BEYOND THE FIRST MOVE:
WHAT'S NEXT FOR VIRTUAL INFLUENCERS IN SOUTH KOREA?
When Rozy became the face of newly launched insurance brand Shinhan Life in July 2021, it was a move of many firsts.
In a category defined by conservative marketing narratives, it marked the first time an insurance brand leveraged an approach more commonly associated with fashion or technology brands.
South Korean consumers were not accustomed to seeing an influencer dance video as a means of selling insurance. And of course, there was the fact that she was a virtual model and not a high-profile celebrity of the flesh and bone variety.
Prior to Rozy’s debut with Shinhan Life, use of virtual influencers or models in the market was limited to 2D executions shared on social media and marketing collaterals.
“At the time, it was still something new and only static images were used, which was why only those in their 20s and 30s knew about it and not those in their 40s and 50s,” Yeonkyo Choi
Account Executive, TBWA\Korea. “So, we thought, why don’t we try to use a virtual model in our film, make her move and see how she's like in real life.”
Getting the client to sign off on the strategy involved a lot of education on the part of the TBWA\Korea team. From explaining what virtual influencers were with examples from other markets, to reassuring them that the technology required to execute their vision was available and up to the task.
The question of whether the use of a relative unknown – virtual or not – would lend the campaign enough credibility was also raised.
“Our reasoning was that it's not the model but the endorsement of the model that we're focusing on. It's the first attempt to have her on screen, have her move, have her dance, and to be the first brand that's using it as a proper brand model,” said Choi. “It was a big step for them.”
The Shinhan Life team, open to taking an innovative approach for their category agreed and signed off on the rollout.
The rest as they say, is history.
The launch videos gained more than 10 million views in three weeks and Shinhan Life’s search volume increased more than 55 times after the campaign went live.
The campaign was featured in prime-time news, main cover page of South Korea’s biggest portal sites, and there were even parodies about it. More than 1,500 comments were generated, with numerous requests for an official song release as well. Furthermore, not only did Shinhan Life became viral, Rozy became the hottest issue in South Korea, sparking a drastic increase in demand for virtual models.
In the consumer research conducted by Embrain, Shinhan Life’s unaided awareness resulted 57% and its brand preference ranked fourth - this was a significant outcome as a new incomer to the insurance industry.
The fact is, Rozy is no longer alone in South Korea.
According to the research and consulting firm Emergen Research, the global digital human avatar market was at US$10.03 billion in 2020 and is forecast to reach US$527.58 billion by 2030.
While virtual influencers or models, as they are more commonly referred to, are still at its early stage in terms of technology and endorsement in South Korea but it’s becoming a trend. The company behind Rozy, has already launched more virtual humans – Ho, Heil, and Gon – giving them a backstory as three siblings.
LG Electronics debuted its own digital human, Reah Keem, at last year's CES as the presenter for its media event. While Lotte Home Shopping debuted its virtual influencer, Lucy, as a home shopping host last December for its Christmas special season.
With the public already exposed to virtual models thanks to Shinhan Life’s brand campaign, it’s no longer something new, shocking, or unexpected.
As the TBWA\Korea team maps out the next phase of Rozy’s journey with Shinhan Life, it’s clear that it is no longer about disruption - the next move with virtual influencers will be centred on riding cultural waves.
To them, brands looking to work with virtual influencers will need to factor in a shifting set of considerations:
Virtual influencers need context to thrive
When we look at how cartoon characters or brand characters gain fans, a large part of the appeal stems from the character’s personality, traits, background and history. Virtual influencers at this stage lack that context which public can relate to. Virtual influencer creators need to develop a character with a story that’s unique and relatable, to help shift perception towards virtual influencers and build connections. Currently they are just seen as replaceable models but with more context, they can grow to be an idol with a dedicated fandom much like human influencers.
Make the content entertaining
If making the virtual model likeable or familiar to audiences seems difficult, try making the content itself favourable and entertaining. A catchy song and dance were success factors that made Rozy relatable to audiences in South Korea. Likewise, music, dance, outfits and mise-en-scène… all these elements can help attract audiences if the model on its own, cannot. Brands need to invest the time in building likeable content around and for the virtual models, before letting them deliver brand messages.
Expand the use of virtual models
We’re seeing more virtual models in new commercials month after month. Furthermore, seeing them on music videos are also nothing new too so we need to shift the boundaries and expand their contexts. For instance, featuring them in a live stream event and enabling spontaneous Q&A sessions with audience, or creating original content like drama series and YouTube episodes so that audiences can see them continuously. Brands will need to find new, meaningful areas where virtual models can be endorsed and ultilised so that they do not look like mere followers of the virtual model trend.
Keeping pace with demand
The capacity of virtual influencer developers is a critical point when considering whether to use virtual models. From the technology being used, how fast they work, how much detail they get to whether the production can meet the needs of the client. The virtual influencer agency is like a production house, so we need to assess them in a similar manner.
Consider creating brand’s own virtual model
If the brand has long term plan for utilising virtual models, it would be better to create their own model instead of endorsing one from a model agency. A brand developed and owned virtual model will convey the brand identity and essence more powerfully, and there will be more flexibility in use cases compared to “borrowing” a virtual model. Once the brand creates its own virtual model, integrating them in many brand activities as possible will be crucial to strengthen the association between the brand and virtual model with consumers.
At the moment, it’s safe to say that brands are more interested in virtual models than the public right now but with the industry still in its early stages, there’s plenty of room and opportunity for virtual influencers to become mainstream.