causes us to feel that something is not quite right.
Related to this is the chance this new type of influencer could lack the attributes which have made social media influencers so popular to date. For example, a lot of people follow influencers on social media for inspiration. Perhaps they aspire to be as fit, as well-dressed or as well-traveled as their influencer of choice. In this respect, one could argue that virtual influencers don’t have quite the same allure as real people.
There’s also the fact that this new group of influencers may set impossibly high standards for their followers when it comes to physical appearance. The fashion industry has been subject to criticism over many years for airbrushing models to look picture perfect, making fans feel inadequate and that they are unable to live up to impossible beauty standards. Many argue that virtual influencers could bring this problem to a whole new level. Will fans feel inadequate when they compare themselves to a 19 year old model with a jet set lifestyle who never ages?
The Advantages of Virtual Influencers
However, there are also a number of advantages for advertisers when it comes to using virtual influencers.
The main advantage for brands is that they have complete control over the influencer and everything they do and say.
For instance, brands are in a position to tailor the persona of the influencer to fit with their image and align directly with their values. In this way, brands can associate themselves with an influencer who espouses exactly the message they want to communicate with their fans. Unlike real influencers, virtual influencers don’t come laden with “controversial” views of the world or subscribe to unpopular political ideologies, which might be at odds with the brand’s preferred identity. In addition, they don’t have to worry about what the influencer does in their personal life and whether they might engage in behavior that could potentially damage the brand. There are examples where influencers have behaved badly, causing brands to have to distance themselves in order to limit the damage to their reputation.
Plus, there is a lot of creative freedom for brands when it comes to using virtual influencers. They can either design their own influencer, or work with ready to use influencers that specialist marketing agencies have created for this purpose.
Brands can also create an entire universe for their virtual influencer if they have the ambition to do so. In this way, brands are tapping into a new means of capturing consumers’ attention for longer by allowing them to invest their time following a narrative. As we have seen with virtual personalities like Lil Miquela, consumers can become fans of the virtual influencer, just as they would with a real-life celebrity.
The Future of Virtual Influencers?
Virtual influencers are still just a tiny part of the social media influencer market. According to a survey conducted by Influencer Marketing Hub, the influencer market was projected to grow to approximately $9.7 billion in 2020. However, with virtual reality and computer graphics becoming more sophisticated and easier to produce, their share of the market will likely increase in the nextfew years. Influencers like Lil Miquela, who have attracted millions of followers on Instagram, are an excellent blueprint for marketers wishing to tap into this phenomenon. Additionally, interest in companies such as Brud and the large investments they’ve recently received are a good indication of things to come.