With the Metaverse becoming the next destination on the global agenda, it’s looking more and more obvious that people and businesses are becoming invested in the inevitable transition towards the digital world. One of the more recent digital revelations that brands are gradually embracing is Virtual KOLs.
First surfacing out of China, Virtual KOLs is a fresh and exciting concept that has been tried and tested with great success. Momentum is starting to shift towards brands looking to collaborate with a Virtual KOL rather than a real-life KOL. So why is there so much recent hoopla? Should this be of interest to you as a brand looking to expand in the Chinese market?
Are Virtual KOLs Worth the Hype?
The short answer is… yes. Brands in general should pay attention to the Virtual KOL industry. Especially if you are looking to capture the attention of a predominantly millennial and Gen Z audience in China. According to reports, China’s Virtual KOL industry is projected to grow to 1.5 billion RMB by 2023. Big brands from KFC to Dior have shown eagerness to capitalize on this growing market by collaborating with Virtual KOL pioneers in their campaigns.
Don’t worry if you are still confused as to what a Virtual KOL is and why Virtual KOLs have garnered so much attention. This article will explain their inception and how they beat their real-life counterparts in today’s social climate. Finally, we’ll provide examples of some of the most popular Virtual KOLs currently trending in China. We’ll also look at how global brands are leveraging them to expand their brand reach and profitability to millennial and Gen Z consumers.
What is a Virtual KOL?
Ok, so what exactly is a Virtual KOL? Before we dive in, let’s first establish the definition of a KOL. If you have prior or current experience marketing brands in China, you’ll know the importance of working with a Key Opinion Leader (KOL) to expand your brand’s reach and brand awareness.
KOLs is a term used in China that simply refers to popular online social media influencers with a strong following. Nowadays, KOLs have become a necessary part of marketing strategies in China. This is due to their overwhelming popularity online and influence on consumer purchase decisions. The birth and rise of KOLs coincided with the birth and rise of China’s livestreaming industry and culture. Nowadays, a large majority of consumers watch livestreams to discover product recommendations (or 种草 zhòngcăo in Chinese which translates as ‘planting grass’) and make transactions.
Now you might be asking “Well if KOLs are so impactful to brands, then why don’t brands just stick to working with real KOLs?”
Why are brands switching to Virtual KOLs?
In today’s modern age of political correctness and cancel culture, collaborating with KOLs comes with potential risk. Notable famous Chinese influencers and celebrities get placed under the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Brands previously associated with these figures have had to hastily disassociate themselves to mitigate negative publicity, and so nowadays brands have to be a lot more cautious when choosing which KOL to partner with.
Another factor for the interest towards Virtual KOLs is that brands do not want to be over reliant on borrowing a KOL’s fan base or inadvertently growing the KOL’s fanbase in the process. This doesn’t particularly apply to smaller brands that would greatly benefit from getting brand exposure from a KOL with a larger following. But for the global brands that have already cultivated and established a large consumer base, they’ll need to consider the additional benefits of partnering with a KOL beyond expanding brand reach.
In comes Virtual KOLs. These virtual influencers can be manipulated and controlled to look and behave in any way that a brand sees fit. Because they are essentially fictional characters, their stories and background can be written free from controversy. Plus, their image can be constantly modernized to adapt to current social trends. Moreover, Virtual KOLs are powered by technology, meaning they can work all day without requiring a salary. This makes them a much cheaper option than KOLs.
Brands interested in involving Virtual KOLs within their campaigns have two routes. They can either contact an established Virtual KOL’s agency or create their own. Last year, French skin care company L’Oréal debuted their 2D Virtual Idol. ‘Mr. Ou’ is a handsome 24-year old Chinese-French entrepreneur who was responsible for posting social media content on L’Oréal’s channels.
So which Virtual KOLs are currently making waves in China?
Launched in May 2020, Ling is the first AI-powered Chinese Virtual KOL who has since worked with well-known international brands like Tesla and Vogue. Lin appeals to Chinese netizens for her beauty and endorsement of traditional Chinese fashion style and makeup.
While not from China, Noonoouri is another popular Virtual KOL amongst Chinese netizens and has over 400k followers on Instagram. Known for her bold personality, Noonoouri has partnered with many global brand names from Dior to Versace. She has even worked with Tmall to promote their Luxury Pavilion.
Ayayi is one of the most recent and hyper-realistic virtual influencers coming from China. You can see this through the amount of meticulous detail in her appearance that makes her almost indistinguishable from a real human! The impressive CGI work and storytelling that has been invested into creating Ayayi has led her working with mega fashion brands like Louis Vuitton.
Is It Time to Say Goodbye to KOLs?
Not quite. Virtual KOLs are an exciting prospect for brands to consider including in their future campaigns. But this trend should not detract from the fact that KOLs still play an important role in marketing in China. They are currently more effective than partnering or creating a Virtual KOL to a large majority of brands.
Consumers still greatly value authenticity. KOLs are not idealistically perfect compared to Virtual KOLs, but they’re not meant to be. Consumers value the opinions and criticisms that KOLs provide on products because they’re authentic and honest.
While the technology for creating ultra-realistic Virtual KOLs is still early and limited, the future possibilities for this concept are endless and optimistic.
Gab China will help you find a KOL that will showcase your brand in China. Book a complimentary consultation with us now.