With the technological advancements taking place globally, Indian brands and broadcasters have now begun leveraging AI-assisted and virtual characters for their content offerings and brand campaigns.
While brands are only fuelling the journey of such characters in India, the country is not yet ready to accept AI-driven virtual characters as brand mascots and are only viewing it from the perspective of an add-on experience for their consumers and viewers, as per industry players.
According to Vishal S Nicholas, Executive Vice-President and Head of Brand Strategy, dentsu Creative India, “The world’s most-followed virtual influencer called Lu (from the Brazilian retailer Magalu) started out as a chatbot around ten years ago and has only recently been given a life-like identity. I expect the same to play out in India too.”
“Virtual characters will either be created afresh or if there are virtual assistants who are very popular (example- Alexa) they could easily morph into one too. The future could also see popular brand mascots turning into virtual characters and engaging with audiences in real time. Imagine the Amul girl entertaining you with her one-liners in real-time!” he added.
"Infact, dentsu has recently launched Dentsu VI - an end-to-end Virtual Identity service to help brands create virtual identities for the metaverse and beyond. Faceless communications often reduce brand connections in a digital world," Nicholas further said.
Harikrishnan Pillai, CEO and Co-Founder, TheSmallBigIdea, also said, “While virtual characters are very high on appeal, their relevance will be restricted to certain categories and age groups. Tech products, customer service, and Gen Z-focused brands will see immediate and massive uptake in the use of virtual characters for interaction.”
Moreover, Pillai also ascertained that the biggest challenge for the creators would be to resist the race of being the first and get on endeavour to make the virtual characters more intuitive.
In the views of Amer Ahmad, Director of Technology, Blink Digital, “Virtual characters are an interesting development but not revolutionary in my opinion. What truly excites me is the prospect of combining true AI with the characters to create truly unique personalities.”
“Engagement would be akin to how it’d be for a regular celebrity or influencer, with the virtual character catering to relevant audiences. But from the character’s perspective, building the narrative and creating the content would be far more optimised,” he added.
Furthermore, Ahmad also pointed out that building the characters and backstories could be fine-tuned to the tee - with characters being created to suit any TG, and with greater use of AI the turnaround time for content creation could be hugely optimised.
As per Preetham Venkky, Chief Digital Officer, DDB Mudra Group, “With rapid development on the core AI engines (GPT 3, Dall E2 etc.) in just a couple of years, it's important to look at AI not just in its current state but in a state of what version five or six will look like as well. AI, both in its current and expected future form is turning out to be the greatest creator tool ever.”
“AI-assisted or AI-generated content has the ability to have the same trajectory as that of top 1% creators,” added Venkky.
Furthermore, he also pointed out that there is an above-average engagement in content created by AI, but the industry needs to tread with caution and not jump to early conclusions as these content and concepts are still human-developed.
DDB Mudra had recently created the AI-powered rapper ‘BotHard’ for the hip-hop reality show MTV Hustle 2.0 where the agency had combined artificial Intelligence and the rhyming sensibilities of hip-hop music for a campaign that offers tech innovation and consumer engagement experience for fans of the genre and especially the show- MTV Hustle.
The bot was brought to life with the GPT3 platform and was specially trained to find rhyme structures of popular rappers. Built with a tech-first creative approach, the AI also learns and develops its ‘rap-game’ with each interaction over time.
When asked as to why MTV took a tech-route in terms of BotHard for their content offering, Utsav Chaudhuri, Marketing Head- Youth, Music, and English Entertainment, Viacom18, said, “Being young at heart, MTV’s audience is always open to exploring new technology and platforms. We collaborated with DDB Mudra for building a unique, tech-first creative approach for consumer engagement, devising India’s first virtual rapper ‘BotHard’. This innovation offered viewers and users an interactive medium to draw recall to our tentpole property MTV Hustle 2.0. ”
Chaudhuri also stated that BotHard derives his nuances and persona from the hip-hop community, and thus instantly became a talking point amongst the target audience of MTV Hustle. “Given its multi-platform presence – across Google Voice, Alexa, Instagram, WhatsApp – ‘BotHard’ has managed to grab the attention of our tech-savvy viewers and fans,” he said.
“The key proposition for the inception of BotHard was to underscore how real human talent in the genre of rap music remains unchallenged,” Chaudhuri added.
Commenting on what gives virtual influencers or AI-assisted characters an added benefit above real-life characters, DDB Mudra’s Venkky said, “It’s been predominantly about the novelty and the character building. They are currently no different from any fictional character engaging with a brand, whether human-created or AI-created.”
“Character building with tonalities that match the brand is the niche where success will lie. It’s still early to predict how this will evolve, but in my honest opinion, AI characters will have limitations because of the limits of their background story,” he added.
dentsu Creative’s Nicholas further went on to state that the main advantage of any AI-driven creation is the ability to train itself on large sets of data, such will be the case with AI-driven characters too.
“These characters will understand audiences better than real-life characters who rely on their gut feel or creative instinct. Although that is a powerful force too, the millions of data points that an AI character can analyse will be difficult to beat. In the age of the algorithm, this should result in better understanding of the audience and lead to better engagement,” he added.
Additionally, TSBI’s Pillai also remarked that the biggest advantage is that virtual or AI-assisted characters are least likely to be dragged into transgression and hence are a safe investment for brands. There are obviously no physical limitations that they have and they can work around the clock. Their skills can be adapted as required.
“A dancing virtual creator can sing today as well as tomorrow, and parkour even better the day after,” he smirked.
Viacom’s Chaudhuri also went on to point out that while BotHard drives engagement directly on Instagram, its crux lies in the novelty and relatability, which has driven conversations beyond the platform, attracting scores of curious audiences.
“The new-age options like AR/VR, Metaverse, and other tech-forward avenues can not only help us expand to newer audiences, but also scale up to new geographies and business possibilities as we constantly evolve our repertoire of tech-first consumer experiences,” he said.
Furthermore Chaudhuri also emphasised that as a business, Viacom remains agile and is ready to capitalise on the changing needs and aspirations of their young consumers.
“We adopt unique content strategies for different platforms which ensures that the audiences are eager to engage with our content and IPs. Innovations like BotHard not only offer newer experiences for our consumers but also let them have fun with their social circle while doing so,” he added.
DDB Mudra’s Venkky also asserted that brands should invest in AI tools and training to develop custom and personalised content through the funnel. “This will not just pay for itself, but will also give the scale most brands are looking for alongside developing deep personalisation,” he said.
Similarly, TSBI’s Pillai also emphasised that the objective of playing with virtual and artificial intelligence should be clear. “Is it to negate human errors clouded by judgement or is it to get more efficiency? It is important to be clear on the objective, or else we will end up creating firsts with no real impact.”
Blink Digital’s Ahmad also emphasised that people tend to think of AI as human-like robots but that isn’t the case. “Creating evolving systems that help with things like content creation or insights are great uses of AIs. You put a face to that system together with a little human hand holding and voila, you have a virtual character,” he said.
He further also went on to add that more than any trend, brands need to understand the value of the underlying technology and its benefit to their ecosystems.
Drawing a line of comparison with the scenario in India with that on the global front, Nicholas pointed out that India is a little behind. “For some reason, Brazil has a handful of popular virtual influencers. Lu from Magalu – the Brazilian retail company that has been around for almost ten years now and is the world’s most popular VI with around 30 million followers. Another Brazilian VI, Casas Bahia is very popular too,” he said.
“What’s different from India is that these VIs have been created by large retail companies themselves, something we haven’t seen yet in India. The big companies are probably still watching from the sidelines and wondering when to step into these waters,” added dentsu Creative’s Nicholas.
Blink Digital’s Ahmad also pointed out that virtual characters have been around for some time and are not a novel concept anymore and with that being said, in India, we’ve seen a recent uptick in this space.
“In my opinion, a collaboration with a virtual character is no different than a real one, with an added PR leg - and acts as just another one-off influencer activity. It would make more sense for certain brands to build these characters under their own umbrellas. This allows for the creation of a well-integrated, long-term brand asset that can be used more sustainably,” he added.
Upon being asked whether virtual or AI-driven characters can be an apt fit for brand mascots and ambassadors in India, Viacom’s Chaudhuri said, “AI-driven characters have their limitations and they’re still evolving in terms of learning the sensitivities required to be a ‘brand representative’ per se. It would be too early to entirely accept or dismiss the possibilities around such virtual characters.”
“We are glad we took this plunge by creating a virtual character. BotHard and innovations like it carry infinite possibilities, which we will continue to explore,” he added.
While MTV Hustle 2.0’s BotHard would be the entry point of virtual rappers in India, brands like John Jacobs Eyewear and boAT had also leveraged technological advancements to bring out campaigns that stand out.
Recently, the spectacles brand, John Jacobs Eyewear had associated with the Meta-Influencer Kyra and garnered a reach of over seven million impressions across platforms for ‘The Surrealist Edit campaign’.
In the video, Kyra is seen cruising through the landscapes of John Jacob’s Surrealist world, interacting with change makers, and witnessing the future of eye fashion.
As per the brand, ‘The Surrealist Edit’ mirrors the legacy of technological innovation, cultural breakthroughs, and societal reforms coming together in the age of information.
In the campaign, through the journey of each character, the brand has highlighted the potential of humanity’s adaptability, street-smartness and sheer ingenuity. The campaign entails 16 3D characters, named after John Jacobs' best selling products, who are deploying future savvy jobs to make this world a better place.
In another collaboration, Kyra had also featured in boAt’s ‘Future of Audio’ for the launch of their Rockerz 330 ANC offering.
In the video, the Meta influencer was seen entering a new dimension to get her hands on the new boAt offering and enjoying the ear-on experience which elevated her music experience.