Virtual influencers might be easier to mould but they’re not necessarily a safer option

It may be easier to shape the conversation virtual influencers have about your brand, but given their creators are often anonymous and would have no qualms starting again with a new personality the risks don’t necessarily outweigh the rewards.

virtual influencer

An army of virtual influencers have risen to international fame over the past year, at a far quicker pace than their human counterparts.

The first example of this new tribe is 19-year-old Brazilian-American model Miquela Sousa, identified more commonly by the moniker, Lil Miquela. Created anonymously in 2016 by Sara Decou and Trevor McFedries of LA-based transmedia studio Brud, Miquela has amassed 1.5 million followers in her relatively short career. She has worked with Prada, Chanel and Samsung, along with a plethora of brands looking to follow suit. She has also recently been appointed arts editor at Dazed.

Lil Miquela is not an exception to current influencer marketing trends. Miquela’s perfectly formed, computer-generated peers include Shudu, described by her creator Cameron-James as “the world’s first digital supermodel”; tattooed streetwear enthusiastic and YouTuber brother of Miquela, Blawko22; and the rather more controversial and political Bermuda who ‘hacked’ Miquela’s Instagram in a stunt by Brud, which created both profiles. All have rapidly growing audiences and a legion of brands wanting to work with them.

Although the concept of using virtual influencers may resemble a science-fiction future crashing into contemporary times, the use of virtual personas within brand partnerships is admittedly not a new concept. The 1990s saw Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s virtual band Gorillaz engage in brand collaborations with the likes of Converse, G-Shock and Microsoft to coincide with their critical and commercial success. And last year saw Coca-Cola sign EA Sports’ Fifa 18’s video game character Alex Hunter as one of its celebrity ambassadors.

By working with virtual influencers, brands can parody talent marketing, being openly inauthentic in a tongue-in-cheek way with a message controlled by themselves.

However, the creation of personas with a direct purpose to promote brands demonstrates a new movement emerging within the influencer marketing landscape and it’s easy to see why a number of brands have been quick to engage with this new breed of influencer.

For brands, a view exists that virtual influencers provide a safer trajectory for working with talent, as the potential pitfalls that naturally arise from working with their human counterparts are lower within the virtual world. Working with a CGI persona can minimise the potential risk of negative or unpredictable behaviour that can be experienced with humans. Many brands looked to distance themselves from YouTuber Logan Paul after he showed a suicide victim in one of his posts, for example.

Influencer marketing as we know it can prove problematic for brands, who when negotiating with talent, often need to compromise on their content in order to satisfy the content creator’s values and own sense of brand protection.

This, coupled with a recent rise in consumer scepticism for the industry, demonstrated by high-profile examples such as Scarlett London’s recent public shaming for the lack of realism being portrayed in her posts, leads inevitably to brands experimenting with new concepts.

By working with virtual influencers, brands can parody talent marketing, being openly inauthentic in a tongue-in-cheek way with a message controlled by themselves.

A safer option?

Whether virtual influencers are a safer option however, needs to be questioned, for no matter how safe and predictable a virtual influencer is, there is an often-anonymous human creating the content and building the persona.

In addition, when a human content creator is incognito and can construct an entirely new persona with ease, if reputation is damaged, brands should really be questioning if in fact virtual influencers possess even more potential risk than their human counterparts, who have their own brand and reputation to uphold for future success.

The value of influencer marketing as we know it derives from creating authentic content between brand and influencer, which in turn resonates with the taste-maker’s engaged and invested audience to create a powerful message. The fatal flaw in the use of virtual personas is the complete contradiction of this key value.

In a recent survey by Influencer Intelligence, 61% of consumers revealed that relatable content is the primary appeal of social media influencers and it proves difficult to envisage how consumers can relate to and be persuaded to purchase by the messaging from a fictitious, digital character.

This discrepancy is only likely to heighten as consumers increasingly seek out influencers who they can share allegiance with over core values and global issues. If a virtual influencer were to actively engage in an endorsement that aligned itself with for example, political views or social movements such as body positivity, it would be unlikely to be received positively by an increasingly sceptical consumer base.

The authenticity debate demonstrates the flaw in the use of virtual influencers and why this method is likely to prove restrictive, limited by the challenges that using a digital projection can pose ethically to a brand and its consumer perception.

Brands may well continue to use avatars to create a satirical play on the current climate, but when consumer trust is considered, our CGI friends are unlikely to fit into the current influencer marketing equation.

Only time will tell if virtual influencers are merely a blip on the influencer marketing landscape, or if they are here to stay in some capacity and move branded content into a new direction.

Sarah Penny is head of content at Marketing Week sister title Influencer Intelligence, the platform for brand and talent partnerships.