How Virtual Idols Became Real-Life Brand Ambassadors in China

This post originally appeared on Content Commerce Insider, our sister publication on branded entertainment.

Since the beginning of 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic has forced fundamental shifts in behavior, with virtual interactions and events emerging as a key way for people to stay connected while staying in. That shift has also spurred greater interest in virtual idols — digital celebrities who sing, dance, and offer versatility for brands.

The virtual world resonates deeply with China’s Gen Z demographic, a digitally native generation that has grown up with gaming and anime and has the rising spending power to match their demand for companies and products that resonate. Brands seeking to reach this group of consumers are increasingly turning virtual idols to represent their products.

  • Chinese sportswear brand Li Ning recently partnered with Tencent Games to “hire” Xing Tong, a virtual idol in Tencent’s QQ Dance game, as a brand ambassador. Xing Tong appears in a short brand film from Li Ning that highlights the new “retro-futurism” style of its upcoming products. This type of creative content helps merge Li Ning’s status as a “national trend” (guochao) brand with the futuristic gameplay of QQ Dance. Xing Tong is also emerging as a fashion icon for youth-oriented brands — last year, the virtual idol was part of a Levi’s campaign during Shanghai Fashion Week.

  • Brands are also developing their own idols to offer innovative content. In 2017, China Mobile’s entertainment content subsidiary Migu and Japan’s NTT Docomo launched a virtual idol group called Lin & Rhino (麟 & 犀), which debuted via an interactive animated film. In March, Lin & Rhino celebrated its third anniversary with a livestreamed “borderless live 5G concert” that invited fans around the world to experience a 360-degree panoramic virtual idol performance. The concert was broadcast via Migu in China, on Niconico Live in Japan, and on YouTube for the rest of the world.

  • Virtual idols are among the celebrities getting in on China’s e-commerce livestreaming trend. In May, Tmall’s Youth Lab brought together five top virtual stars, including Luo Tianyi, for a special via Taobao Live. The idols interacted with fans during the broadcast while promoting goods for global brands such as Bausch & Lomb and L’Occitane. The one-hour show reached a peak viewership of 2.7 million with extremely high engagement: nearly 2 million viewers participated in an interactive segment to try to win prizes.

  • For the 618 shopping festival in June, Taobao appointed the popular Japanese virtual idol Hatsune Miku as an official ambassador for the event, and users were welcomed to interact with her through their avatars on Taobao Life, the platform’s interactive 3D avatar game. Within half a day of the announcement, Hatsune Miku reportedly drew more than 2.7 million followers on the app.

  • Video streaming platform iQiyi is aiming to mint the next generation of China’s virtual idols with its upcoming reality show “Cross-Dimensional New Star” (跨次元新星), set to premiere in September. The program will offer a new take on the popular idol competition format, with actress and social media celebrity Angelababy and rapper Xiao Gui among the mentors who will form teams and offer feedback on the singing and dancing skills of the virtual contestants. iQiyi is offering multiple opportunities for brands in industries such as electronics, e-commerce, and food and beverage that can be promoted by both the virtual idol contestants and their celebrity mentors.

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Influencer, Market Trends, Retail