Beauty brand Nars’ introduced us this week to its Power Players; Maxine, Chelsea and Sissi. Its a diverse cast of femme people, all with distinct looks personalities, and backstories. They’re 100% virtual.
These meta-humans are digitally rendered avatars, inspired by three of Nars’s Powermatte Lipstick shades (Dragon Girl, a candy apple red; American Woman, a dusty rose; and Too Hot To Hold, a maple red). This season, instead of hiring real-life influencers or celebrities to represent its products, Maxine, Chelsea and Sissi will serve as virtual spokespeople for the beauty brand’s digital projects as Nars invests further in metaverse technologies.
“We are doing our best to think strategically rather than opportunistically, about where the opportunities lie as we look at the near future,” says Nars’ vice president of global digital strategy, Dina Fierro. In regards to what benefits digital ambassadors offer, Fierro told Vogue that “within Asia, there has been widespread adoption and acceptance of virtual avatars […] Having a trio of branded influencers unlocks a new level of creative execution for us.” Therefore, virtual influencers offer opportunities for heightened digital engagement at the global level.
China’s virtual idol industry is becoming increasingly lucrative (its virtual people market is forecast to reach RMB 270 billion ($40.47 billion) by 2030, according to artificial intelligence tech platform Qbit-AI). Also, over half of Gen Z social media users plan to get fashion or beauty inspiration from digital avatars or influencers in 2023, according to a recent trend report from Instagram.
The avatars and their backstories bring an edge of creativity to the beauty products. “There’s a wealth of inspiration to be found in shade storytelling,” Fierro says. “They’re best-selling shades that people have a really strong emotional connectivity to.” And, when you wear a shade, she says, you’re embodying a persona: “There’s something that you want to bring forth and express to the world in that moment, on that day.” After dissecting these two aspects (product colour and individual persona), the team created loose character sketches that became the three Power Players, developed in Epic Games’s Unreal Engine 5 (whose high-fidelity aesthetics were a draw for the brand). Each character has a future-facing career, such as digital artist or recent fashion school graduate, paving the way for further projects.
Nars isn’t alone in getting involved in the technological potential of beauty advertising. Byredo and Rtfkt created wearable virtual “auras”; and digital-first makeup brand Bakeup released AR filters and NFT wearables before physical products. The non-playable characters (NPCs) in Colour Quest helped to inform Nars’s approach to embodying shades through characters. Fierro recalls the NPC on Blush Island, which was shaded according to Nars’s physical colour offerings. She was also floating, mimicking the effects of blush application and representing the fantastical possibilities with virtual influencers.
When most of us think of a digital avatar and influencer we probably think of Miquela. If you don’t know her by name, you’ve most definitely seen her pop up on your social feeds. Miquela has been around since 2016 and was created by LA-based software company Brud, originally via Instagram, and signed to CAA as their first virtual talent in 2020. She and her virtual peers offer an appealing option for brands looking to tap into the avatars’ social followings, as they would a human influencer. Pacsun partnered with Miquela for a multi-season partnership that began in August in-part due to her existing online presence. “When you create a new digital avatar, you have to work on creating that personality,” Pacsun president Brieane Olson told Vogue Business at the time. Whereas Miquela’s positioning as Gen Z tastemaker with a “long-standing fashion history and social consciousness” made her a “natural fit”, she said.
Furthermore, according to research from VirtualHumans.org and Hype Auditor, virtual influencers have higher engagement rates than humans. Nevertheless, this may be due to their current rarity and novelty for it is unclear as to whether consumers would prefer if the majority of influencers we consumed were digital creations over human beings. For now, only 35 digital influencers verified with a blue tick on Instagram exist compared to hundreds of thousands of human influencers and celebrities.
While other brands have created personalised digital avatars – take Prada’s created computer-generated Candy used to promote its Candy fragrance collection or LVMH’s own ambassador, Livi, used to represent the group’s innovation strategies, earlier this year – Nars wasn’t so interested in the pre-existing identity that an established virtual influencer offers. Instead, the goal was to imbue its own brand identity into its ambassadors. “We felt that there was so much to build from with the identity of these shades,” Fierro explains. “We were creating characters from the ground up.” The avatars are the product of this branded tailoring.
Creating from scratch comes with its own set of challenges. One is that, creatively speaking, anything is possible, says Fierro. This means careful consideration of what can be executed realistically with timeline and budget restrictions. For one, the women’s careers are future-facing (two are entirely in the digital realm), which leaves room for partnerships down the line. Chelsea is a digital artist who could conceivably create her own collection of NFTs — for which Nars could collaborate with a female digital artist. Sissi is a recent graduate of fashion school — Nars might dress her by partnering with physical or virtual fashion designers, Fierro says. Or, she could partner with digital designers building their own careers for a Sissi collaboration collection.
Such inclusivity in representation by digital means shows great consideration for a digital future on the brand’s part. These values will be interesting to measure within and beyond Nars in the world of digital avatars as we enter 2023.