The latest beauty brand ambassadors aren’t models or actresses, or influencers. They aren’t even real people—they are virtual avatars. Brands are constantly finding novel ways to engage consumers and bring in new customers, and the digital venue that is the metaverse has fast become a key sector within the industry. Digital brand ambassadors look and act like humans on-screen, but only exist within a virtual universe and make reliable and controllable spokespeople. In March 2022, the Influencer Marketing Factory surveyed over 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older on virtual influencers. 58% said they follow at least one virtual influencer on social media, and 35% claimed that they have bought a product or service promoted by them.
Although virtual influencers and brand ambassadors feel futuristic, it’s not a new phenomenon. In Asia, digital characters have been idolized for years. An example of this is Hatsune Miku, originally a vocal synthesizer software, which became so popular it was personified as a 16-year-old female anime character in 2007 and even played live concerts as a holograph. Another example is the British band Gorillaz fronted by Blur singer Damon Albarn. Since the 1990s, the band has used technology to create virtual versions of themselves, whether it be for album covers or performances.
One of the most recognized examples of a virtual influencer is Lil Miquela, who appeared on Instagram in 2016 and went on to virtually attend fashion shows, appear in photo shoots, and even release her own music. In 2019. it was revealed that Lil Miquela’s creators, Brud, had closed a $125 million investment round led by Spark Capital. Despite the success of Lil Miquela—the virtual influencer currently has 2.8 million Instagram followers—she hasn’t always been accepted with open arms. In 2019, a campaign video for Calvin Klein saw supermodel Bella Hadid kissing the virtual influencer, which led to accusations of queer-baiting and backlash over Calvin Klein not hiring any real-life queer people. This illustrated the drawbacks of virtual influencers' ability to truly represent a consumer base, especially those from underrepresented groups.
These virtual missions paved the way for the hyperrealisticvirtual brand ambassadors we see today. Prada’s Candy perfume launched in 2011 with French actress Léa Seydoux as the first face of the scent that was aimed at a younger audience, since spring 2022 Candy has a virtual muse, also named Candy, who has a stylish choppy bob, hyperrealistic freckles, and pink eyes. In December 2022, Nars utilized digital brand ambassadors labeled “Power Players.” These ambassadors were inspired by popular lipstick shades and created to interact with customers going as far as having their own backstories originating from different passions they wereassigned. And Maybelline New York’s first-ever virtual ambassador, May, is currently being showcased in an ad across TV screens worldwide alongside the brand’s (human) global ambassador Gigi Hadid to advertise Falsies Surreal Extensions mascara.
Virtual ambassadors are attractive options for brands and companies, as not only do they have total control over the virtual beings' messaging, they cost a lot less than celebrities and are unlikely to get entangled in scandals the way today's influencers and celebrities often do. However, it’s important to note that not all consumers may be attracted to these digital constructs and that there are questions about the ethics of using these new beauty ambassadors. A concern that virtual ambassadors raise is the existence of mutual trust in online spaces. As Influencer Marketing Hub reports, 61% of consumers find relatable content as the primary appeal of influencers—this idea of relatability may be lost when the influencer is fictitious. A virtual influencer may struggle to align itself with core values that the customer has as giving this digital being political views or social movements to express support for these views possibly brings skepticism as none of these matters truly affect the virtual influencer and these ideas are coming from a faceless nameless person that controls it. This proves that the virtual ambassador approach may prove to be restrictive for a brand and pose ethical conundrums.
Another hurdle brands may face when introducing virtual ambassadors is that they are creating beauty standards that are impossible to maintain. Social media users are already facing a barrage of heavily edited imagery of human influencers. The trend of excessive editing to “improve” one’s appearance is falling out of fashion. Examples include the French government is seeking to pass a law that would require all filtered or edited images to be labeled as such, and the growing popularity of Instagram accounts, like @Problematicfame (355K followers) and @Celebface (1.2MM followers), dedicating themselves to highlighting use of Photoshop and plastic surgeries by celebrities and influencers.
The use of perfectly pixelated virtual beings may have damaging consequences on real-life consumers. The carefully crafted appearances differ from the human appearance that will never be able to obtain this level of perfectionism, and may put customers off from brands as they don’t feel represented or understood. A virtual ambassador can showcase how a product might appear; however, the reality of how a product would actually look on the consumer cannot be represented, as it’s impossible for a virtual being to wear real products with real characteristics such as texture, scent, color, and lasting power.
Information technology consultancy firm Gartner predicts that by 2025, an average of 30% of influencers and celebrity marketing budgets will be dedicated to virtual influencers. The highly scalable and cost-effective virtual ambassador is set to become a more common occurrence on our screens, in particular, as the meta-human industry in China is estimated to reach $42.6 billion, while the global meta-human market is expected to reach $5.8 billion by 2025. With Gen Z placing a high value on the virtual world, it’s no surprise that growth is expected; however, it will be interesting to see if the virtual brand ambassador takes over fully from the human versions, or if a potential lack of consumer trust will prevent the sector from growing and evolving.
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