Virtual Fashion Influencers: The New Face of Your Favorite Brand?
This article was originally published by members of the Wilson College of Textiles’ Fashion Textile and Business Excellence Cooperative.
By Hyesim Seo and B. Ellie Jin
Virtual influencers have emerged as a new digital marketing tool in the fashion industry. With their human-like appearance, virtual influencers are intentionally made in the form of computer-generated imagery or animated digital avatar (Bringé, 2022).
Despite not having a physical presence, they live in the real world, being featured in various advertisements or interacting with audiences on social media platforms.
What is a virtual influencer?
Virtual influencers’ marketing activities are similar to human influencers. Once a virtual influencer has established a solid fan base, brands can increase their brand awareness by partnering with the virtual influencer. Consumers often recognize new brands or recall existing brands that have been promoted by a virtual influencer they follow on social media (Lou et al., 2022).
A survey about virtual influencers conducted by the Influencer Marketing Factory in 2022 found that 58% of participants follow at least one virtual influencer, and 35% of consumers reported buying a product promoted by a virtual influencer (Bringé, 2022). To leverage the potential, many fashion brands are experimenting with the power of virtual influencers for digital communications.
Brands like Prada, Dior and Calvin Klein have already worked with one of the most renowned virtual influencers, Lil Miquela, who has over 2.8 million Instagram followers (Cruz, 2022). With over 2.8 million Instagram followers, this virtual influencer has also gained recognition as a model and social activist (GA Agency, 2021). According to an analysis published on Bloomberg, the 19-year-old robot girl is estimated to earn over $10 million for Brud, the company that created her (Petrarca, 2020).
Retailers and luxury fashion houses are also creating their own virtual ambassadors. For instance, in 2021, Prada introduced its digital muse “Candy.” Candy appeared in a print campaign, short films and social media platforms to promote a fragrance collection with the same name (Chitrakorn, 2021).
Pros and Cons of Virtual Influencers
What makes virtual influencers more beneficial than human influencers to fashion businesses? First, working with virtual influencers for digital marketing activities can save time and money. Unlike human models, virtual influencers do not require makeup and styling teams, travel and accommodations during photoshoots (Ekşioğlu, 2021). Additionally, hiring virtual influencers and negotiating for commercials would be more affordable compared to those same costs for real-world celebrities.
Second, virtual influencers are less likely to be involved in scandals as they do not have personal lives. Instead, the companies or brands that created the influencers will have control over those virtual influencers’ personalities, words and behaviors, enabling them to create lifestyle images that fit the brand. This can minimize reputational risks caused by scandals and gossip about their virtual ambassadors. Lastly, brands can make ads and campaigns with unlimited creative potential using virtual influencers. As digital creations, they can wear anything and go anywhere.
Despite its immense advantages, the use of virtual influencers may also present challenges for brands. When brands create in-house virtual ambassadors, they can find it difficult to decide how realistic the ambassadors should be. Research revealed that consumers may feel uncomfortable when an artificial figure exactly looks like a human being in appearance or behavior, which is known as “the uncanny valley effect” (Lou et al., 2022).
Besides, virtual influencers are unable to physically use or wear the promoted products themselves and to share real experiences (Lou et al., 2022). This may lead consumers to perceive virtual influencers and their marketing activities as disingenuous and untrustworthy.
The distinctive advantages of virtual influencers include scandal-free and time and cost saving with its capabilities of enhancing brand image and awareness just like human influencers do. If the potential challenges (e.g., consumer discomfort and distrust toward virtual influencers) can be addressed, virtual influencers may become more preferred than human celebrities. Over time, virtual influencers can become an effective resource for marketing communications.
Bringé, A. (2022, October 18). The rise of virtual influencers and what it means for brands. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2022/10/18/the-rise-of-virtual-influencers-and-what-it-means-for-brands/?sh=73718d3c6b56
Chitrakorn, K. (2021, December 7). What influencer marketing looks like in the metaverse. Vogue Business. https://www.voguebusiness.com/technology/what-influencer-marketing-looks-like-in-the-metaverse
Cruz, S. (2022, August 18). Virtual influencer Miquela is Pacsun’s newest ambassador. Hypebae. https://hypebae.com/2022/8/virtual-influencer-miquela-pacsun-newest-ambassador-partnership-details
Ekşioğlu, S. (2021, April 13). The rise of virtual influencers – How do they work? Inflow Network. https://inflownetwork.com/the-rise-of-virtual-influencers-how-do-they-work/
GA Agency. (2021, July 9). What are virtual influencers and how can they help your future brand awareness? https://ga.agency/en/what-are-virtual-influencers-and-what-they-mean-for-your-brand/
Lou, C., Kiew, S. T. J., Chen, T., Lee, T. Y. M., Ong, J. E. C., & Phua, Z. (2022). Authentically fake? How consumers respond to the influence of virtual influencers. Journal of Advertising, https://doi.org/10.1080/00913367.2022.2149641.
Petrarca, E. (2020, November 2). Sorry, Lil Miquela Could Make How Much This Year??? The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2020/11/lil-miquela-makes-millions-per-year.html