Virtual influencers are shaking up China’s online retail

Virtual KOL Ling from Shanghai AI start-up Xmov ©Xmov

by Crystal Reed

Brands seek to mitigate the footfall in their brick and mortar stores through live-stream shopping, which has exploded.

In recent years, we’ve seen virtual characters take on increasingly independent and creative roles. Gone are the days of video games and anime shows; these digital beings have taken up a plethora of different roles such as pop idols with an endless supply of original songs, runway models with full, vivid backstories and even AI-powered brand mascots who’s better even than Li Jiaqi and Kardashian at making the sale.

Vocaloids Hatsune Miku & Luka Megurine Project DIVA Live Concert ©Youtube

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, this trend of virtual idols has moved into the fast lane in China. Brands seek to mitigate the footfall in their brick and mortar stores through live-stream shopping — whereby well-known personalities and mere mortals alike demo, recommend and offer discounts on products in real-time over the internet — which has exploded.

We’re clearly entering a brave new world, but how did we get here, what’s the appeal, and what are the challenges and opportunities for brands?

According to official figures, there were more than 10 million e-commerce live-streaming events in China in the first half of 2020, with 560 million people tuning in, an increase of 126 million year on year.

13 million tuned in to see Chinese influencer Viya Huang and corn-fed (kinda) socialite Kim Kardashian double down on a T-Mall live-streaming session in November 2019; 15,000 of KKW perfume were converted into shareholders equity within minutes ©T-Mall

But while some of the country’s top live-streaming influencers (KOL) are indeed raking it in, one virtual gift at a time, they are now facing fresh competition from a new breed of brand advocates who promises to be on time, blemish-free and full of beans, 24/7, 365. Enter virtual live-streamers…

The rise of the virtual influencer (KOL)

Luo Tianyi is China’s best known and most profitable virtual idol. The grey-haired anime-style tween made her debut at the height of the pandemic alongside real-life KOL Li Jiaqi, AKA, “the Lipstick King”.

Li Jiaqi and Luo Tianyi for Occitane ©T-Mall

After the unlikely duo’s appearance for Taobao’s “Cloud ACG Carnival” in May hooked in almost 3 million viewers, China’s biggest shopping site doubled down a month later, employing VR royalty in the form of Japan’s Hatsune Miku for another live stream, attracting over 10 million virtual gifts and page views.

Prada is among the first Western brands to embrace this trend in China, teaming up with Alibaba (via T-Mall) and Aimee, T-Mall’s virtual model. The slender, porcelain-skinned influencer glamorously shows off pieces from the brand’s 2020 Spring-Summer collection.

TMall’s virtual influencer, Aimee, in Prada and Miu Miu ©T-Mall

Ling

The start-up scene is also abuzz with activity in China. Shanghai-based, artificial intelligence mini-corn (that’s budding-unicorn in laymen’s speak) Xmov and media company, Beijing Cishi, introduced China’s first artificial intelligence influencer, Ling, back in May 2020.

Using proprietary full-stack end-to-end AI technology, Ling’s facial expressions, body and finger movements can all be rendered in an extremely life-like manner through something CEO Chai Jinxiang calls “intelligent characterization through modeling and AI performance animation“, a far-cry from the often robotic mobility issues characteristic of Luo Tianyi and other “anime-style” virtual idols.

Virtual KOL Ling from Shanghai AI start-up Xmov ©Xmov

Aside from developing its leading lady, Xmov provides it’s motion-capture rendering services to commercial clients such as brands and agencies. In a live-streaming situation, Xmov renders the character in real time, which means they can interact with consumers in a much more enriching and visually satisfying way, thereby engaging the audience even deeper.

The company just completed an undisclosed (upwards of a hundred million RMB) series A round of funding on June 25th from investors including Sequoia. Hurrah, we’re rootin’ for ya!

Who’s watching?

Not surprisingly, it’s young Asian consumers who are particularly seduced by virtual sellers. The economy of idols is massive among Gen Z, roughly defined as people born between the mid 1990s and early 2010. According to QuestMobile, a Beijing-Based market research company, around 390 million Chinese are following or know about virtual idols, with $5.65 billion spent on them in 2018.

This tech-savy demographic find themselves attracted like shallow moths to a beautiful flame to these flawless and ageless idols.

Luo Tianyi enlists fellow diva vocaloid, Yuezheng Ling, to help sell a yellow Pikachu electric cooker from Midea ©T-Mall

According to Miro Li, founder of Chinese consulting company Double V, female virtual idols are best at selling electronics and gaming paraphernalia to Gen Z guys, while male characters are best at selling beauty, food and fashion products to women. In a country where male celebrities are sometimes used to sell feminine hygiene products, this somehow makes perfect sense.

What of the West?

The West is also grabbing virtual idols by their neon pigtails in quite a similar way. Instead of live-streaming, they’re taking more to the likes of Instagram and TikTok (while it lasts). Noonoouri from Joerg Zuber of creative agency Opium Effect is the quintessential case study.

As per her bio on Virtual Humans, a kind of [unsolicited] agency for virtual influencers of sorts, “Noonoouri has worked with most of the top brands in the fashion industry and continues to wow consumers with her unique look. She balances her platform between social good and promotion. She’s vegan, advocates for sustainable fashion, and refuses to wear furs while making countless cameos with fashion brands all around the world.

Noonoouri, oh how we covet your life! ©Joerg Zuber

Noonoouri is officially represented by IMG Models.

While Noonoouri, with her big smoky eyes and slender, exaggerated frame alludes to a modern-day rendition of a Betty Boop and Jessica Rabbit love child, an aspect that’s still of upmost importance for most Western audiences is having a life-like appearance, according to Diederik van Middlekoop of sonic branding company Amp.Amsterdam. He says that even though the West loves interacting with tech and AI, the experience must still be anchored in reality for these unimaginative audiences.

What’s the catch?

The advantages of virtual live streamers are clear. Gone are the days when you have to worry about your brand ambassador Tweeting something that makes the CMO facepalm so hard it can be considered self-slapping. They’re unbound by union rules (well, for now… we’ve got our eyes on you SAG!), time and geography. They offer something exciting and appealing to the latest generation to enter the “consumer” tranche.

Virtual live streamers allow audiences to build a relationship with the character through interaction,” says Ty Curtis of FIN Design and Effects, a post house that’s been conducting extensive research into virtual idols for clients. “It’s not just a passive experience like watching an ad. It provides much deeper engagement through interactivity.

Xmov motion-capturing services demonstration ©Xmov

But these virtual show ponies definitely do not come cheap, costing brands upwards of seven digits to create a truly unique, functional and proprietary character, and that’s separate from the cost to operate them! A one hour live-broadcast usually runs from the hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on whether real KOLs are brought in for support.

As of today, voice remains the single biggest challenge to this budding realm. Without a voice that is natural to the ears, virtual influencers are still bound to working with a human counterpart. They’re also less able to connect emotionally than their flesh and bones rivals. Think about it, to this day, not even Apple has been able to crack that nut. Siri sounds nice, but she’s leaps and bounds away from giving Billie Holiday a run for her money.

Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot Mountain Chief on a cylinder phonograph for the Bureau of American Ethnology (1916) ©Wikipedia

Even when you use a real person for the voice, it’s going to sound somewhat robotic because you can’t really convey emotion,” explains van Middlekoop, who’s spent the last two months recording himself saying the world’s most complicated sentences for a voice-first character his company is soon to launch. “This is why a robot voice, even if it comes from a real sample, has some robotic characteristics that can make people feel uncomfortable.

A look to the future

In this day and age, the relationship between humans and technology is set to intertwine even more in the coming decades, making it all the more important that brands invest into their virtual DNA, now. “I see [virtual live streamers] as the progression towards the assimilation between digital and physical,” says Curtis. “The more work we do in this field, the better the quality will get until we can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

Virtual influencers aggregator Virtual Humans offers one of the most complete listings of virtual idols ©Virtual Humans

It’s clear that virtual live-streamers have yet to reach their peak. According to Shanghai-based iResearch, China’s live-stream shopping market was worth $66 billion in 2019, and could more than double this year. As far as online retail goes, virtual idols are likely to play a bigger role. “Virtual and interactive entertainment is a hot trend nowadays,” a spokesperson for Taobao Live told the SCMP. “We are dedicated to introducing various pan-entertainment virtual hosts to enrich our content and innovate in user interactions.” Alibaba-owned Lazada in Southeast Asia and Amazon are also rolling out video streaming platforms. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before the whole world gets onboard.

Moving hearts with Operation Smile

P.I.G. CHINA, French production company QUAD and Cheil Beijing created a heart-warming film for Operation Smile, an NGO providing surgical aid to children with cleft lip.  Viewers journey through a polluted Shanghai with a masked albeit joyful little girl.  The final scene reveals she was happy to dawn a pollution mask because this is the one time during which no one can see her cleft lip.  The little heroine’s wide, endearing eyes help to soften the stigmatization children with cleft lip in China endure but the reality of this prescient health issue still remains at the close of the film.

Watch the full film here.

Directed by Henry Mason with support from cinematographer Rain Li, the film was entirely shot in and around Shanghai over two days. Grading and visual effects were created by FIN Design and Effects.  Green United Music (GUM) composed the gentle piano tune in the background.  Beautifully shot, this touching film is helping Operation Smile raise awareness around the stigma of children suffering with cleft lip. 

Happy Chinese New Year!

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PIGMAN: Halloween

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The Japanese Schindler

Director Cellin Gluck’s Persona Non Grata tells the remarkable story of Chiune Sugihara.

“I may have disobeyed my government but, had I not done what I did, I would be disobeying God”, said Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat whose selfless actions saved thousands of Jewish lives during World War II. Director Cellin Gluck’s latest feature film, Persona Non Grata, tells Sugihara’s remarkable story.

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(foreground) Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) and (background)General Hiroshi Oshima, Japanese Ambassador to Germany Hiroshi Oshima (Fumiyo Kohinata)

In 1939, Chiune Sugihara was posted to serve as Vice-Consul for Japan in Kaunas, Lithuania. As the Nazis and Soviet Union seized more land across Europe, persecuted Jewish refugees, finding no unoccupied nation willing to take them, came to Sugihara seeking an escape route to Japan. When Tokyo refuses to issue them entry visas for Japan, Sugihara knows that compliance will condemn the refugees to their fate under the Nazis. A solution presents itself when he learns that the Dutch consul was issuing documents stating that the bearer could enter the colony of Curacao, a territory where no visa was required. Provided with a final destination, it gave Sugihara excuse enough to provide transit visas through Japan, a type of visa he was never explicitly told not to issue, and the refugees a means of getting through the Soviet Union. To buy time, he writes to Tokyo seeking clarification of the original refusal, giving him a grey area in which to act in the meantime. As Gluck explains, “It’s plausible deniability to use a 21st century term. It’s the way diplomacy should work… It’s all games and I think that’s the beauty of the story.” Sugihara’s actions saved an estimated 6000 lives but cost him his career.

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Cellin Gluck (left) directs Fumiyo Kohinata

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Cellin Gluck first become interested in the story after reading The Fugu Plan, a book about proposals to resettle Jewish refugees in Japan. “You can’t write this stuff, the truth is stranger than fiction… the story blew me away”, he explains. In 2014, Japanese studio Nippon TV decided to make a picture to unofficially mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, casting Toshiaki Karasawa to play Sugihara. Karasawa, who had acted in Gluck’s 2011 movie Oba The Last Samurai, insisted that if the film was not going to be in Japanese, nor shot in Japan, then there was only one director with the multicultural perspective that could do the story justice.

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Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) and Wolfgang Gudze (Cezary Łukaszewicz)

“I speak the language fluently and I understand the Japanese psyche to a certain extent, I can do both. I can make films the American way… but I still have Japanese sensitivities”, says Gluck.

The director was born in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, to a Jewish American father and Japanese American mother. After graduation from college in the US, his first film job was carrying the mirror for famously volatile eccentric Klaus Kinski on avant-garde Japanese director Shūji Terayama’s Fruits of Passion. He moved to New York to become an actor but instead found work directing commercials for a Japanese advertising agency. In 1988, he returned to Japan to work as an Assistant Director on Ridley Scott’s Black Rain.

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Cellin Gluck (right) directs Michał Żurawski

His American-Japanese background has frequently informed his movie career, which has included roles as Japanese unit production manager on Godzilla (2014) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) as well as the 2nd unit director on The Hunted (1995) and Into the Sun (2005). His directorial highlights include Saidoweizu – a 2009 Japanese remake of the Academy-Award winning US comedy Sideways – and Oba The Last Samurai, his co-written film about the survival of a small group of soldiers after the Battle of Saipan at the end of World War II.

In 1998, Gluck co-founded production company, P.I.G, which now has offices in L.A and Shanghai.

***

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Irina (Agnieszka Grochowska)

One of challenges in building the story was the limited amount of first-hand information from Sugihara. The fact that he never wrote an autobiography and rarely talked about his actions is telling of the humble character of the man, who acted purely because he felt it was the right thing to do.

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(Left to right)  Dariusz Krysiak (Make up artist), Borys Szyc and Cellin Gluck

In an attempt to accurately capture the diplomat’s character, the Japanese writers Tetsuro Kamata and Hiromichi Matsuo did enormous amounts of research, including spending time with Sugihara’s eldest son’s widow and granddaughter. For the scenes with religious overtones, Gluck consulted with rabbis and Russian orthodox priests. The cast of characters also reflects reality, with Sugihara’s driver Pesch an amalgam of the three or more Polish agents that worked for the diplomat, while love interest Irene is a nod to his Russian first wife.

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Avraham Goehner (Zbigniew Zamachowski) and Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa)

Produced by Cine Bazar and Nippon Television Films, the 42-day shoot was initially planned to be in Lithuania, but an insufficient domestic supply of equipment and crew negated the rebate incentives. Instead the US$6m production moved to neighbouring Poland, an appropriate choice given 90% of those Sugihara saved were Polish. It also brought a wealth of top Polish acting talent, including Borys Szye (Pesch) and Agnieszka Grochowska (Irina). The DoP was Academy Award nominated Hollywood veteran Garry Waller.

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Cellin Gluck (Director), Michał Magoń (DIT), Garry Waller (DP), Paweł Dylik (Grip), Hubert Koprowicz (1st AD), Marzena Wojciechowska (Costume)

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Sugihara’s story has brought inevitable comparisons with 1993’s Schindler’s List. In fact, there were ‘Schindlers’ who helped save Jewish lives in many territories – Estonia, Sweden, Austria, France, China and beyond – the stories of whom started emerging after Spielberg’s movie. “Schindler became a catalyst to get the stories out,” says Gluck “The irony is, Schindler did his work in ’44, whereas all these other guys were saving Jewish lives in 1940 and ’41”.

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Yukiko Sugihara (Koyuki) and Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa)

Sugihara’s actions saw him dismissed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after World War II. Various menial jobs and a life of obscurity working for a small trading company in Moscow ensued. Though the Israeli government named him ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ a year before his death in 1986, a Japanese reluctance to talk about World War II meant he was not formally recognised by his own government until 2000. His name has now been submitted for inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

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Chiune Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) and Wolfgang Gudze (Cezary Łukaszewicz)

The positive reaction to Persona Non Grata has brought a fresh wave of recognition for Sugihara’s story. At its world premiere in Kaunas last October, the film received a five-minute standing ovation and it has been seen by over a million people in Japan, taking $12m – a substantial achievement in the domestic box office for a historical film. It has been screened at the Atlanta Jewish and Washington Japanese Film Festivals, on Holocaust Remembrance day at the YIVO Institute in New York, and won the Special Jury Award for Cinematic Excellence and Social Justice at the Oregon DisOrient Film Festival.

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(Left to right) Hubert Koprowicz (1st AD), Toshiaki Karasawa, Koyuki, Cellin Gluck (director)

Father Of Photography, Purveyor Of Pornography

In the West, Louis Daguerre (d.1851) enjoys a distinguished legacy as an esteemed photographer, accomplished painter and inventor of the diorama theatre.  Why then is his name in China synonymous with pornography?

Mr Daguerre owes his dubious second lease of renown to porn peddlers Cao Liu, the Chinese equivalent of US site Pornhub.  Cao Liu runs a popular platform entitled ‘Daguerre’s Legacy’, which allows users to post their own saucy selfies.

Though there is no evidence to suggest Monsieur Daguerre didn’t enjoy perusing images of an explicit nature, it’s probable that he wouldn’t be delighted that his good name has been reduced to a by-word for smut.

We were unable to verify why poor Louis was selected for titular honours 150 years after his death, but it seems likely it’s for little more than his championing of the still image.

Pornography is strictly forbidden in China, with anyone caught spreading or even looking at it risking heavy penalties.  One such example is Chinese media player Qvod, currently on trial for allegedly circulating porn, despite simply displaying search results of videos uploaded by others across the internet.

In spite of the risks, a torrent of porn continues to flood the web, even spreading into live events.  Netizens frothed themselves into a frenzy recently when retired Japanese porn star, Sora Aoi, appeared at the annual company meeting of Chinese company Jing Dong.

Pigpen cinema presents: IRIS

Screening on Tuesday November 17, 2015
Doors at 9 | Movie starts at 9:30
65-4 Maoming Bei Lu (Weihai Lu/Yan’an Lu)
Drink specials on beer, wine, and cocktails
Free “Grumpy” movie popcorn snacks
Space is limited to 35 seats
First come, first serve

More on the film: Iris (2015, 80 min., dir. Albert Maysles)
IRIS pairs legendary 87-year-old documentarian Albert Maysles with Iris Apfel, the quick-witted, flamboyantly dressed 93-year-old style maven who has had an outsized presence on the New York fashion scene for decades. More than a fashion film, the documentary is a story about creativity and how, even in Iris’ dotage, a soaring free spirit continues to inspire. IRIS portrays a singular woman whose enthusiasm for fashion, art and people are life’s sustenance and reminds us that dressing, and indeed life, is nothing but an experiment. Despite the abundance of glamour in her current life, she continues to embrace the values and work ethic established during a middle-class Queens upbringing during the Great Depression. “I feel lucky to be working. If you’re lucky enough to do something you love, everything else follows.” (C) Magnolia

See trailer here on youku or youtube

Eugenio Recuenco Gives Niccolo Hotels a Five-Star Debut

New P.I.G. director Eugenio Recuenco has just collaborated with luxury branding firm Yang Rutherford to create “New Encounters, Timeless Pleasures,” a classy, lushly-lit spot for the new upscale hotel chain Niccolo Hotels. The wordless, racy ad visually tells the story of a man and woman finding their way to each other, finally to meet and spend their first night together in a deluxe suite at a Niccolo hotel. On their way to one another they wander through the beautiful corridors of the hotel, and experience top notch service from its staff. “New Encounters, Timeless Pleasures,” is dripping with Eugenio’s glamorous signature aesthetic–more of which you can see HERE.

Pigpen Cinema Presents: Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary

Film Screening Tuesday Aug 18, 2015

Free “Grumpy” movie popcorn snacks
Drink specials on beer, wine, and cocktails

Doors at 9 | Movie starts at 9:30
65-4 Maoming Bei Lu (Weihai Lu/Yan’an Lu)
Space is limited to 35 seats
First come, first serve

More on the film:

Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary (2015, 95 min., dir. Daniel Junge & Kief Davidson)

Trailer

How did a small toy brick manufacturer from Denmark evolve into a global empire spawning countless franchises, blockbuster movies, hit TV shows, and even amusement parks? In their detailed documentary, filmmakers Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson explore the little-known origins of Lego in the 1930s ,and track the toy company’s evolution into a staple toy of childhoods across the globe. The documentary also chronicles the fans and professionals who’ve devoted their lives to creating and expressing with Legos, and showcases some of the most jaw-dropping Lego sculptures ever seen. Hosted by comedic actor Jason Bateman in a Lego figurine-form, Beyond the Brick is a fun, eye-opening examination the Lego phenomenon.

Dove and P.I.G. Show You Some Real ‘Real Men’

Dove Men and Ogilvy London recently asked director team J+J and P.I.G. to travel all over Shanghai, and film a montage that celebrates real men in today’s world. The film we came back with is a quietly scored and moving tribute to our fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, and boyfriends, and the crucial roles they play as our mentors, caretakers, and companions. We welcome you to see the director’s cut of this poignant piece by J+J, exclusively here on our website.