The rise of virtual influencers: the phenomena taking over fashion marketing
Like the evolution of fashion as a whole, influencers have also been evolving alongside the industry’s increasing digitalisation, seeing the concept of ‘virtual influencers’ become something of a norm in the marketing world. This growing trend has seen retailers from the likes of Marks & Spencer to Pacsun begin to explore the digital realm by appointing virtual public figures to lead campaigns, sell products or even become an extension of their brand. But who are these mysterious beings and what about them is making retailers fall head over heels to work with them?
A ‘virtual influencer’ can be defined as a computer-generated, fictional individual which is most often used for marketing purposes, especially social media-based strategies. They can range from independently created avatars to official brand personalities, representing a company in various aspects of the digital world.
Famous iterations of the trend include Gen Z-targeted social media influencer Lil Miquela, who boasts 2.9 million Instagram followers, and Brazil’s Lu do Magalu, who counts a staggering 6.1 million followers. Both these virtual people have worked with a variety of brands, namely Prada and Dior, however, their distinct dissimilarity to the typical influencer is that they are created by advanced tech companies. While Magalu first appeared in 2019, and was initially produced by a company of the same name as a means to promote iBlog TV through YouTube, Lil Miquela was launched as an Instagram project by developers Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou in 2016.
Brands themselves have also begun to get in on developing their own virtual influencers to represent them throughout their marketing. Most recently British retailer Marks & Spencer revealed its first virtual influencer ‘Mira’ through her own dedicated Instagram account. The retailer said her launch comes as a bid to connect with a younger audience by building a new technology-focused community. It followed a similar initiative by luxury fashion group LVMH, which introduced Livi, its virtual ambassador, who was unveiled during the LVMH Innovation Award ceremony.
One of the studios behind many of these influencers, Reblika, has set about making these types of individuals more of a ‘reality’, working with brands to create “digital humans” that can be used for marketing, fashion, gaming and film. Following Reblika’s launch in 2019, the same company set up Reblium as an extension, providing a new avatar building technology that was created to be an inclusive platform for hyper-realistic person creation. Ultimately, Reblium’s founder and CEO, Mao Lin Liao, wants the platform to be able to provide high quality avatars that can act as a “passport to enter different virtual places”, once it launches next year. However, when speaking to FashionUnited, he noted “the world’s not ready for that yet because we don’t have the technology”.
The benefits digital humans present
Despite this sentiment, Liao said there were plenty of opportunities for brands to tap into when looking to adopt virtual influencers. Next to the idea that virtual influencers can never physically get sick and can therefore always be relied on, Liao noted that they are completely loyal and they don’t have the capability to cause any scandals that can harm a brand. “It’s also something very futuristic,” he added. “Having an ambassador that a brand can shape themselves is rare. Instead of finding someone that is famous, now you can really start to promote your brand by incorporating stories.”
Its advancement further allows a brand to connect with a Gen Z audience that may be more familiar with the use of avatars and digital engagement. It comes with the increasing emphasis this user group puts on their own digital identity. In fact, according to a recent study carried out by virtual world platform Roblox, around 42 percent of digital world users value expressing themselves digitally just as much as doing so in the real world.
In a conversation with FashionUnited, Christopher Travers, founder and editor-in-chief of Virtual Humans, a news and publishing platform dedicated to digital individuals, noted that this evolution has run alongside brands increasingly adopting mascots into their marketing strategies over recent years, with virtual influencers becoming a natural progression of this trend. He added: “Any brand who does not usher their mascot onto social media in the form of a virtual influencer is now missing out on continuing their story. Instead, most brands now rely on funding human influencers and paid ad channels rather than continuing to invest into their own IP, which they could carry forward for decades to come.”
Consumer response and authentic usage
As such a new concept, it is difficult to already predict how customers may react to the use of virtual influencers. Since its launch in late October, Marks & Spencer’s Mira now counts nearly 5,000 followers and has been featured in a handful of campaign images promoting the retailer’s clothing. However, her presence was met with mixed reactions from consumers, with some commending Marks & Spencer for its exploration of new technologies while others expressed hesitation over what could come from the feature in the future.
One Instagram user commented under Mira’s first post: “This is so wrong, we should be promoting real, imperfect people – not creating ‘flawless’ avatars that create impossible ‘beauty standards’. Marks & Spencer, I’m disappointed in you for investing in this marketing strategy that will exacerbate issues of poor body image. Why didn’t you use this budget to invest in promoting real, honest influencers who celebrate the diversity of what human beings look like?”
When asked about if there were ways for brands to authentically utilise virtual influencers, Liao said there wasn’t a clear answer for this just yet. “Authenticity is a big problem,” he noted. “In promoting the digital world, it’s really about exploring what is possible. Once we get used to it, I think authenticity won’t be a problem. We just need to have more good examples in society that promote a good use case.”
The way in which consumers engage with a virtual influencer does depend on how it has been implemented into a brand’s communications, with many avenues to explore when looking into their effectiveness. Virtual Humans’ Travers noted that when applying this form of influencer into a strategy, it is really about using the right medium at the right time. He added: “[Virtual influencers] have proven productive in driving sales during live shopping settings, in live streaming sponsorships on Twitch and YouTube, in more traditional-seeming sponsorships such as on Instagram and TikTok, and even when leveraging a virtual influencer IP to appear in commercial content off-platform.”
Giving real life people a digital presence
Meanwhile, much of Reblika’s existence is also based around transforming real life celebrities, influencers and models into digital avatars, bringing them to life virtually so they can interact with users online. The company holds licences for the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Rita Ora, each of which it has developed a digital character for. Speaking on why this phenomena has occurred, Liao said: “We can preserve their beauty and, once they have been digitised, they can be used for a longer period of time. In the case of the pandemic, or when they are sick, we can use their likeness and still work with them through licensing.”
A similar mindset was taken on by the purely digital fashion brand House of Blueberry, which recently launched a virtual clothing collection alongside real life influencer Leah Ashe. However, to promote the collection, Ashe appeared to consumers as a virtual version of herself, and donned each of the collection’s looks during a digital party in the open world gaming platform Roblox. Each of the garments could be purchased by users to then be worn by their own avatars, allowing a new avenue of engagement for both Blueberry and Ashe herself.
Speaking to FashionUnited, House of Blueberry founder and CEO, Mishi McDuff, said the response to the collection and event was “insane”. McDuff added: “I don’t think you could get more hype out of the community if you brought in a traditional celebrity. [Users] are likely watching Leah more than they’re watching a movie. That’s their star. The pattern I’m seeing, not just with influencers, but with sales in general, is that people aren’t buying into a specific brand or product – they’re buying into a community. We were able to tap into Leah Ashe’s community – a group of people that follow her adventures in a virtual space.”
McDuff went on to say the virtual influencer concept was possibly even more intimate than real life influencer marketing, as these individuals are able to enter the same realm that younger shoppers are currently exploring. It is these worlds, like Roblox, that thousands of Gen Z and Millennials can enter all at once, creating a sense of community without having to worry about location, space and engagement. “The loyalty to that influencer is a lot closer,” McDuff continued. “What we are seeing is creators also becoming influencers, which is in turn creating different kinds of products. You can’t ignore the metaverse space anymore. You have to be out there and I think brands are beginning to get their hands dirty with creating these virtual influencers and learning about the space. It comes across as authentic.”
Virtual influencers’ place in the future
With the digital fashion industry evolving so rapidly, it can be tricky to predict where it will be in the coming years and what advancements are yet to come. While discussing the possibilities, Travers suggested: “I anticipate a future where new platforms and tools allow anyone to easily create and embody an avatar online. In a world where avatar social networks and pseudonymous avatar personalities reign thanks to technology dropping the barrier to entry, some of these personas will be more influential than others. And so, in this future, the idea of a virtual influencer will be massively normalised and start to look a lot like the human influencers we follow today. The idea of an avatar being influential is not necessarily new—it's now just a matter of time and technology before anyone can embody such a character.”
In order to accelerate their input throughout 2023, Travers recommended brands to incorporate virtual influencers through partnerships in the form of short videos or livestream mediums. The best way, however, as noted by Travers, is merging it into a marketing strategy, building a spokesperson or a mascot from scratch and investing in expressing virtual personality that represents a brand’s mission and values. “The best way to incorporate a virtual influencer is to create one,” he summarised.
It is exactly that which Reblika is hoping to achieve. Via the platform, once it has launched, Liao hopes to make the creator economy and avatar development more accessible for both consumers and businesses, while also facilitating an easier way to create content. However, with the industry as a whole, he has a wider vision. “I see the industry evolve beyond just on screen images,” he began. “Once the technology has developed, I see virtual influencers possibly having their own world that we humans can’t control. They have their own life, or they become celebrities of their own. Maybe you can customise the behaviour, but they won’t be controllable. That’s where I see virtual reality in the future, which is not the case right now because it’s just not scalable.”
While virtual influencers do allow for this sense of creativity and less barriers surrounding expression, Liao rightly noted that it is not all about the looks, reminding brands that the story they build around the digital human is, if anything, even more important. He concluded: “Some mistakes I see brands make when they look to adopt virtual influencers is that they are basically trying to create the same person. It’s not original. They should care more about the storytelling behind them and less about how they look, because that is what is really driving these characters. If you focus on their looks, people will follow you for the first two months, but then after that it’s really about the content.”