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From Isolation to Innovation: Harnessing Japan’s Digital Trends for Influencer Marketing and Branding Strategies

As a dual resident, I divide my time between the UK and my native Japan, and have increasingly come to appreciate the blend of escapism and technology found within Tokyo’s dynamic subcultures every time I return. From the serenity offered by Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, a life simulation game that captured global attention during the Covid-19 pandemic, to the more peculiar phenomenon of Japanese men forming romantic relationships with virtual pop star avatars, it’s clear that Japanese society is more receptive than Western nations to integrating technology into everyday life. 

This openness to digital life exists within a societal context that sees a large proportion of the population ageing, and younger people showing a diminishing interest in traditional social constructs such as marriage and starting a family. The shift has contributed to a marked increase in loneliness, a trend illustrated by the ‘hikikomori’ phenomenon, where adolescents and 20-somethings, overwhelmed by intense societal stress and pressures, choose to withdraw from society.

As society ages and traditional norms fade, digital worlds become havens from loneliness and the pressures that fuel the ‘hikikomori’ phenomenon.

Japan’s Online Realm: A Refuge from Reality

It’s no surprise, then, that many in Japan are turning to technology for comfort, especially finding solace online. Here, the pressures of daily life hold less sway, perhaps a contributing factor to why platform X remains the most popular social media site in Japan in 2024. Users flock to this platform for its ability to foster virtual communities where anonymity prevails, allowing individuals to thrive through alternate personas. In my spotlight on Japan’s digital landscape published in early 2023, I focused on the rise in the use of anonymous accounts and avatars, with social media serving as a nexus for people to bond over shared interests like anime, gaming or some more controversial subjects. The distinction between virtual and reality is increasingly blurred, a trend that has only accelerated in the last year, evidenced by the continued surge in virtual influencers and celebrities.

The Rise of Virtual Celebrities and Their Impact on Brands

Today, virtual singers reign supreme in the music charts in Japan, attracting thousands to concerts featuring holographic idols or singers who perform concealed behind digital projections. The realm of influencers has similarly transformed, with leading personalities on platforms like YouTube and TikTok now often represented by animated avatars that interact with audiences in real time. This digital evolution has even permeated traditional media, with virtual guests appearing on news programs and music shows. What sets Japan apart as a pioneer in this domain is its entrenched anime culture, which has long normalised the adoration of two-dimensional, non-human characters.


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A post shared by Hatsune Miku (@mikuhatsune)


Consider Hatsune Miku, perhaps the most renowned virtual pop star to emerge from Japan, captivating fans worldwide with her concerts. She originated from a voice synthesiser software developed by Yamaha and Crypton in 2007, based on the vocals of a well-known voice actress. She’s the “living proof” that, long before the current fascination with AI, Japan was already leading in the creation and acceptance of non-human technologies and humanoids. It seems the long-standing tradition of embracing virtual beings as celebrities within Japanese subcultures has eased the adoption of these digital personalities in broader society.

Leveraging Virtual Influencers in Marketing…

The rising popularity of these CGI influencers in marketing is becoming more apparent globally, and it’s easy to see why. Without the constraints of physicality or geography, virtual influencers can quickly garner extensive audiences and bolster their online presence. Moreover, by engaging with virtual influencers, brands can tap into the interests of a younger demographic hungry for new media content. The Tokyo prefectural government’s decision to appoint not one, but 16 V-tubers as its official tourism representatives exemplifies how brands can leverage virtual personalities for greater outreach.


Another advantage for brands working with virtual influencers is the enhanced control over creative content. Unlike human ambassadors, virtual influencers pose less risk of PR controversies or authenticity disputes, as their fictional nature is a given. This control extends to tailoring content to resonate with specific audiences and meticulously managing the influencer’s image. Red Bull Japan’s collaboration with VTubers from the Hololive Production’s idol group to engage the gaming community is a prime example of this strategy in action. The detailed backstories and personas of these virtual influencers, designed to appeal to niche gaming stereotypes, highlight the depth of character building possible with CGI-crafted personas.

…While Staying Mindful of the Drawbacks

However, it’s not all without challenges. Brands need to be aware of the pitfalls that can accompany the use of virtual influencers. While this genre of influencer marketing offers many benefits, it also introduces complexities related to the potential for unrealistic standards. The perfection portrayed by virtual influencers can intensify the pressures of social media’s already idealised standards, leading to increased feelings of inadequacy among some segments of the audience. This is particularly true for young people and marginalised groups who might find these impeccably curated personas both alienating and unattainable. Brands that adopt this type of marketing without a nuanced understanding of its dynamics risk exacerbating these issues, potentially exposing themselves to criticism from the public, harming their reputation and alienating a significant portion of their target audience.

Audiences may also struggle to connect with and trust endorsements from beings that have never experienced life or used the products they promote. This gap can make it harder for virtual influencers to build genuine rapport with followers, potentially diminishing the effectiveness of their endorsements.


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A post shared by Miquela (@lilmiquela)


Entering the realm of virtual influencers also means navigating a marketing territory that is still largely unexplored, with potential ethical implications and unanticipated public reactions. For instance, the creators of certain virtual influencers, including Lil Miquela and Shudu, have faced criticism for issues ranging from cultural insensitivity to inadvertently reducing opportunities for real people in industries, such as modelling.

To mitigate these risks, brands should consider a balanced approach that combines the unique appeal of virtual influencers with the relatability of human ambassadors. This strategy ensures that the innovative potential of virtual influencers is harnessed effectively while maintaining a genuine connection with audiences. As the digital landscape continues to evolve, navigating these complexities with care and sensitivity will be key to leveraging virtual influencers successfully in marketing strategies. As always, it’s also important to acknowledge that consumer reactions to virtual influencer marketing vary across cultures and regions. What resonates in Japan may not have the same impact in the UK or elsewhere.

Interested in understanding the cultural nuances and evolving dynamics in Asia? Download our whitepaper “Unlocking Opportunities in APAC with Social Insights” by submitting your details.

Understanding the Future of Digital Engagement Through a Culturally Sensitised Lens

As technology continues to blur the lines between virtual and physical realities, the online world is evolving into a space that offers new forms of social interaction beyond traditional human connections. This transformation is particularly resonant for audiences seeking digital platforms as a form of escapism, where the virtual realm becomes a sanctuary from the complexities of everyday life. The constant amidst this change is the creative potential unleashed by new technologies, shaping our reality into something both unfamiliar and exhilarating.

Effective virtual influencer marketing requires brands to deeply grasp cultural nuances and local sensitivities, ensuring their strategies resonate authentically with audiences.

For brands, this evolving digital landscape opens up novel opportunities to connect with these audiences, underscoring the importance of embracing innovation in social strategies. By tapping into the digital spaces where people find solace and entertainment, brands can foster deeper connections, engage with communities in meaningful ways, and harness the power of virtual experiences to enrich their marketing efforts.

However, to navigate this effectively, brands must not only recognise but also deeply understand the cultural nuances and local sensitivities at play. This awareness is crucial in crafting strategies that not only resonate with target audiences’ values but also respect and reflect their cultural contexts. Local, native expertise becomes indispensable in this endeavour, offering the key to unlocking genuinely impactful engagement. At Convosphere, we specialise in providing these insights, boasting unmatched local knowledge across a diverse range of markets from Far East Asia to South America. Our team’s expertise ensures that brands can connect with their audiences in ways that are culturally relevant, sensitive and engaging.

Request a free consultation with our team and download our APAC report to explore how our expertise can help you navigate the complexities of the digital landscape and connect with your audience in meaningful ways.