Ilustración: Valentina Serrano
The digital world is teeming with different versions of ourselves that pop up across various platforms: social media, apps, video games, AI, metaverse, stickers, and filters. These digital avatars or alter egos, born from our imagination, allow us to present ourselves in any way we desire. For brands, this offers a golden opportunity to connect with consumers on a more personal and captivating level. Yet, it raises an important question: do these digital representations actually mirror people’s true identities, or are they just perfect illusions? Consequently, should marketers focus their efforts on catering to virtual avatars or real individuals?
The rise of the avatar era and the influence of pop culture.
Masks have been used since ancient times in ceremonies and rituals to symbolize deities, spirits and even emotions. In the digital realm, avatars follow the same pattern; they have evolved into our contemporary masks, blending our true selves with the image we want others to see.
Popular culture has had a significant impact on our idea of avatars. Films like Ready Player One, The Matrix, and even Avatar have portrayed worlds where virtual reality and digital projections are as tangible as our physical existence, with barely perceptible differences. Likewise, video games like Cyberpunk 2077 or the iconic Grand Theft Auto enable us to immerse ourselves in roles and characters that, despite being fictional, shape our perception and influence our actions in the real world.
Some of the early examples of virtual avatars’ success span from Second Life, where people could purchase properties and live alternate lives, to the competitive world of Fortnite, where players can obtain and customize skins. Even in Roblox, we have the ability to create an avatar and construct a whole experience to recreate stories, much like the Cielo Grande campaign for Netflix, which won a silver award at the 2022 Clio Awards.
Furthermore, just like certain pop culture phenomena have shaped our perception of virtual avatars, these avatars are also transforming other industries. For example, they can now attend and actively engage in virtual concerts, where they interact with other avatars and savor live performances. Last year, the Song Breaker Awards were hosted on Roblox, featuring virtual performances by artists like GAYLE and Lizzo using state-of-the-art motion capture.
Speaking of stars, in the midst of this avatar-dominated era, the emergence of digital celebrities further blurs the lines between authenticity, fame and reality. Take Lil Miquela, for example, a CGI-created character who has achieved influencer status on par with real-life personalities. This very concept inspired us to create the film The First-ever BMW iX2, a project that, together with Lil Miquela, aims to challenge the distinction between real-life experiences and virtual beings, showcasing the longing of a digital entity to belong in the physical world. (Quite ironic, isn’t it?)
The construction of identity and its impact on brand perception.
In the realm of online self-expression, virtual avatars serve as a means for individuals to create and project their identities digitally. However, even those who have not yet explored this virtual avenue are actively shaping their identities online. There is no better evidence of this than on social media, where influencers and celebrities, who exist in the physical world, have mastered the art of presenting idealized versions of themselves. Through filters, edits and careful image curation, they set standards for how we should look and behave in the digital realm.
User behavior is not just about aesthetics, customization, and experience; it is a reflection of how we want the world to perceive us, and in many cases, how we desire to perceive ourselves.
On one hand, the desire to present ourselves differently in the digital realm is largely influenced by an era where vanity metrics, such as likes and followers, have become the ultimate social currency. We build our digital identities based on how we want to be perceived and how we think others want to see us. However, the digital world has allowed us to break down barriers across gender, sexuality, race and more—and that’s why 60% of Gen Z believe that how you present yourself online is more important than how you present yourself IRL.
It is important for brands to understand and navigate this dynamic when engaging with their audience. The concept of authenticity may be changing, but the importance of transparency and respect for individual identity is as relevant as ever in building meaningful connections in the digital space. Ultimately, individuals tend to follow and connect with brands that align with their values, interests, and lifestyle.
Recommendations for brands in the era of digital identities.
Just like people build their personalities online, so do brands. As individuals, we ponder: What does my avatar say about me? What hidden secrets, desires, and truths lie behind aesthetic choices such as hair color or clothing style? For brands, these questions are equally thought-provoking: Is this digital representation the essence of what truly defines my brand, or is it merely a projection of the ideals set by a brand manager? Are we allowing our brands to evolve in the digital realm naturally, or are we confining them within strict boundaries of expectations and corporate norms?
In my experience, the key lies in harnessing the power of creativity and technology to explore and express what truly resonates with the brand’s essence and with the digital identities of their consumers. Here are some recommendations:
- Align your brand with the values and aspirations of your target audience. Just as individuals shape their digital avatars to reflect their desired identity, brands should strive to align themselves with the values, interests, and aspirations of their target audience. Understand what matters most to your audience and ensure that your brand messaging and experiences resonate with their digital identities.
- Embrace fluidity and adaptability. Allow yourself to be flexible with your brand book and have different personalities and tones of voice depending on the channels your brand lives in. Digital identities are constantly evolving, and if people can do so, why can’t a brand? Use A/B testing to understand what resonates best with your target audience, redefine success parameters as you progress, and learn from your experiments.
- Let people make your brand their own. Foster spaces where users can collaborate and co-create with your brand, customizing their experience and contributing to the narrative of your social brand. This gives them a sense of ownership and personalization that aligns with their desire for self-expression in the digital realm.
- Navigate from digital to physical and vice versa. The journey doesn’t have to be one-way. Blur the boundaries between the digital and physical realms by creating meaningful connections and experiences that resonate with both, while tapping into your brand’s passion points
- Emphasize authenticity and integrity. In an era where digital identities can be curated and idealized, brands should prioritize authenticity and integrity. Strive to portray your brand’s true essence and values, avoiding the temptation to conform to unrealistic expectations or projected ideals. By remaining true to who you are and upholding transparency, you can build genuine connections with consumers.
Ultimately, the proliferation of digital avatars in the online world has given individuals the power to create and project their desired identities—thus giving brands a unique opportunity to connect with their true selves. As individuals shape their digital avatars based on their values and aspirations, brands should align themselves with the values and interests of their target audience. By fostering collaboration, blurring the boundaries between the digital and physical realms, and emphasizing authenticity, brands can build meaningful connections with consumers in the era of digital identities.
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