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China’s virtual influencers promote an extensive range of products. And it’s increasingly difficult to tell them apart from actual humans. Whether or not that’s a good thing, remains open to debate. But with digital products, think NFTs and other innovations, on the rise, their staying power seems to be real. Whether we like it or not.

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“Your skin appears to be a bit dry,” a netizen commented on a short video posted by Angie, a popular influencer who made her first Chinese social media appearance in fall 2020. “Perhaps put on a face mask.” Here’s the thing: Angie’s not even a real person, she’s a virtual key opinion leader (KOL) or influencer.

China’s virtual KOLs (虚拟网红| xūnǐ wǎnghóng in Chinese), also referred to as virtual idols (虚拟偶像| xūnǐ ǒuxiàng), are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Their mostly Gen-Z and millennial audience now reaches almost 390 million people. According to Statista.com, China’s virtual idol market was worth USD 918 million in 2021, bringing an extra value of USD 15.8 billion to related sectors. Projections indicate the latter figure will increase by about 70% each year, set to reach USD 49.3 billion by 2023.

The reason for their success is pretty clear-cut: These influencers connect with their fans through a broad, complex social media web. They use platforms like Weibo, Bilibili and Douyin—China’s Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok,—as well as shopping platforms like Little Red Book (小红书| xiǎohóngshū) or Taobao. These primarily e-commerce-driven platforms, not available to Western shoppers, provide virtual KOLs with diverse possibilities to grow their online followings and cash in on their connections with fans.

At times creepy (yet cool), Temper takes a look at five Chinese virtual KOLs directing the expansion of marketing in China’s metaverse, basically a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection.

Physical collector’s item: One-eighth scale figure of virtual idol Luo Tianyi in a Chinese dress she wore during a television appearance. Decorations and lamp are included in this creation courtesy of Good Smile Arts Shanghai

1. Luo Tianyi (洛天依)

Basically a very influential virtual popstar. China’s first virtual idol Luo Tianyi was originally created as a Vocaloid by Shanghai Henian Technology in 2012. Vocaloids are synthesized voices created by software that model human voices.

Luo is a real pro. She has more than 5 million followers on Weibo and hosts live streaming e-commerce sessions on Taobao, is the face of various commercial campaigns, has multiple videos of virtual concerts on Bilibili and boasts a fanbase that allows her to perform in multiple in-person shows simultaneously.

She is the face of various commercial campaigns and even collaborated with famous Chinese piano player Lang Lang during a live concert.

Shanghai Henian Technology has six Vocaloid anime characters that act as individual stars but also perform together as a band, giving fans transmedia access to their full storylines.

virtual KOLs

Ok, this is creepy yet deeply, deeply dope. Chinese actor and singer William Chan poses with a very real-looking virtual KOL Ayayi. Image via Ayayi’s Little Red Book account

2. Ayayi

Ayayi is Luo Tianyi’s perfect opposite. This first metahuman Ayayi (a hyper realistic digital human) is the  brainchild of by RM Inc. (燃麦科技| rán mài kē jì). Ayayi made her first appearance on Little Red Book on May 20th, 2021, the Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. This virtual KOL rapidly gained 40,000 followers thanks to her incredible realism and the fact many immediately idolized her flawless skin and perfect makeup. She now has a growing presence on Western social media platforms like Instagram and sometimes communicates in English to reach Western audiences. We wonder who her dubbing actress is.

On June 15th and 16th, in Shanghai, beauty brand Guerlain invited KOLs, including Ayayi, to attend its summer event: 夏日亲「蜜」花园 (xiàrì qīn [mì]  huāyuan|“Beeloved Garden”). In the next few days, the content released by the KOLs began to spread like wildfire across different platforms to promote the limited-time event. Among those, Ayayi’s pictures became the main focus. This was also Guerlain’s first collaboration with a non-real person.

A thoughtful combination of detailed CGI work and a well-developed life narrative is the key to Ayayi’s successful collaboration with important brands. Ayayi has worked with names like Louis VuittonThe Middlehouse hotel and posed for photos with China’s fashion influencer Grace Chow. These collaborations demand high-quality aesthetics and meaningful narratives that confirm the concept behind the character.

virtual KOLs

Angie, the cutesie, laid-back virtual teenager (of legal age) who doesn’t give a hoot about appearance. Image via Angie’s Douyin account

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3. Angie (阿喜)

Unlike Ayayi, Angie is perfectly imperfect. And unlike China’s other virtual influencers, she doesn’t pose in designer clothing, walk the runway or promote skincare routines.

Angie’s a sweet 18-year-old with flushed cheeks and a short dark do casually tucked behind her ears. Oh, and she likes to yawn.

Instead of being immaculately styled and all about the image, never a hair out of place or lash uncurled, Angie is sensible and sensitive—as is her skin, demonstrated by the occasional dry patch or pimple. This idol even cries and enjoys feeling the wind on her face and eating ice cream. She plays the guitar and the piano, performs for small crowds wearing a baggy jumpsuit and loves doing regular “stuff.” That’s why she has connected with a significant fanbase.

Angie’s creator, Jesse Zhang, director of a Shenzhen-based CGI animation company, created her for Chinese social media. Between Weibo and Douyin, Angie already has roughly 350k followers who identify with her simple “lifestyle.”

virtual KOLs

Ling performs Peking Opera on CCTV’s Bravo Youngsters!, a show about about young artists who perform in teams of four. The purpose of the show is to blend the old and the new and attract younger generations to China’s musical culture. Image via CCTV

4. Ling (翎)

Online audiences first met Ling in May 2020. Her creators envisioned her to be a transmitter of China’s rich culture and soft power.

A resident of Beijing, Ling enjoys culture. She likes Peking Opera and sometimes dresses up in traditional costumes to join the sets of these cultural events. She has pale skin, dark hair, and a signature bun. Ling usually looks directly at the camera to bond with viewers, who love both her beauty and her simplicity.

But Ling is also a full-time virtual model; she’s always “on the move.” Unlike Angie, Ling never depicts her regular life but strikes poses that show off the brands that endorse her. She promotes a wide array of products, including watches, cars, food, perfume, and fashion.

She has 895k followers on Weibo and girlfriend has already collaborated with brands like TeslaCentaine (a Chinese shampoo brand) and Nayuki (a Chinese bubble tea). She appeared on the cover of VogueMe along with three real women.

Ling was created by Xmov Information Technology, located in Shanghai, together with Beijing Cishi Culture Media Company. Xmov specializes in the creation and development of AI-driven digital assets of all sorts. They focus on developing virtual assistants for brands, governments and business enterprises.

virtual KOLs

CHUAN, the first male model in China’s metaverse. Image via CHUAN’s Little Red Book account

5. CHUAN (川)

CHUAN made his first public appearance on the Internet on September 3, 2021 and gained tens of thousands of followers on Chinese social platforms in under three days, becoming the metaverse’s first male model. He currently has 230k followers on Weibo and another 120k on Little Red Book.

CHUAN is a “trans-realistic and trans-dimensional Chinese man with ‘different’ eyes and a friendly, natural face whose job is to build a brand’s bridge between the metaverse and real life.” Just quoting Laneige, a Korean beauty brand employing “it.” Now you know.

During the most recent Shanghai Fashion Week (AW22, June 17-19), YES BY YESIR launched its first cross-dimensional fashion show starring this virtual hit.

He’s gonna be a supermodel. #qmusic

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Soon-to-Be Censored?

These five virtual KOLs are just a taste of China’s contribution to the virtual influencer industry. Their stories and aesthetics as innovative as they are popular.

Chinese social media platforms offer this new wave of KOLs a massive variety of commercial opportunities to expand their audiences. “Virtual KOLS are taking them by embodying all kinds of different characters: from the average girl next door to the next top model, from hyper realistic rendered images to synthetic comic representations, from selling assets in livestreams to telling short stories on social media story formats. The possibilities for engagement are endless and Chinese virtual KOLS are exploring every angle,” according to market research firm Daxue Consulting.

And there are many unique advantages to using virtual idols. They don’t have to deal with restrictions of time, space, physical conditions, etc. For both fans and businesses, virtual influencers do not have dark sides so their public profile will always remain unblemished. Furthermore, they do not age, but they can continually evolve with technology; that said, they can continue to grow with fans. Hence, their reputation will stay intact, their content production efficient, and their potentials will only become greater.

In the long run, the boundary between virtual reality and actual reality will only grow increasingly blurred, and the user experience will become more immersive. The metaverse, where immersion and participation reach their peaks, will become the “ultimate form” of the Internet.

However…

The Chinese government in January this year issued a state-sanctioned report warning Internet companies to tread carefully when looing to deploy virtual KOLs slash idols in the digital metaverse. The publication, titled “The Prospective Research Report on Public Opinion Risk Management in the Virtual Idol Industry,” also warns of “public opinion bubbles” hyping metaverse interest beyond reality.

Beijing getting involved in the sector doesn’t come as a too big a surprise. The state has already cracked down on the country’s “chaotic” fan culture in summer 2021 and virtual influencers may not be safe from censorship either, it seems, with the report vaguely noting some virtual idols are “used to engage in illegal activities” that “may affect and impact social cohesion and values” and pose a risk through promoting the same intense fan culture reserved for their human counterparts.

“The problem of virtual idols in cyberspace may lead to a crisis of trust in real-life society,” the state-sponsored report reads.

Beijing does have a point. “Academic studies describe the shift from standard fandom to intense-personal celebrity worship as borderline pathological behavior,” according to the South China Morning Post. We suggest you check out their in-depth explainer on the topic from August 2021: “Why is China’s celebrity-obsessed fan culture so out-of-control?

Who are the humans behind these virtuals?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Virtual influencer Ling VIA Analytics India Magazine
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