In an Instagram post, a freckled, sandy-blond influencer tosses beauty products up in the air. People scrolling quickly through their feeds might not notice that she's computer-generated.
The avatar in the post is named Kenna, and she’s beauty brand Essence Cosmetics’ new virtual influencer. Essence introduced Kenna in a post Wednesday on Instagram, where the brand has 2.1 million followers. In roughly eight hours, the post saw more than 7,500 likes. Essence has created a personal Instagram account for Kenna as well, @thisis.kenna.
Essence is the latest brand to tap into a social media trend; other computerized beings on Instagram include Lil Miquela (1.8 million followers), who kissed supermodel Bella Hadid in a spot for Calvin Klein and has worked with Prada, as well as Noonnoouri (332,000 followers), who has worked with Marc Jacobs, Dior and Versace. Balmain created digital models for Instagram, including Shudu (195,000 followers), and in April KFC debuted its own virtual Colonel Sanders, who had his own deals with Dr. Pepper and Casper on KFC’s Instagram account.
Kenna's backstory matches that of the Essence target demographic: She’s supposedly a vivacious, ambitious 21-year-old woman who wears the latest makeup trends and flaunts them on social media, but she also cares deeply about issues facing Gen Z, such as environmental concerns. Essence introduced Kenna as an intern in its product development department, and the brand says she's confronting things that many in her generation face, like living on a small budget and furnishing her first apartment. (It's not clear how many people who saw Essence's post realized that Kenna is computerized.)
Essence claims it’s the first cosmetics brand to launch a virtual influencer. The brand plans on using Kenna to give followers behind-the-scenes information like how certain products are developed and launched, as well as updates on her “life” as an intern and young adult. In the future, she might appear on TikTok and LinkedIn, the brand says.
The Cosnova Beauty-owned cosmetics company, which is Germany-based but available online in the U.S. on Amazon and Ulta Beauty, worked with Denmark-based digital agency Kubb&co to create Kenna using 3D technology, namely the programs Zbrush, Mari and Maya. The agency would not comment on the project's cost.
“We believe that there is a novelty and freshness to virtual influencers,” says Sandy Bell, creative director at Kubb&co. “People are curious about virtual influencers, they are engaged with their stories—similar to how we engage with other fictional content like TV shows or movies. They want to see what the virtual influencer will do next.”
Virtual influencers' pixelated images are producing real engagement. In a recent report, analytics platform HypeAuditor studied some of the most popular virtual influencers and analyzed their engagement stats over the past year. In some cases, virtual influencers pulled in three times as much engagement as a typical human influencers.
“Essence and Kubb&co have been monitoring the virtual influencer space for over two years and have seen the great innovations and impact that have come from it,” says Chris Kubbernus, CEO and founder at Kubb&co. “We wanted to tap into this and give the brand's fans a unique experience.”