The Next Frontier: Selling Luxury Through Virtual Love Partners?

    Young adults in China are enjoying unorthodox relationships with virtual romantic partners. But could this trend have any implications for luxury?
    Young adults in China are enjoying unorthodox relationships with virtual romantic partners. But could this trend have any implications for luxury? Photo: Shutterstock
    Jennifer ZhuangAuthor
      Published   in Technology

    Trend name:#

    Virtual Boyfriend/Girlfriend

    About the trend:#

    China’s Gen Zers never fail to amaze, but this latest trend is one of the most intriguing yet. Young adults in China are now falling for “virtual” lovers. Despite the name, these paramours are not AI machines or bots but real people who sell their services on Taobao. They can be interacted with in real-time, by text, or even on the phone, offering the conversation and companionship a partner would.

    On China’s top video-sharing website Bilibili, many vloggers have been sharing their experiences with these virtual boyfriends and girlfriends, with the most popular clip garnering 5.35 million views. Meanwhile, top professional "vlovers" are earning thousands of dollars per month by providing their services to China’s youth.

    Why Gen-Z consumers like it:#

    On Weibo, the hashtag #virtualboyfriend has received 250 million views and over 34,000 related discussions. Online reports have attributed this business' success to China's pandemic lockdown. The phenomenon shows that while many Gen Zs choose to be single, they still want companionship and romance, particularly women.

    As part of the service, which includes flirting through texts and calls, these virtual lovers can, seemingly, influence their hosts. On the question-and-answer site Zhihu, one of the top service reviews came from a former client who claimed that the pair had multiple in-depth conversations about a variety of topics, including luxury fashion. The female customer and her virtual boyfriend “shared a common dislike for Louis Vuitton” and found that low-key luxury brands like Montblanc were more desirable.

    How luxury brands should approach the trend:#

    This trend could have massive implications for the luxury industry. From online comments on sites like Weibo, it is obvious that these virtual lovers could exploit their own popularity and advertise luxury — or at least influence their customers to purchase one or two products. Achieving sales through affection is not unheard of in China: The “fan economy” has long dominated the market and works on a similar principle.

    The Chinese dating simulation game “Mr. Love: Queen’s Choice” (恋与制作人) targeted female consumers by collaborating with the personal care company Lux. In fact, one product launch livestream resulted in 714,000 in sales, and this particular partnership laid the groundwork for more companies to work with virtual livestreamers (Bausch & Lomb, Huawei, and more).

    “Mr Love: Queen’s Choice” x Lux. Photo:
    “Mr Love: Queen’s Choice” x Lux. Photo:

    Remi Blanchard, the business development manager at Daxue Consulting, believes that Gen Zers who use the virtual lover service are not the usual targets for fashion companies. But, if they are exposed to those brands, it might significantly impact a luxury brand’s appeal. The complication, though, lies not in the strategy’s viability but its moral grey area.

    Blanchard continued, saying, “Although it is possible for virtual lovers to shape the user’s preferences subliminally, the brand’s reputation would likely be harmed if the public or even just its target customer groups became aware of such practices.” That is partly because this phenomenon is already triggering heated debates online. Moreover, Blanchard speculated that the government might decide to ban this kind of service soon.

    The Bottom Line:#

    As virtual livestreaming and the digital realm continue to infiltrate business practices in China, companies may feel the pressure to jump on new trends to stay edgy or boost sales. But despite tempting prospects, brands should tread carefully until this sector has developed. For now, perhaps the use of these virtual interpersonal skills can be tested through daigous.

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