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Gen Z’s virtual world is real

The virtual world is important to the happiness of Gen Z in China, according to Echo He of WPP's Mindshare

Virtual characters are real to Gen Z in China. Emotional connections are made, interactions are meaningful and there is very real personal investment in non-physical environments. Even birthdays are celebrated, and gifts are given. China's influence on Gen Z behaviour worldwide is significant, and global brands are paying attention.

The shift in behaviour impacts dating too. Young people in China are no longer showing any real interest in traditional dating apps. Gen Z uses virtual apps with voice or text communication. In the virtual world, personal appearance is not as important as in the physical world. This is a huge step change.

Chinese people from the younger demographics are still connecting with each other, but they are not meeting in person. The spirit of dating has not been lost, but the environment is completely different.

From dating to idols

While intimate one-to-one virtual relationships are part of the new normal in China, so too is the mass celebration of popular virtual idols. From bands to influencers, there are strong connections being built with virtual stars from across the Chinese entertainment industry.

Virtual concerts, virtual variety shows and live-streaming of virtual performances – these are all replacing physical environments in which entertainment might otherwise take place. This is why brands need to be present in these places if they are to connect with Gen Z.

And that means building campaigns that work across channels. While traditional variety shows and TV dramas can continue to be part of the mix, that mix should also potentially include esports, virtual spokespeople (V-tubers) on Bilibili – similar to YouTube but China-specific – and product placement across a selection of popular apps. Mature brands, in particular, must think about the new environments for promoting their products if they are to engage with new audiences and avoid becoming unseen.

And virtual idols can appear across the digital ecosystem, not least Taobao – similar to Amazon but, again, China-specific. Brands are harnessing the power of fandom in all sorts of commercial and non-commercial spaces and making markets where they never existed before.

Increasingly complicated to navigate

This fragmentation of audiences means that brands must do their homework. At WPP’s Mindshare, we undertake workshops with brands to help them understand these trends so they can navigate where their audiences appear, what they are doing in those spaces and how each brand can create assets and interactions that tell their brand’s story in a compelling way.

Of course, the pandemic has accelerated the shift in thinking for many brands. Brands now prioritise digital platforms to promote their products, and virtual idols are becoming part of marketing strategies. Virtual marketing environments are affordable and efficient for brands who know how to use them effectively.

And a new generation – after Gen Z – is coming, and they have their own subculture too. CMOs must understand all of this if they are to succeed in all these virtual spaces and master the necessary interactions.

Virtual and physical combined

Already we are seeing established brands employing the power of the virtual world to amplify their brands in virtual spaces. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is a case in point. WPP’s Mindshare has taken Colonel Sanders (or Colonel KI as he is known in China) from being an AI persona, to being an eSports star, all the way to appearing on collectors’ cards.

This campaign caused Gen Z in China to embrace the brand by drawing them in and encouraging them to predict the outcome of a match. Participants immersed themselves in the game and became open to engaging with Colonel KI, who went on to become a virtual idol.

While the virtual world has provided an environment for self-expression, the physical world still has its attractions – they just serve different purposes. It is worth remembering most of Gen Z in China are single children. Virtual spaces have given them companionship and friendship when they have needed it – and they have not had to depend on the physical world to deliver this emotional support.

Going forward, virtual spaces will continue to proliferate. Online restaurants exist for engagement with friends, there are entertainment arenas with virtual hosts, shops have virtual assistants, eSports have their virtual commentators, and so on. Gen Z’s virtual worlds are now mainstream.

What remains to be seen is the extent to which these virtual spaces, with their virtual characters, will flourish outside China and across the world. But we can be sure that brands are watching.

Echo He


published on

13 December 2023


Technology & data

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