Virtual influencers: an alternative for brands to communicate with their audiences

By João Pedro Andrade

When it comes down to fashion, Miquela Sousa is a trendsetter. Successful and politically engaged, the 19-year-old Californian girl, daughter of a Brazilian and a Spaniard, conquered the social networks of big brands, like Vogue and Prada. But Miquela… well, Miquela isn’t real. With over 1.5 million followers on Instagram, she is part of an exclusive group of digital influencers – a.k.a virtual influencers.

It may seem like another Netflix’s Black Mirror episode, where reality and virtual world mix up together, but it is not quite like that. Virtual influencers are developed from a 3D software to reproduce human form. Miquela Sousa, or Lil Miquela – as she prefers, and the South-African top model Shudu Gram, are examples of this new phenomenon that is already gaining notoriety among the most hyped fashion brands in the world.

Instagram reproduction | Miquela Sousa. Available in: https://www.instagram.com/p/Bs9ael9H_M-/

 

Shudu has over 157 thousand followers on Instagram and is product of Cameron-James Wilson’s mind. The British photographer shared her for the first time on Instagram in April 2017 and it did not take long for the cosmetics brand, Fenty Beauty, by Rihanna, repost (and delete afterwards) a picture of Shudu wearing one of their lipsticks. In no time, Shudu had accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers, what called the attention of other big brands.

Despite being rather peculiar that such a large number of people can be influenced by a fictitious character, the models play fair in their networks and do not pretend being made of flesh and bones – “19/LA/Robot”, says Miquela in her profile, for example.

Besides, political and personal opinions help robots and humans to bond. Miquela uses her space on social media to express her support to Black Lives Matter – popular movement that fights to end police violence against the North-American black communities, and frequently posts support to the LGBTQ+ community.

For the brands, this action is a doubled-edged sword. They find advantages, as the lack of prerequisites of real humans, whereas, financially, the hiring prices of real influencers and virtual ones are not far apart.

On the other side, the models reinforce toxic surreal esthetical standards – already so applied by the fashion market – and end up in the middle of not-so-virtual controversies. Shudu Gram’s success, for example, opened up a discussion on the space occupied by the black model created by a white designer, when so many real male and female black models cannot achieve the same visibility.

It is still soon to state if the virtual influencers trend is a passing phase or a new moment in the relationship between brands and consumers. However, Miquela and Shudu’s success shows that, even if momentarily, the place of these characters is guaranteed in the table of digital influencers.