The rise of the avatar as a marketing medium
The Weeknd might have had to postpone his “After Hours” album tour due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t stop him from giving his fans an interactive experience they won’t forget.
In the first week of August, the Canadian rhythm-and-blues singer and songwriter took to a virtual stage on TikTok, but unlike other livestreamed concerts since the pandemic began, he wasn’t there in the flesh. Instead, as TikTok users tuned into their devices, The Weeknd appeared in a form that was as computer-generated as the environment around him—as a customized, animated avatar performing his hit songs and new music.
The Weeknd worked with his record label, XO, Republic Records and virtual concert creator Wave on “The Weeknd Experience”—what TikTok called its “first-ever in-app cross-reality experience”—to promote his new album and raise money for the Equal Justice Initiative with a Weeknd x TikTok online capsule collection.
The 30-minute experience wasn’t prerecorded, however. Through a live voting feature, viewers could decide in real-time what they wanted The Weeknd’s avatar, decked out in glowing sunglasses, to look like and do; he could transform the stage around him into fire or electricity; bring on visual vignettes like skulls, cards or coins; and even lick a little animated frog. Meanwhile, viewers’ names and real-time comments danced around The Weeknd in neon lights.
The experience drew more than 2 million viewers, raised $350,000, and set a new TikTok record of 275,000 concurrent viewers. Just like a regular tour, the pixelized The Weeknd will be platform-hopping. His next stop is YouTube.
“The Weeknd Experience” is a prime example of a burgeoning type of marketing—the use of avatars in digital advertising and entertainment. It’s a trend aligned with the upsurge of virtual experiences, advances in gaming technology and a result of the pandemic making in-person production problematic. With a digital avatar, celebrities or influencers no longer have to be present in the room.
Digital avatar culture
Customizable avatars have steadily crept into society as computer games have advanced and social platforms have adapted the technology. Millennials grew up with their own “Sims.” Nintendo’s Wii allowed players to design their own “Miis.” Snapchat’s acquisition of Bitmoji for more than $100 million in 2016 propelled the use and popularity of avatars. On social media, users began sharing computer-generated cartoon versions of themselves to their friends with a variety of sayings and expressions. In May, Facebook adopted its own avatar feature.
There’s now a cottage industry of avatar-crafting startups, such as Wave, Genies, Brud (creator of virtual influencer Lil Miquela) and The Diigitals (creator of virtual influencer Shudu Gram) that have emerged, ready to work with marketers and advertisers to complete or build new campaigns with digital avatars, which are only becoming more advanced in their capabilities.
These startups are rapidly getting the talent and funding they need to compete for brands’ budgets. This week, Wave, which aims to recreate the concert experience for the new normal, brought on Netflix and Disney executive Tina Rubin as its new chief marketing officer, and in June secured $30 million in Series B funding, including from Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin. When 2020 kicked off, Brud raised $125 million in funding. In the past few years, Genies has raised $40 million from investors.
“We are now living in a digital avatar culture,” says Adam Arrigo, CEO and co-founder of LA-based Wave. Another recent event was held in June, where John Legend performed new songs as an avatar on YouTube, with People Magazine as a partner. “Avatars are no longer just popular with video games, it is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream culture as this generation lives in the intersection of gaming, entertainment and social platforms.”
Avatars in ads
Genies, which creates bobble-headed, expressive digital avatars for campaigns with brands like Procter & Gamble, Gucci and New Balance, as well as celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna and DJ Khaled, has seen a 350 percent increase in new requests from brands since the pandemic began, says Izzy Pollak, head of partnerships at Genies.
“Now, more than ever, there is incredible demand for avatars because of the physical world restrictions brought by the pandemic,” he says. “Brands can work with talent similar to a regular production but without having to leave the confines of their home. Instead of shooting onsite, talent can insert their avatar directly into content so it still feels immersive.”
When Serena Williams partnered with environmentally friendly T-shirt company Bella + Canvas to donate more than 4 million face masks to U.S. schools reopening at the end of July, the tennis champ, the National School Board Association and Scholastic partnered with Genies to get the word out in a fun digital campaign, and Williams didn’t have to be anywhere near a production shoot.
Unlike regularly produced campaigns, Pollak says most avatar campaigns can also be turned around quickly, even within 24 hours, since millions of digital assets are already cataloged.
Genies currently represents 500 of the world’s celebrities in their “digital form” and is the official avatar of the National Football League and Major League Baseball, says Pollak. Looking forward, the company is introducing a way for brands to integrate its avatar technology into their own websites and platforms to monetize their avatars.
Virtual influencers, those created outside of specific campaigns, are only increasing in numbers and growing in their personalities. Brands like KFC, Balmain and Essence Cosmetics have created their own digital characters and several have been used in COVID-19 campaigns. The World Health Organization, for example, used virtual influencer Knox Frost, from influencer agency Influential, to kick-start its coronavirus efforts last April.
One of the most famous virtual influencers, Brud’s Lil Maquela, first appeared in 2016, and now has 2.6 million Instagram followers and brand partners such as Calvin Klein. Brud has recently evolved her into a pop star and she will perform a song next week in one of VidCon’s virtual events.
“Technology is making it so that you can have virtual characters, or fully realized synthetic characters that can be good or almost as good as real life people in some situations,” says Jim Louderback, general manager and senior VP at VidCon.
Dressing up avatars
Video games, where avatars were born, are progressively working with brands to create branded items for players’ in-game avatars to wear or collect. For video game companies, it can mean big bucks. Fortnite, which recently added an in-app payment system (and then parent company Epic Games sued Apple for removing the game from its app store), made $1 billion out of a total $2.4 billion from in-game “skins” on its avatar marketplace in 2019. When Travis Scott performed as an avatar on Fortnite in April for 12.3 million people, the rapper also released skins for players to use on their avatars.
On gaming site and app Roblox, which has benefited from the pandemic and is now seeing 150 million active users a month, mostly kids and teens, players can build their own avatars, and complete them with the outfits and collectable items. Nearly half of players update their avatars every month, and that’s where the opportunity for brand partnerships come in, says Christina Wootton, VP of brand partnerships at Roblox.
“[Users] adapt their avatars as their real-life interests and preferences evolve,” says Wootton. Gamers can purchase currency called Robux (currently 100 Robux converts to $1.00), and most new items cost around 200 Robux, but branded items are sometimes free can be obtained through quests.
Ahead of the release of DC Comics’ “Wonder Woman 1984” in October, the company partnered with Roblox in July to introduce its own game and related line of avatar skins and items. Roblox has done similar deals with Nike and Global Citizen.
Avatar skins are also bridging off of video games, and are starting to appear as options on social media. Snapchat just partnered with Ralph Lauren to have users outfit their Bitmoji avatars with items from the brand’s newest collection.
Pollak believes avatars can be a key way for brands to not only interject themselves in cultural conversations, but to understand the consumer mindset. “This idea of personalization at scale is only becoming more and more important,” he says, “especially as third-party trackers and cookies go away.”