Computer-generated models are undergoing a transformation from niche branded avatars to relatable and inspiring influencers. Leading this movement is Lil Miquela, a digital simulation who rose to fame in April 2016 due to intrigue around whether she is an art project or a marketing stunt.
Two years on, she has almost 800,000 followers on Instagram, as of March 2018, is a vocal advocate of Black Lives Matter, and has not only been snapped hanging out with celebrities but is an inspiration to them. Last month, make-up artist Pat McGrath named Miquela as her latest muse and actress Lena Dunham wrote about her fascination with Miquela for Lenny Letter in 2016.
Miquela’s fame does not stop there. She has launched clothing and jewelry collections, released songs on Spotify, and appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in February 2018. Her positive coverage and increased popularity has won her brand collaborations, including Prada’s #pradagifs for the brand’s latest collection.
While Miquela clearly looks computer generated, her adopted persona is that of a human. In contrast, a more recent digital influencer called Shudu looks lifelike, but acknowledges she is a fictional supermodel created by British photographer Cameron-James Wilson. Wilson started posting images of her on Instagram in April 2017 and had garnered over 80,000 followers as of March 2018. “With Shudu, people are very impressed with the level of realism, which hasn’t really been seen before,” Wilson tells JWT Intelligence. “Even though 3D modeling has been around for a very long time, she’s popular because she’s keeping it in the public eye.”
Shudu has caught the attention of brands—one of her photographs was reposted on Instagram by Rihanna’s beauty brand, Fenty Beauty. She also resonates emotionally with her audience—Wilson says that fans have opened up to him about “personal stories, like times they’ve been bullied or made to feel not beautiful,” even though they only interact with Shudu.
The current popularity of virtual influencers reflects a generation capable of emotionally engaging with the unreal. As explored in our “Unreality” trend report, people are turning to the unknown to search for new kinds of truth and meaning. “I think that real people are digital influencers at this point, with the amount of Facetune and manipulation that is going on. People are starting to question what reality even is, and ask ‘What is the point of reality, if a digital influencer can put out interesting content?’” says Wilson.
At a time when fantasy is blurring the line between the real and unreal, brands can find value by investing in the virtual. Kenzo’s digital avatar Knola represented the brand’s creative vision and values, which the brand brought to life by projecting her onto the background of its SS15 show. Knola spoke in four languages about the importance of ecological awareness and was controlled by a real person backstage, whose actions and expressions were mirrored in real time. “She represents this multicultural vision of humanity in the future,” Humberto Leon, Kenzo’s creative director, explained to Dazed. Kenzo also featured Knola on its website, imagining how she would navigate the world in 2050.
Virtual influencers represent huge potential for brands not only to engage with consumers on a deeper level but also to have complete control over what their influencers represent. While human influencers can be unpredictable and even attract criticism, digital creations such Lil Miquela and Shudu have been widely accepted, showing there is a huge opportunity for brands to use virtual content to drive affinity. As digital influencers create new possibilities for connection, avatars may be the future of online relationships.