Virtual KOLs: Why Brands Are Keeping the Human Element

In our previous article on cross-brand marketing, we took an in-depth look at the joint campaign between L’Oreal and Tencent’s Game for Peace. In that campaign, Gilly, the official virtual KOL for Game for Peace with attractive, slim and stylish looks, garnered plenty of attention in the game and on social media, resulting in a hugely successful and popular campaign for both brands.

In this article, you'll learn:

What are Virtual KOLs?

In recent years, with the rise of the metaverse, the development of speech synthesis and engine technology has led to increasingly sophisticated and versatile creation and activation of virtual KOLs. Virtual KOLs are made possible through advanced computer graphics, AI (artificial intelligence), motion capture and other technologies, with unique appearances, personal backgrounds and preferences, just like their human counterparts.

Examples of Virtual KOL Campaigns

Virtual KOLs have not only emerged from computers as a versatile, cutting-edge technology, but have also become a social phenomenon and driver of social traffic. On 7 May, Gilly appeared in an online event sponsored by UN-Women to discuss representation of females in games. In the live-stream, Gilly, as the representative of “Youth for Peace”, encouraged young people to move through life with an adventurous spirit, boldly take failures and challenges head on and fearlessly pursue their dreams. Through the event, Gilly became the first virtual KOL public speaker in the world, enabling “Game for Peace” to break new ground.

Today, Gen Z is a major force in the consumer market. For them, virtual KOLs can help transform their imagination into reality. Some brands have collaborated with popular virtual KOLs or created their own virtual KOLs in an attempt to appeal to Gen Z consumers..

On 16 September 2021, Bose announced a collaboration with China’s first hyper-realistic virtual KOL “AYAYI”, inviting her to become the brand’s “Chief Noise Cancellation Experience Officer”, and launched an AYAYI co-branded gift box containing two new colourful noise-cancelling earplugs. In December, AYAYI joined Alibaba as the “Digital Director of Tmall Super Brand Day”. AYAYI, who made her debut last year during 520 “I love you day” promotions, is China’s first hyper-realistic metacosmic virtual human, featuring an uncanny reproduction of human features in her appearance. Her first post on Xiaohongshu was read more than one million times and received over 100k engagements, ranking number one among virtual KOLs.

As was the case with Game for Peace, many brands began to launch their own exclusive virtual KOLs, with the freedom to create a humanoid image according to the needs of the brand, while also continuing to develop the character of the virtual KOL to follow the long-term growth of the brand. In 2021, homegrown beauty brand Florasis officially announced its own virtual KOL of the same name in Chinese, “Huaxizi”, a name that combines classic charms and modern fashion. This name represents the aesthetics and positioning of the brand, breaking the barriers between the virtual and the physical, successfully attracting the attention of Gen Z consumers.

Virtual KOLs Today: The Future of China Influencer Marketing?

Driven by technological advances that make virtual and real interactions more realistic, virtual economies are also growing rapidly and becoming increasingly attractive for some brands. However, the virtual KOL industry as a whole is still in its infancy, facing many obstacles such as difficulty to create, high costs and limited acceptance. Before virtual KOLs go live, it is necessary to build a professional character and image through 3D modelling, which takes a significant toll on time and resources, far exceeding the cost of grooming and managing a human KOL. With the increasing saturation of the virtual KOL market, the demand for uniqueness and creativity is no longer limited to human KOLs, and the same requirements and standards apply to virtual KOLs.

Limitations of Virtual KOLs

Virtual KOLs are only digital puppet figures, and lack behavioural and judgemental independence. When users come across product seeding and endorsements, they rely on KOLs to provide nuanced, actual evaluations of product usage and effects to help make purchase decisions. Furthermore, platforms such as Xiaohongshu enable users to not only see the physical appearance of the products, but also to exchange authentic user experiences and detailed reviews. In the past, celebrities and KOLs have been notorious for providing empty recommendations for products and services without even using them.

For virtual KOLs, the lack of perception and judgement is a significant deficiency that technology cannot compensate for at present. After all, only human KOLs & KOCs can share actual product experiences and after-effects, which makes product recommendations from virtual KOLs less convincing and credible, with the potential to compromise the authenticity of brand image and even damage consumer trust. Previously, virtual KOL Ling Ling, who (which?) has gained popularity as the perfect balance between traditional Chinese culture and modern society, was ridiculed for her inability to physically use and experience the product, provide unique, authentic feedback, and propose convincing recommendations. Furthermore, even if the appearance of a virtual KOL is realistic enough, its skin texture and tone cannot be an exact replication of a real human’s, which also severely compromises the authenticity of claims being made of the product.

Moreover, marketing is not only focused on the product itself, but also the lifestyle and brand messaging behind the product. By participating in the actual product launch, human KOLs experience the identity and uniqueness of the brand, enabling them to convey brand messaging in a more powerful, memorable and of course authentic way.

Digital vs Physical Beings

Actual product experiences evoke desire and anticipation among audiences for specific lifestyles. This is designed to align with brand concepts and messaging, enabling brands to stay relevant and present within the mind of consumers through authentic, relatable messaging from human KOLs and KOCs. Contrary to this, however, there is still a significant distance between virtual KOLs and the physical lives of human consumers, and it is difficult for audiences to relate to virtual KOLs’ description of “experiences” with brands and products.

Despite having extremely realistic human appearances, today’s virtual KOLs are still unable to match the “vitality” of real human beings. A virtual KOL will not “live” like a real human, and it follows naturally that it cannot fully represent the lifestyles and ideas advocated by brands that cater to human consumers. When virtual KOLs market and promote products and brands, they can only provide a skin-deep image and influence, and are incapable of channelling the values and cultural connotations that are unique to each brand.

Virtual KOLs Lack Human Experiences

Simply put, virtual KOLs are not living individuals. Beneath a polished, friendly exterior, virtual KOLs are in fact computer programs operated by programmers who control everything from facial expressions to voice and speech. Without the feelings and desires of humans, virtual KOLs are unable to resonate with consumers and establish meaningful emotional bonds. Human KOLs and KOCs have complex human senses and more interesting and unique personalities, which enable them to interact with consumers more naturally and acquire higher engagements.

One major deficiency of virtual KOLs is that they are created without the growth processes and life experience of humans, which results in a shallow and unrealistic image. Human KOLs provide their followers with a tangible sense of experience, understanding and companionship, facilitating emotional bonds and perceived trust. Shared life experiences also quickly narrow the distance between the KOL and their audience, evoking empathy and emotional resonance. Virtual KOLs cannot reverse engineer or reinvent human behaviour. As social creatures, humans require the human touch when it comes to interactions.

Limited Audience and Reach

In addition, virtual KOLs also face the limitations of miniscule audiences and unsuccessful intergenerational communication. The audience of virtual KOLs is mostly limited to Gen Z, which creates limitations for marketers. As the main consumer groups of the game and animation industry, the post-00 generation have a greater understanding and interest towards virtual KOLs compared to the post-80s and post-90s. Even though many virtual figures in China have infiltrated short videos, live-streaming, animation, music and gaming spheres in recent years, the popularity of virtual KOLs among general consumers remains limited. Many are sceptical of the new technology and still trust traditional person-to-person communication.

Apart from some fans, general consumer audiences lack interest and acceptance of virtual KOLs, and it is difficult for brands to reinvent human methods of communication. According to the 2021 China Virtual KOL Market Research Report, only 15.64% of consumers are familiar with or have a favourite virtual KOL, among which only 9.78% are willing to pay for products based on virtual KOL endorsements. Furthermore, 59.91% of young consumers said that they would spend at most ¥50 when coming across virtual KOL marketing. According to the report, brands have yet to refine virtual KOLs to effectively improve brand awareness, and virtual KOLs come with many limitations on industries and pricing.


Virtual KOLs: Part of a Problematic Social Phenomenon?

The creation of virtual KOLs is based on brand assumptions of what its target audience wants to see. For beauty and skincare brands, this means that they can create a humanoid figure that resembles perfect skin conditions while also avoiding unsightly camera angles and dull skin resulting from poor lighting, imperfections that regularly taint representations of human KOLs.

However, with human KOLs, these imperfections can become unique personal characteristics, adding personality and appeal and keeping things genuine. In this sense, presenting perfect appearances through virtual KOLs can lead to aesthetic fatigue. Furthermore, on a broader sociocultural level, if virtual KOLs are not properly managed, they may skew social beauty standards to the unrealistic extreme, leading to appearance anxiety and overwhelming negativity. Homogenous perfection among virtual KOLs intended to promote youthful beauty may send the wrong messages to young audiences, fuelling the already serious appearance anxiety prevalent in modern society.

Best China Influencer Marketing Practices for Global Brands

At present, virtual KOLs have become a new tool for brand marketers. However, it is still a very new technology and has yet to make any significant impact among general consumers. For the foreseeable future, brands will continue to collaborate with “traditional” human KOLs and KOCs for the bulk of their China influencer marketing campaigns. Virtual KOLs or digital brand spokespersons will have auxiliary roles to enhance and modernise brand image.

That being said, brands that venture too deep into virtual KOLs risk damaging brand authenticity and stunting the development of emotional resonance and trust among consumers. There are many significant limitations in terms of representation, relevance and reach, all of which are factors that brands need to consider before stepping into the half-world of virtual KOLs. The governing principle of China influencer marketing still holds true: Brand marketing must remain people-oriented, and human KOLs and KOCs will continue to be the main force of digital and social marketing.