Working with influencers isn’t without problems. They do have large audiences and know how to create awesome planned candid (plandid) shots on Instagram, but they also have a mind of their own. That means they can do and say things that cause sponsors great angst about working with them. We’ve seen it happened with PewDiePie in 2017, when he lost his contracts with Google and Disney for his antisemitic remarks. Brands don’t want to inhibit influencer creativity, but they also don’t want to be associated with people they find risky to their image. This is true for many celebrities, influencer or not, as evidenced by the college admissions scandal and Lori Loughlin losing Hallmark and the final season of Fuller House. Misbehave, and you’ll suffer the consequences because brands need to keep their customers happy.
Perhaps in an effort to bypass working with high-dollar influencers or risking a relationship gone awry, brands are now in the business of creating virtual influencers. If they take off, it could completely change the industry. Removing the human error from influencers, by creating a digital human image and controlling the content gives brands a “perfect” solution, right? Plus, who knows – AI could come into play sooner than we think… completely removing the need for human influencers.
Top Virtual Influencers
Considered the world’s first virtual supermodel, Shudu Gram is the invention of a photographer. Shudu is positioned more as a mannequin or a piece of art, but within a few months of launch, the character earned hundreds of thousands of followers. Likely due to the fact that she’s not poised as a woman, her growth stagnated, because at the time of this writing, ”she” has 173K followers, and the account is still fairly active.
Another virtual influencer, known as Lil Miquela, hit the scene shortly after. Though her creator hid in secret for some time, it was eventually revealed that she is the creation of Brud – an L.A. based startup comprised of dreamers, storytellers, and engineers who focus on AI and robotics. Miquela, on the other hand, is positioned as a normal woman. “She” posts photos of herself with “friends” on Instagram, participates in media interviews, supports Black Lives Matter, and so on. As of this writing, she has amassed 1.5 million followers. For reference, the company who created her only has 26.3K, but they don’t post as frequently.
To Hire or to Create Your Own?
Virtual influencers operate online just like a human influencer does. Based on the persona the designer creates for them, they continue to develop and post content that falls in line with that persona. That’s why you see Miquela “living” in photos with friends, doing things like putting on makeup, walking around outside, and so on. Once they’ve amassed a decently following, brands are willing to work with them, too. Depending on the audience, they may even be more willing to work with them since they have more control over the content that’s posted as a result.
Micquela for instance, promotes brands such as Prada and Chane, but claims to do so without receiving payment. Shudu promoted Rhinna’s Fenty Beauty lipstick in a post that went viral.
KFC’s New Colonel Sanders
KFC has gone in an entirely different direction with the virtual influencer concept, some say to parody actual Instagram influencers. Instead of finding one to work with, like Shudu or Miquela (who don’t fit because of their audience, of course) they decided to create one of their own, with the help of Wieden + Kennedy agency. Together, they created a fashionista with the Colonel’s spirit.
The virtual colonel is the newest version of the reimagined reboots of the company founder. He has taken over the KFC Instagram feed where he shows off his lifestyle, including branded tattoos, abs, and connecting with nature in a self-absorbed way.
I know what you’re thinking – an influencer created by the brand, whether the brand is the only client, isn’t an influencer. It’s just branded content packaged a bit differently. But KFC is one step ahead of that argument, having armed the virtual colonel with a media kit of his own to gain additional sponsors. So far, “he” has real partnerships with Dr. Pepper, TurboTax, and OldSpice.
Which brings us to the important question: if you can create such a lifelike influencer that goes viral, is there a need to hire humans anymore? The reality is, it’s the human condition of flaws and mistakes that create a genuine emotional connection to the audience. And that’s what’s important for influencers.
Not only this, but there are legal and business issues to consider because of intellectual property ownership. If you create your own internally, does this affect how legal agreements take shape, vs. having the influencer created externally?
Then there’s the moral clauses and identity issues. You’ll still need to include moral clauses in contracts which may not only cover the virtual identity, but also the identity of the creator – even if the creator’s identity isn’t known at the time of entering into the contract. I’m not a lawyer, of course, but these clauses should help protect you and provide recourse in relation to PR issues of authenticity, reputation and tarnishment, and appropriation. Shudu has come under fire because the creator is a white man, profiting off of a black woman, without having to pay one.
You’ll also have issues with endorsements and disclosures, and the FTC maintains you must have the same disclosures, whether the influencer is human or CGI. That’s why if you decide to delve into the virtual influencer realm, either by hiring one like Shudu or Miquela, or creating your own, it’s important to have attorneys involved in the process from the beginning.
Until the landscape becomes a little clearer, and the trend proves that it has true staying power, it makes sense for a lot of brands to stick to human influencers. What are your thoughts on the subject? Let’s discuss in the comments!