Influencers: From real to virtual – The Financial Express

The Financial Express
What purpose do influencers serve for brands? Well, they reach as many people as possible, and engage consumers in new ways and in unencumbered settings.
But do marketers have absolute control over their projects from conception to completion? No. Can they bring upon their subscribers to create content round the clock? Absolutely not.
Enter virtual influencers
Since influencer marketing is content-driven, virtual influencers offer 90% of the things a marketer seeks. A continuous stream of content? No problem. Hyper-customised content? It’s all gravy! In local language? Comme tu veux.
According to a 2022 virtual influencers survey conducted by the Influencer Marketing Factory, 58% of respondents said they followed at least one virtual influencer and 35% of consumers said they had purchased a product endorsed by a virtual influencer. As per the survey, consumers aged 18-44 were most likely to have purchased a product that a virtual influencer promoted.
There are many reasons contributing to their popularity, and the one marketers highlight is that VIs are accessible and trouble-free. By 2026, marketers will dedicate 30% of their celebrity and influencer marketing spends to virtual influencers, according to Gartner’s global forecast. “Virtual influencers present a unique opportunity for brands to connect with their audiences and customers in a new and innovative way,” says Anshul Ailawadi, business head, youth, music & English entertainment, Viacom18. “They can be programmed and customised to showcase specific skills, talents, or personalities that align with the brand’s message, making them more effective at promotion.”
Luxury brands have been among the first to jump onto the bandwagon. Prada, for instance, partnered with virtual influencer Miquela in 2018 to promote the brand. Some years later, for its Candy perfume campaign, Prada developed a virtual model named after the fragrance.
Closer home, D2C eyewear brand John Jacobs partnered with Kyra, the country’s first meta-influencer with over 2 lakh followers, for its marketing campaign; MTV Hustle 2.0 launched an AI-powered rapper that can rap on any word.
At present many brands are creating their VIs in-house to explore the entire gamut of possibilities. Krafton, a collective of independent game development studios including PUBG Studios, recently unveiled Ana, its first hyperrealistic virtual human with a Gen Z personality. Sean Hyunil Sohn, CEO, Krafton, says, “Virtual humans are set to become a $527-billion market by 2030. Content with VIs is created digitally using AI and hence can be cost-effective in the long run.”
Getting started
Look what MTV is doing. The youth entertainment channel recently collaborated with DDB Mudra to develop India’s first virtual rapper ‘BotHard’ to draw attention to its property, MTV Hustle 2.0. The collaboration resulted in 350,000+ rap videos and the show garnering 2 billion views across social platforms, representing a 9x growth over the last season.
Ailawadi says the effort allowed it to scale new geographies and possibilities. “Creating a VI in-house provides brands with greater control, agility, intellectual property ownership, and brand differentiation, making it an attractive option for establishing a strong brand identity in the digital age,” he says.
For its part, John Jacobs Eyewear launched its virtual campaign, The Surrealist Edit, which entailed 16 3D characters named after the brands. Expanding on the campaign, it collaborated with Kyra, who was shown cruising through the landscapes of the brands’ ‘surrealist world’, interacting with change makers, and witnessing the future of eye fashion.
The brand plans to expand the use of VIs. Sumit Chawla, general manager, marketing, John Jacobs, says that today with an abundance of content creators and duplication of content, there is a dearth of refreshing ways in which audiences can interact with brands. So the ones that are able to offer unique experiences to their audiences are more likely to stand out.
Namrata Singh, head of metaverse and digital, SETVI (Sony Entertainment Talent Ventures India), believes fashion, lifestyle, FMCG, auto, and finance natively appeal to VIs. “They drive higher engagement and since they are virtual, they can don multiple personalities at any given point in time,” she adds. The company has recently signed its first-ever VI, the popstar Polar, exclusively for India.
All said, it remains a tight-rope walk for many. Devarshi Shah, senior VP and business head, branded content division, OML Entertainment, says given that VIs are still a relatively new concept, there is a risk that they would be seen as fake and may struggle to build genuine relationships with their followers. “There may be a need for more regulation around the use of VIs to ensure overall safety and responsibility online,” he adds.
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