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Jul 19, 2023

The influencer battleground: will virtual KOLs replace human creators?

Whether it is the now very popular ChatGPT or AIs, emerging technology will be a key element in the fashion industry’s future.

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Un post condiviso da Miquela (@lilmiquela)

We are entering a new era full of opportunities and innovations, and there have been major shifts in brands’ attitudes towards some traditional practices. We can analyse the rapid increase in virtual KOLs in China from two perspectives: the fast growth at an early stage and the sudden possibility. 

First, let us examine the initial boom. We must consider that the accelerated development of science and technology in China in recent years has led the country into a fast lane when it comes to being a leader in artificial intelligence. That’s why technology applications have penetrated Chinese people’s daily lives, encouraging the rise of virtual KOLs.

As their globalisation process has given China a spot on the international platform, the virtual influencer industry has experienced a period of development both in the Zhōngguó and abroad. 

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Un post condiviso da Ralph & Russo (@ralphandrusso)

For example, in July 2020, Ralph & Russo invited a virtual muse named Hauli to wear the new collection and travel around the seven wonders of the world.

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Un post condiviso da Prada (@prada)

Then, Prada chose the avatar Candy for the successful ‘Candy’ perfume ad.

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Un post condiviso da noonoouri (@noonoouri)

Not to mention the now-famous Luo Tianyi from China, Noonoouri from France, Imma from Japan and Lil Miquela from the US. Both the experimental phase in China and the success stories worldwide have fostered the advancement of virtual KOLs we have seen recently.

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Un post condiviso da imma (@imma.gram)

Secondly, we must look at two unexpected opportunities that led the fashion industry to invest in hyper-realistic avatars generated by artificial intelligence as Key Opinion Leaders to develop the Chinese market. Firstly, the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 changed people’s lifestyles as the Chinese government imposed home quarantine, and people had to find new ways to spend their leisure time. Statistics from iiMedia Report showed that in the first quarter of 2020, sales of the Chinese online entertainment market exceeded 140 billion yuan, with a growth rate of 27%. The Chinese online entertainment market was also expected to exceed 500 billion yuan by 2020, with a growth rate of over 30% compared to 2019. The second unexpected opportunity has come with the sudden popularity of the metaverse, a new turning point after the traditional mobile Internet reached a plateau. For this reason, many national and foreign Internet giants started integrating this new “virtual-reality space where users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users” into their new transformation agenda. For instance, on 28 October 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was changing its name to Meta to reflect the growing focus on the metaverse.

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Un post condiviso da Mark Zuckerberg (@zuck)

According to the statements made by the brands, all of which are impressed by the buzz generated by digital or phygital campaigns, it is clear that significant investments have been made in what appears to be an excellent path to a bright technological future. However, from a long-term perspective, there are many reasons to believe this phenomenon may not become mainstream in China. One is that China has a great cultural heritage handed down from generation to generation. Furthermore, according to the hierarchy of needs theory, when people have met their most basic material and physiological needs, they will find that virtual KOLs cannot provide spiritual and cultural guidance: they are ‘perfect’ but still convey a sense of distance from real life.

We can conclude that the rise of both human and virtual KOLs is based on the development of society and technology. As science and technology evolve, so do people’s ideas, which, in turn, drive further technological and scientific improvement. However, the critical point is that people need spiritual support and guidance. So could the fashion industry invest in virtual KOLs to capture the Chinese market? Maybe, but it would be a temporary solution. After all, developing a market in the long term requires understanding the culture and tradition of that country, as well as the real life of its people.



Wang Su
Fashion Styling student, Shenzhen