Whenever the topic of virtual influencers comes up, no one is impartial. Some industry folks see the opportunity and potential of CGI personas, while others dismiss them because they’re either creeped out, think it’s just a fad, or both. Either way, there’s no arguing about the fact that these new players in the influencer landscape have captivated everyone in 2018. As Lady Sovereign would say, “Love me or hate me, it’s still an obsession.” So, rather than pondering whether they’re here to stay or will be gone tomorrow, let’s look at some of the factors behind the growth of this tribe which are changing the winder influencer landscape.
New and shiny
While CGI characters aren’t new (Gorillaz have been around for two decades), their behaviour - posting on social channels as if they are real - is. Lil Miquela - the most famous virtual influencer on Instagram - even had a breakdown when she “found out” from another CGI persona (!) that she was a digital-only creation. Although her bio now says “robot”, most of the comments on her pictures are “are you real”? As with all new technology, the novelty factor is a big pull for companies to try things out and earn PR points while doing it.
“She [Lil Miquela] is one of the first digital influencers…she has that first-mover advantage, and you don’t have to worry about an Influencer Rider,” says Michael Sharp, Chief Executive Officer at marketing agency Standard Black. The agency is behind a joint partnership between RAICES, the largest immigration non-profit in Texas and fashion label Willy Chavarria. The fashion house created a special t-shirt, the proceeds from which going to RAICES. The project was organically picked up by Lil Miquela, who posted a picture of herself and best freind Blawko22 wearing the products, gathering over 58,600 likes and more than 300 comments. "The Kids Are Not Alright” is a non-partisan project, and its purpose is to help reunite parents and children separated at the US border. Lil Miquela has a huge voice and we wanted to make this as impactful as possible to help the unfortunate at the border,” says Eric Lobb, Executive Creative Director at Standard Black.
Willy Chavarria isn’t the only brand reaping the benefits of collaborating with CGI influencers, of course. Over her two years of existence in the digital space, Lil Miquela has struck partnerships with the likes of Prada, Highsnobiety, Anne Vest, Youtube, Ugg, Tinder and many others.
The hype is still there, but as some of the novelty around seeing a product on a virtual character wears off, brands will have to think more creatively for these type of partnerships. For example, virtual influencer Perl recently teamed up with Dazed Beauty to create the world’s first cosmetics line for AI (purely conceptional at this stage), and with retailer Carlings for a digital-only clothing collection. We expect to see more of these types of brand-influencer collaborations in the future.
Cheap and cheerful
“My partnerships are quite personal and I spend a lot of time creating the models. When I collaborate with brands, I create a character with them,” says Cameron-James Wilson, creator of CGI supermodel Shudu. But as the technology needed to develop hyper-realistic images and videos improves and becomes more affordable, using CGI personas is likely to become a more cost-effective tactic than partnering with a real influencer.
An indication of this is Wilson’s decision to launch a dedicated agency for virtual personas. Dubbed The Digiitals, the company’s main services are creating CGI models for brands and letting businesses ‘book’ already existing ones. The agency’s first branded project came from French fashion house Balmain, which enlisted Wilson to create two new CGI personas and ‘booked’ Shudu for the brand’s virtual army. The models starred in Balmain’s campaign and modelled the new collection. “CGI ‘people’ have the advantage of being able to reinvent themselves again and again, quickly, and without a lot of commitment,” says Standard Black’s Michael Sharp. “So as long as they’re keeping up with what’s current I think they can maintain relevance.”
Potentially, these newly created CGI characters can be owned by the brand that commissions them. Unlike models, who one day may endorse your brand, and the next - your competitor’s, virtual influencers let companies employ them to only advocate on their behalf. “Companies are always trying to give voice to their brand; an attitude, why not a perfectly crafted look? If the brand is transparent that this 'person' that's been created stands for a collective idea, then why wouldn’t consumers engage?,” comments Sharp. “Today they engage with a brand on social channels and they have no idea who they’re talking to. They assume it’s the brand — why not put a face to it?”
(Branded) control freak
One of the biggest pull for brands to use virtual influencers is the ability to completely control everything about the persona they enlist - from how they look, to what they wear (and how they wear it), through to what they “say”. It also signals brands and agencies’ wish of not having to worry about what a real influencer might say or do while they’re endorsing a product.
“I’ve seen [the influencer landscape in recent years] more driven by corporate interest rather than individual interests and values. In a lot of cases, it’s going more in that direction and becomes less personal,” says social influencer and entrepreneur Gwilym Pugh, referring to the fact that increasingly, even when enlisting real influencers, brands want to completely control the message, rather than let the creators decide the output.
And it’s not just controlling brands which are fuelling the rise of this new virtual group of characters. Influencers’ obsession with staging their pictures and curating their feeds in unnaturally perfect ways is a big contributor. “When it comes to Instagram, many influencers are not showing us their real life. They are showing us their best life, striving for perfection,” says Sharp.”A simple dinner is now a content opportunity, shopping is now a content opportunity, getting a box delivered is a content opportunity. Influencers have long been depicting a life that is unattainable and not real to many, so this is just the next evolution of that—someone living and expressing a life that isn’t necessarily real. I think that’s why CGI influencers are kind of cool in a way, because they are embracing the façade. People follow along because they like this persona’s perspective: I.e. their team of stylists, writers, photographers, etc. and their viewpoints.”
With this in mind it’s easy to blame the rise of virtual personals on the brands and creators but, at the end of the day, it’s us - their followers - who engage with them, comment, like their images and buy the products they endorse. We still do it, perfectly aware that our favourite bloggers don’t wake up with a flawless smile and styled hair in designer PJs.
“The interpretation of authenticity is changing. It’s very strange that people can have authentic experiences with other who are not actually real,” agrees Cameron-James Wilson. “And it’s because some people have unfortunately created a distrust in what they’re doing. So it’s pushed people to look at other forms of engagement and media, which is why we’ve seen the rise of virtual influencers.”
As we’re heading into 2019, authenticity becomes an elastic term, one that is in the eye of the beholder. It’s up to us to define what’s real or not, in our own reality. For brands and agencies, the challenge is to create real connections between the public and the influencers they partner with - be they real humans or digital avatars.
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