After examining the top AI influencers to follow in 2023, we now focus on the captivating world of virtual influencers in Asia.
To elevate our knowledge, Digital Business Lab partnered with Dr Crystal Abidin (PhD in Anthropology & Sociology, and Media Studies) to conduct deeper research into Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and mainland China. Dr Crystal Abidin specialises in the Asia Pacific region’s influencer cultures, digital innovations, and social media pop cultures.
The significance of AI in influencer marketing campaigns is particularly pronounced within Asia’s vibrant and diverse landscape. China stands out with its colossal AI influencer market, which is projected to be valued at CNY 36 billion in the 2023 figure and is anticipated to triple by 2026 (Thomala, 2023a). Such explosive growth reflects Asia’s avid embrace of cutting-edge technology. A testament to its scale, a whopping 317,000 companies have invested in China’s virtual influencer sector as of 2023 (Thomala 2023a).
Across Asia, AI influencers wear different digital skins, mirroring regional tastes and societal nuances. Brands need to be savvy about these preferences, as they directly affect resonance and relatability and how well your campaigns will perform.
In this article, we delve into how:
- Different Asian markets have different gender and appearance preferences for AI influencers
- Language and ethnicity play crucial roles in influencer resonance
- China and Japan have emerged as major players in the virtual influencer landscape
- Brands are collaborating with AI influencers for cost-effective and efficient marketing strategies
Understanding Regional Preferences: A Closer Look at Asia’s Diverse Markets
1. Gender Preference in Asia
Thailand and Singapore:
These markets exhibit a progressive and inclusive approach towards gender representation in AI influencers. This openness reflects the diverse and cosmopolitan nature of these societies. In Thailand, for example, the cultural acceptance of the “third gender” translates into a broader acceptance of diverse gender expressions in digital personas. Singapore’s multicultural landscape also encourages a more gender-inclusive approach, resonating with its global and diverse audience.
In contrast, Vietnam exhibits a bias towards feminine virtual personas: “49% of respondents prefer virtual influencers who appear ‘feminine’ in Vietnam” (Kameke 2023a), possibly stemming from its “high female labour participation rate” and their rising prominence in business, which echoes a wider regional trend. Also, women are rising in the workforce hierarchy, taking on “top management positions,” according to Investing In Women.
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In the Philippines, the response to the first virtual influencer, Bernila, highlighted crucial cultural sensitivities. Bernila faced criticism from Filipino social media users for her appearance, which many felt did not accurately represent Filipino facial features. This reaction underscores the importance of ensuring that AI influencers resonate with local aesthetic and cultural norms, particularly in markets with strong national identities.
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Besides, according to Dr Crystal Abidin, the Philippines shows a unique openness to androgynous and gender-fluid AI influencers. The country acknowledges the “bakla” as a third gender and widely accepts LGBTQIA.
Drag culture is also prominent in the Philippines. The Filipino drag queen, Manila Luzon, describes the Philippine drag scene as the “best drag in the world.” Thus, Filipino consumers often respond positively to influencers who defy traditional gender norms, finding them more relatable and authentic.
2. Ethnicity and Cultural Representation
The relatively low preference for ethnically diverse virtual influencers could be attributed to Malaysia’s rich ethnic tapestry. Historically, Malaysians have been race-based. The country’s multi-ethnic fabric is evident in the 18% preference for ethnically varied virtual influencers.
Given the significant Malay, Chinese, and Indian populations, there’s a nuanced interplay of ethnicity in media representation. This dynamic is mirrored in the AI influencer space, where influencers who reflect the dominant ethnic groups are more favourably received.
Vietnam, unlike Malaysia, boasts a significant majority ethnic group, the Kinh (Viet), constituting 85.7% of the population. Readers who want a deeper dive into this topic can refer to our previous article: “① Cultural Social Media Insights in Vietnam [Research]”
This dominance of the Kinh is mirrored in the virtual influencer space, with a notable 60% preference for influencers bearing Vietnamese features. In a society where national identity is closely tied to ethnicity, AI influencers that embody these features can foster a deeper connection and authenticity with the audience.
In Thailand, almost three-quarters of respondents were “neutral” about their preference.
Thailand is a country with much diversity, especially around gender, sexuality, religion, and appearance. Thai people are unique in their preferences because there is a longstanding preference for having fair skin, or “whiteness,” as a sign of beauty. In recent years, despite the longstanding preference of local people, they have started embracing tanned and darker skin, as Thais are embracing their local diversity.
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3. Language Preferences and Communication
This presents a unique challenge for brands utilising AI influencers in Indonesia: there are over 800 languages spoken in Indonesia.
Even though Bahasa is used by “95% of the population”, reflecting its status as the primary lingua franca, only 20% of the population identifies it as their “primary language‘. While leveraging Bahasa Indonesia is essential to reaching a broad audience, there’s a significant opportunity to recognize and incorporate regional languages and dialects. Tailoring AI influencer communications to include these diverse linguistic elements can greatly enhance brand resonance and authenticity, ensuring deeper engagement with various segments of the Indonesian market.
In the Philippines, over 120 languages are used. But not as complicated as Indonesia, Filipino/Tagalog is the “national language” used in formal education; English is the “official language.”
Despite the nation’s bilingualism, Filipino/Tagalog offers intimacy and authenticity. In a country with deep colonial influences and a strong sense of national identity, AI influencers’ communication in the national language also fosters a sense of pride and belonging among consumers.
Vietnam & Malaysia:
In both of these markets, the preference for local languages among AI influencers speaks to the broader social and political significance of language. In Vietnam, where the national language is a strong symbol of cultural identity, and in Malaysia, where language is intricately tied to ethnic identity, AI influencers who communicate in the local language are seen as more authentic and relatable.
Emerging Trends in Japan and China
Japan’s VTuber Phenomenon:
In Japan, Vtubers are one of the most trendy topics. A VTuber is an online entertainer who uses a virtual avatar generated using computer graphics. The most popular VTuber companies include Hololive Production, Nijisanji, and VShojo. Each company has its own unique style and roster of talented VTubers, attracting fans worldwide.
Cultural roots and popularity: The Japanese market offers a fascinating confluence of tradition and technology. Historically using mascots to humanise brands, the trend has now evolved into the realm of VTubers.
Economic Impact and Brand Collaborations: VTubers have amassed large followings and significant economic impact. They engage in various brand collaborations, from tech companies to fashion brands, showcasing the versatility of virtual influencers in different sectors. Their ability to engage with audiences through live streaming and interactive content has made them valuable assets for brands seeking innovative marketing strategies.
Global Influence: The phenomenon is not just limited to Japan; it’s gaining traction globally. As of 2021, Japan boasted about 16,000 VTubers. Their influence is so immense that global and local brands, from Softbank to Taco Bell, have embarked on collaborations. This trend isn’t confined to Japan; Netflix’s VTuber N-ko Mei Kurono is evidence of global brands utilising Japanese VTuber aesthetics for global outreach.
Chinese market’s usage of AI Virtual Influencers
The Gen Z demographic dominates China’s virtual influencer landscape, with 58% reportedly following at least one AI influencer. Gen Z in China is a generation that has grown up in a digital-first environment. This demographic values authenticity, creativity, and technological innovation, making AI-driven virtual influencers a perfect fit.
Leveraging platforms like Weibo and Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese counterpart) and e-commerce giants like Alibaba, these virtual influencers engage with young consumers where they spend most of their time. Their activities range from promoting products and services to participating in social challenges and viral trends, creating a dynamic and interactive online presence.
Three prominent formats of virtual influencers in China are worth noticing:
Firstly, gaming characters are emerging as versatile digital influencers, extending their reach from gaming to various media and brand endorsements.
Digital or virtual ambassadors are digital personas or characters representing a brand or institution in the digital space. They can be animated or created using artificial intelligence. Digital ambassadors have become vital in representing brand activities in recent years, offering customisable and interactive experiences tailored to specific demographics.
Lastly, AI live streamers (AI-generated clones of the real streamers) are revolutionising e-commerce with their 24/7 availability and personalised interactions, enhancing the online shopping experience in China’s competitive market. Automating this job seems promising for brands as the cost of training real streamers increases.
Conclusion: Global Strategy vs. Localised Approach in AI Influencer Marketing
As we navigate the intricate landscape of AI influencer marketing in Asia, a critical question arises for marketers: should we aim for a consistent global or regional strategy when activating AI influencers, or is it more crucial to adopt a highly localised approach that respects specific market nuances, cultural sensitivities, and consumer habits?
Our exploration of the diverse Asian markets, from the unique gender dynamics in Vietnam and the Philippines to the specific language preferences in Indonesia and Malaysia, underlines these markets’ complexity and varied nature. The rise of VTubers in Japan and the growing influence of digital ambassadors and AI livestreamers in China further highlight the need for a nuanced understanding of each market’s unique characteristics.
Therefore, while a global or regional strategy may offer the advantage of a unified brand message and streamlined marketing efforts, it’s increasingly evident that a one-size-fits-all approach might not be as effective in the face of regional diversity.
Understanding and respecting the unique fabric of each market is not just a marketing necessity but a gateway to building lasting and meaningful engagement with consumers across Asia’s vibrant and varied landscapes.