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Virtual influencers

Virtual influencers emerge as brand ambassadors

By Feb 11, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

LG Electronics' virtual influencer, Reah Keem.
LG Electronics' virtual influencer, Reah Keem.

One of the highlights from last month’s CES 2021 was Reah Keem, a virtual influencer who appeared during LG Electronics' virtual press conference to introduce the company's latest products. 

Keem is a 23-year-old musician and her name means "a child from the future." Although she is created by artificial intelligence technology and computer graphics, she interacts with people via her Instagram page and has over 5,000 followers on Twitter. 

LG Electronics plans to put Keem at the forefront of its marketing activities to target the MZ generation, the combination of millennials and Generation Z, or those born between 1980 and 2000, who emerging as a core consumer class. The phenomenon of virtual humans is no longer a futuristic concept.

Currently there are around 144 virtual influencers active worldwide, according to Virtualhumans.org, an information site that provides the latest news on virtual humans.

Companies are becoming more active in rolling out virtual influencers to attract the MZers who are familiar with artificial intelligence technology and virtual personalities, such as Siri.

LG Electronics is not the only company to have a virtual influencer. Last year, the legendary American fried chicken company KFC created a virtual influencer based on its founder Colonel Sanders. 

KFC's virtual, younger version of its founder Colonel Sanders
KFC's virtual, younger version of its founder Colonel Sanders

The iconic Colonel Sanders, known for his grandfatherly image and folksy charm, was re-invented as a younger, virtual version of himself, enjoying an active social life and firm abs. 

Other sports, automotive and fashion brands, including Renault, Puma, Balmain and Yoox, have created their own virtual ambassadors.

French automotive brand Renault's virtual ambassador, Liv 
French automotive brand Renault's virtual ambassador, Liv 

VIRTUAL INFLUENCER MARKET ON THE RISE

Virtual humans have been well adopted in the influencer marketing scene. They are often used to promote word-of-mouth campaigns for companies and products via social media channels.

"Virtual influencers are cheaper to work with than humans in the long term. They can be fully controlled, appear in many places at once, and they never age or die," said Christopher Travers, the founder at VirtualHumans.org, in an interview with a media outlet.

According to research service Business Insider Intelligence, the influencer marketing market is expected to reach $15 billion by 2022.

Lil Miquela, the most popular virtual influencers in the world
Lil Miquela, the most popular virtual influencers in the world

The world's most popular virtual influencer is Li Miquela -- created by Los Angeles-based startup Brud -- with over 3 million followers on Instagram alone. UK-based online marketplace OnBuy estimated Lil Miquela's 2020 revenue to hover around $11.7 million.

Also, Korea's leading entertainment label SM Entertainment Co. recently debuted its latest girl group Aespa, which has artificial intelligence avatars as part of the group. The label saw certain advantages in creating the AV avatars, such as eliminating unforeseen risk or potential scandals.

SM Entertainment's latest group, Aespa, features a twin avatar for each member
SM Entertainment's latest group, Aespa, features a twin avatar for each member


New businesses have been growing amid the rising fame of digital celebrities. A Japanese startup Aww Inc. is a prime example. The company created the virtual model Imma, recently featured in an IKEA advertising campaign. Last year, the Japanese startup raised $1 million in seed money from Coral Capital.

Also, another animated entertainment startup Superplastic Inc. raised $16 million in fundraising last year. The company garnered publicity when it introduced its limited-edition toys as virtual characters on social media platforms.

MZ GENERATIONS EMBRACE METAVERSE

Computer-generated humans are becoming more widespread as technology evolves and society moves beyond the uncanny valley phenomenon, where people feel unsettled with too-human-looking robots.

Over two decades ago, Korea launched its first cyber singer, Adam, a 3D animated character dubbed with a human voice. Its popularity was short-lived.

But the latest virtual influencers have the appearance, voice and personality of actual people by applying the Internet of things and AI technology.

LG Electronics used motion capture technology to capture around 70,000 separate expressions and movements of actors. The company then applied deep learning technology to the data to create the 3D image of its virtual influencer. The deep learning technology was also used for the virtual character's voice and dialect after collecting natural language information for about four months.

The speedy adoption of virtual humans is largely owing to the MZ generation embracing the virtual world to be as authentic as the real world.

Last October, Jensen Huang, the founder of tech company Nvidia, said that the metaverse is coming. A metaverse is a shared virtual space that realizes users' imagination and converges virtual reality with physical reality. Popular games, including 3D games Minecraft and Roblox, and the avatar platform Zepeto are examples of metaverses.

"It's only a matter of time before most companies have their own virtual ambassadors," said Seo Yong-gu, a professor at Sookmyung Women's University. "About 70% of elementary school students in the US are playing Roblox, and when they become the core consumer class, then the metaverse economy will become mainstream," said Seo.


Write to Su-bin Lee at lsb@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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