The next influencers could be unreal

The&Partnership's Nabil Rachid considers the possibilities for brands that simply create their own, 3D rendered ambassadors.

Doesn’t the word “influencer” make your stomach turn? Flawless people leading perfect lives, can’t really exist, can they? Well, apparently some don’t.

Enter Lil Miquela, an Instagram icon who’s blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. She’s a 3D-rendered celebrity, with a ton of pictures of herself dolled up in makeup, posed in various fashion-forward outfits and on trips to the latest fashion shows. Her photos are so realistic it’s disconcerting. But unlike most influencers, she’s also politically vocal. In addition to being seen with brands including Prada, Diesel and Moncler, Lil Miquela posts in support of refugee advocacy organizations, transgender rights, Black Lives Matter and a host of other social movements. Young people can’t get enough of her (as well as the meta-story being told through social media about her creation). She has over one million Instagram followers, has been interviewed by Billboard and Vogue magazines, and even released music on Spotify.

But the fascinating thing is that no one knows who Lil Miquela is. There are theories, but no one has come forward as the social experiment’s mastermind. And that is both terrifying and alluring.

Influencers have become an integral part of a brand’s communication arsenal, gobbling up more and more of TV and print budgets. Some estimates suggest Instagram influencer marketing spend will reach $2 billion by 2019. The recent launch of Instagram’s IGTV, an app that seems geared to longer-form influencer content, will surely be the main driver. With that kind of money being spent, expect brands to assert a more active role with their influencers.

Sure, influencers come with their own set of problems. Low reach and low reliability make it difficult to calculate actual returns, especially when considering the new issue of “influencer fraud”. There’s the ever-present risk of an influencer going rogue and damaging a brand’s persona. And people are growing more and more skeptical of an influencer’s intentions.

But where there’s risk, there’s opportunity. What if that opportunity came in the form of a 3-D rendered avatar?

An innovative advertising persona to help revitalize a brand’s core values, and they can create these influencers from the ground up, modeled and brought to life as a representation of that brand’s personality. The secret to success here is not what this virtual influencer will look like, but what they will stand for. In a recent study conducted by Nielson with over 30,000 consumers spanning 60 countries, 55% said they are willing to pay more for products/services that are committed to positive social and environmental change. It will be fundamental that virtual influencers to take a strong stance on social responsibility.

Take two of today’s biggest virtual personalities: Siri and Alexa. What would they look like? What would they spend their days doing? But more importantly, what would they stand for? Siri may be a carefree gluten-free millennial based out of San Francisco — a sort of whiz kid helping enlighten the world. A campaigner dedicated to making technology more affordable, accessible, and secure. I imagine Alexa would be a globetrotting activist connecting people across continents to each other, helping bridge the gap between different cultures and communities. Now I’m not necessarily saying Alexa and Siri should have physical form. It’s probably better they don’t. But what would happen if these characters slowly inched into our real world? Not in an attempt to sell more products, but in a way that could have a meaningful impact on people and their communities?

Naysayers will claim that brands will abuse these avatars, turning them into spokespeople blatantly selling their products or services. And that’s true. It can happen. Just like it happens with a lot of uninspiring advertising campaigns today. But there will be a few brands that realize the opportunity in virtual influencers. That if they can create an entertaining personality, much like Lil Miquela, that isn’t there to sell, but to connect with an audience on a deeper level, then it just may work. And it just might end up influencing thousands of people in a truly meaningful way.

Nabil Rachid is an ACD at The&Partnership and an advertising instructor at OCAD University.