Rebecca McGrath
Rebecca is Mintel's Senior Media Analyst, specialising in areas such as consumption of news, TV viewing habits and social media.

As consumers grow more savvy about influencer advertising, how influencers are used by brands is set to take divergent paths. Concerns about the negative ramifications of misleading influencer content will see greater emphasis on authenticity, while simultaneously growing excitement about virtual reality and the metaverse is presenting opportunities to use virtual influencers.

Advertisers to crack down on misleading influencer editing

In April 2022 advertising company Ogilvy announced that it would no longer work with influencers who edit or retouch their bodies or faces in adverts. The move highlights the growing scrutiny on and regulation of influencer content as concerns grow about how influencers can negatively impact people’s mental wellbeing, especially younger people. More brands are likely to put authenticity and the promise of ‘real’ imagery front and centre in influencer advertising, using this greater relatability to connect with consumers.

Source: Getty Images

Advertising giant Ogilvy no longer works with influences who retouch their appearance in adverts (UK)

Mintel’s consumer research highlights the importance of believability in influencer advertising, with a lack of believability the number one factor that will annoy someone about an influencer sponsored post. Influencer advertising is now far from its infancy and consumers are aware of the tricks, from editing to disingenuous recommendations. Along with using unedited images and video, for an advert to be believable brands have to put in more work to find credible influencers that people genuinely think will use a product rather than those with the highest follower numbers. Often this will mean taking a micro-influencer strategy – working with smaller influencers with engaged followings whose recommendations feel real.

Consumers are on-board with virtual influencers

While more brands are set to focus on authenticity and reality in their influencer content, there also exists many opportunities in going in the complete opposite direction with ‘fake’ virtual influencers. This includes computer-generated imagery (CGI) to create a social media personality, who isn’t a real person. Mintel’s research shows that nearly half of people who follow social media personalities are interested in following a virtual influencer.

Source: Instagram

Virtual influencer – Lu Do Magalu has nearly 6 million Instagram followers

The potential of virtual reality in all areas of life has gained new buzz since Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg outlined his vision of the metaverse, a digital world using Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Virtual influencers are a new influencer marketing concept. Brands, such as Dior, have already begun to explore virtual influencer marketing strategies and Mintel’s research shows that many consumers are on-board.

Brands look to virtual influencers to update their marketing strategies

While the metaverse, as outlined by Zuckerberg, is still some way off, this already existing consumer interest in virtual influencer marketing raises the prospect of a whole avenue of potential new advertising opportunities for brands both now and in the future. If virtual worlds do become a greater aspect of people’s lives, then virtual influencers will have a significant role to play. In the more immediate future brands can feel confident to introduce and experiment with virtual/digital influencers.

Source: YouTube

Luxury brand Prada used virtual human to relaunch its Candy fragrance

Virtual influencers will work best for more aspirational or luxury brands, where relatability is not necessarily a core component of their appeal. Without any pretence of an influencer being real then a brand will also be free to be more creative and experimental. As long as the virtual nature is made clear then a consumer can feel comfortable that they are not being duped.

A further advantage of using virtual influencers is that there will be less reputational risk for a brand. By partnering with a social media personality, who are so exposed online, a brand will always be vulnerable to them acting in a way that is not brand appropriate. This is clearly not a concern with virtual influencers.

What we think

At the beginning of the pandemic some hypothesised a shift away from influencer culture given the gravity of events taking place. However, this has not been the case and people have been spending ever more time viewing content from social media personalities, meaning their importance to brands is growing. The influencer market is set to evolve, though with both greater pressure for reality and excitement about virtual content. The appropriateness of each option for a brand will be dependent on the product being advertised.

At the core of both developments is greater transparency. Consumers are increasingly savvy about the manipulations of influencers and will expect it to be made clear whether an influencer is real or fake, rather than the odd in-between world of current influencers.