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Virtual identities are connecting ageing brands with younger audiences: dentsu’s Jamie McConville

For a virtual identity to work the brand must decide what its true purpose is.

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Mumbai: In a presentation at the MGEN Summit, which was organised by Animation Xpress and explored the areas of the metaverse, games, esports, and NFT, densu's director of global solutions Jamie McConville noted that virtual identities are connecting ageing brands with younger audiences. Virtual identities enable brands to show up in unexpected places. But for a virtual identity to work, the brand must decide what its true purpose is. Otherwise, it will remain a novelty. It is important for virtual identities to be authentic and truthful.

She noted that individuals have had virtual identities for a long time. "It is something that we use without thinking about it. However, for business, it has been a bit of a slow journey." She noted that only recently have businesses started to take virtual identities more seriously. "Now is the time for businesses to get started. But you have to remember that the people you are talking to are veterans in this space." She added that there is a huge opportunity for brands to get more personal in terms of how they express themselves digitally. Right now, brands present themselves as the same, and there is not much personality to them in the digital world. Often, it is just a logo.

"There is more of an authentic way in terms of how brands can talk to audiences. Through a virtual identity, there is a great opportunity for brands to personify themselves, and they can be a human brand everywhere they are. That doesn't mean they have to be the same everywhere they go."

Virtual identities are one tool that can be used. She gave the example of luxury brands and financial products that use it. This helps ageing brands in these categories connect with younger audiences. In South Korea, Shinhan Insurance uses "Rozy," a virtual influencer. The aim is to appeal to gen-z. Another issue is that brands show up on social media in a predictable manner. They also tend to be risk averse. A brand, by definition, should be unique. Again, virtual identities give brands new ways to do that and allow them to show up in unexpected ways. For instance, the American fast food chain Wendy's teamed up with Fortnite for a game called Food Fight. They went inside the game and attacked Team Burger's freezers. This went viral. It was both fun and authentic, as Wendy's does not do frozen beef. They were not trying to force it.

She also noted that virtual identities are allowing brands to create delightful automated experiences. Virtual identities are also allowing brands to invest in their own character IP. Unicharm in Japan, after years of depending on Disney IP, decided to invest in its own property, Moony Chan, and build it as a character in itself. She also mentioned how virtual identities help to establish characters that are relevant to all local audiences.

She also noted that strategy comes first. Brands need to decide the purpose of the virtual identity. Why are they doing it? Otherwise, it is just a novelty. The brand has to next think about what its star power is. Why should people care about a brand's virtual identity? Why should people want to interact with a brand's virtual identity? Don't fall into gimmicks. Brands must develop personality and characteristics that strengthen the virtual identity. It is also important to ideate at speed.

The way in which a brand can express their virtual identity can take various forms, she noted. There is no right or wrong here. It depends on the audience that the virtual identity is talking to and the message that it is delivering. She also mentioned watchouts. The first point made was that virtual identities often have real people behind them. She gave the example of Capitol Records dropping AI rapper FN Meka from the label after a backlash over cultural appropriation and gross stereotypes. The founders and creators of FN Meka were not black, which led to a row. Also, the rapper's voice was done by a black artist who got no money or credit for doing so. "Brands can get cancelled for things like this," she cautioned.

The second warning was brands trying to be too realistic. Being realistic is not necessarily a bad thing, but being too realistic can lead to the virtual identity falling into an uncanny valley. This refers to a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being. Unfortunately, this arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it. "If people see it as being too real and not quite human, they cannot handle it."

Conversations that do not fit are the third thing brands should avoid when developing virtual identities. Virtual identities cannot handle some things. "They can handle some conversations. There are some who cannot. Yes, it is a virtual identity, but you still have real impact and real responsibilities."

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