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Who are they: China’s virtual idols

The concept of virtual idols could seem completely new. It has been developing gradually: let’s recall how most of the companies previously branded themselves – they had so-called “mascots” and still have. For instance, Chinese retail company JD is using the white dog as its mascot.

JD white dog mascot

With the development of technology, companies’ imaginations went further and now we see virtual humans, or idols, not only representing one certain brand but rather “cooperating” with various brands from very different industries, including fashion, food, cosmetics, and even electric cars, like Tesla. They bring record revenues and attract millions of customers. At the same time, these idols are not only for “branding”: some virtual humans “work” in a variety of other areas and can be called important players in the Chinese digital economy.

So, what’s so special about Chinese virtual idols? Whom are they created by and what are they used for?

The industry of virtual idols

A world-renowned third-party data mining and analysis organization, iiMedia Research, stated in one of its reports that in 2020 China’s virtual idol industry was worth about $487 million. According to predictions, this number will rise by up to $875 million by the end of 2021.

Startups, backed up by huge sums of investments, as well as well-established tech companies, are having great ambitions in developing their own virtual influencers.

Among startups, one of the successful companies is Xmov Information Technology. In collaboration with the Next Generation Culture Media Company, Xmov has managed to create China’s most popular artificial idol named Ling.

Another viral virtual idol is Ayayi, she was one of the first internet influencers to get enormous public attention. What strikes audiences the most is Ayayi’s attractive appearance. She is taking part in brands promotions and partnered with Louis Vuitton, Gerlain and many other mostly clothing and cosmetics companies.

Big tech is successful in creating virtual idols as well. Xiaoice company belongs to Microsoft Asia, it started in 2014 and now serves as Microsoft’s biggest independent R&D team of AI products in the world. Xiaoice “lives” on almost 40 different platforms and social media, including China’s WeChat, QQ and Weibo. It learned to be a singer, poet, designer and even a TV host.

Chinese universities keep up the pace. Thus, the top university of China, Tsinghua, created its virtual human – Hua Zhibing. According to her story, she is a student studying at Tsinghua. A “girl” can even play the guitar and sing.

The market of virtual idols in China is only going to continue its expansion, as the artificial intelligence applications, appearance and performance are perfect for reflecting many brands’ values and reaching out to the audience.

At the Tencent Digital Ecosystem Conference held at the beginning of November, Tencent Cloud announced that the company has created five digital humans.

The roles of each of these five digital humans are not the same: they have different professional identities and skills. Behind them, there are integrated AI capabilities such as speech recognition, natural language processing, knowledge mapping, and visual technology. So, they can be used in a variety of digital economy areas. As Tencent stated, newly launched digital humans will serve as its digital employees!

The emergence of digital characters and virtual idols makes the interaction experience more intelligent and transforms human-computer interaction from a mere dialogue tool to real communication.

Can China’s virtual idols have real influence?

Are virtual humans, so popular in China, competitive? Who would affect audience choices more: human KOLs or digital ones?

Virtual idols, run by AI, could be much more easily controllable by their creators, they definitely wouldn’t break the boundaries of social norms, get into or cause any scandals.

The term “cancel culture” continues to appear on main Chinese media. “Cancel culture” is basically when brands tear up contracts with celebrities, they are having cooperation with, when they get into the scandal or break some moral norms. It happened recently to several big Chinese celebrities, like film star Zheng Shuang, singer Chris Wu, musician Li Yundi. While real people can get into different awkward situations, virtual humans technically cannot, that’s why it’s easier to build and support their right image in front of their audience. In this regard, virtual idols are much more reliable.

On social media virtual idols are “living” the same lives just like real influencers: they are going to restaurants and enjoying delicious food, visiting interesting city spots, bars, museums. In China, two of the most platforms beloved by virtual idols social media platforms include Red Little Book (Xiaohongshu) and Weibo. Ayayi is even running an Instagram account. The number of likes and comments is almost the same as real influencers’ and both of them almost equally serve as marketing and sales drivers.

Virtual idols can’t avoid negative comments and haters, just like human internet celebrities. They are being criticized for being not that natural, not enough emotional, too perfect, having technology shortcomings and other reasons.

Despite virtual idols’ disadvantages, they still create numerous opportunities for the world’s brands, it’s just necessary to find a suitable niche and audience. Virtual humans could outrank any other KOLs if their main followers are young people or gamers, for instance.

Another point to consider is that virtual idols would probably be one more step to a metaverse, and this transformation has already started.

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