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Main Feature Marketing East Asia

Innovation of the Year: Hang Seng Bank’s virtual influencer Hazel

When brands are about to launch a campaign, oftentimes, enlisting a celebrity or social media influencer to be its face is the no-brainer next step. Earlier in 2022, we saw one banking brand turn this reality on its head. What would happen if a brand takes matters into its own hands and launch its very own influencer instead? 

This was the case for Hong Kong-based Hang Seng Bank through the introduction of ‘Hazel’. Unveiled in January 2022, the virtual influencer embodied both the impressive technology of digital and the power of data to create a persona that would resonate well with consumers. Such direction has led them to become MARKETECH APAC’s ‘Innovation of the Year’ for 2022. 

We spoke with Jordan Cheung, chief marketing officer at Hang Seng Bank, to better understand how ‘Hazel’ was conceptualised, and how, since her launch a year after, she’s remained relevant in the digital world.

Embodying the brand’s goals in a ‘red sea’ of advertising

Whilst banking used to have a bad rap as a complex endeavour saved only for smart and cerebral individuals, contemporary times now show otherwise–the youth are now considerably interested in taking ownership of their finances. This is where Hazel comes in. 

In a bid to connect with the younger consumers and keep the brand’s persona fresh and interesting, Hazel was brought forth. Cheung said she represents a unique way of driving digital engagement. 

The campaign launch video of Hang Seng Bank’s virtual influencer Hazel.

“The launch of Hazel aims at helping Hang Seng to [break through] from the advertising red ocean to secure the brand with top-of-mind awareness [showcase] our advantages on our online capabilities and offline networks, and [create] lasting impressions among our customers,” he said.

But before Hazel could be launched, Hang Seng Bank revealed that there had been a more intricate process which involved conducting a study amongst its consumer base – the 18 to 30 year-old bracket. Therefore, the Hazel we now have is the culmination of today’s youth’s unique values and persona.

As true to her slogan #AllOfTheAbove, she aspires to be independent, not wasting time to lead a life full of excitement; and is able to explore at will, try new ideas and experiences, and always ready to take on new opportunities. 

“From a [post-campaign] research tracking, we got [around] 69% of positive verbatim from [the] young generation, with 59% [of] frequent digital users showed liking towards the campaign and 68% of [the] interviewees saying they will consider Hang Seng digital banking,” shared Cheung. 

How Hazel built and retained her relevance 

In the wide world of the Internet, influencers will always rise–and then some will fall. In order to stay relevant within social media, Cheung explained that they never stopped at Hazel appearing in one video, but instead took on multiple collaborations and launched new projects over time.

When Hazel was first introduced in January 2022, she already had a dedicated Instagram account, plus a song collaboration with Hong Kong-Canadian singer Jay Fung, ‘Always By My Side’. This was then followed by another partnership with actress-singer Laiying, which further got the attention of the music industry. 

Hazel, as she appears on a collaboration with The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

But what would be the biggest one would be the tie up with The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), which featured Hazel donning concept sustainable costumes made by the institute’s graduates in Textiles & Clothing. 

Among the highlighted collections are designs which symbolised the beauty and independence of modern-day women and the ‘beauty’ created by eco-friendly materials.

At present, Cheung revealed that Hazel is set to appear this 2023 at the bank’s metaverse branch in the virtual world, made in partnership with The Sandbox.

When asked about how they are able to manage to keep up with the trends while handling a virtual influencer, he noted that continuously understanding its fanbase helps keep them relatable. 

“Understanding the trend (like how consumers are following authentic & relatable influencers

than those offering picture-perfect lifestyles), leveraging data & result to draw [insights,] and [to] keep exploring the newest technology is all what we have been focusing on,” Cheung said.

So, what’s next for Hazel?

With the launch of Hazel, Cheung said they have observed the market’s positive reception of virtual influencers, seen through the wide traction on Hazel’s Instagram page, with people voicing out that they want to see more of her. 

“From YouTube Brand Lift Survey (BLS), we also [saw] a 10.7% increase in relative lift for ad recall, which is higher than industry average of 7 – 8%,” he noted. 

As of this writing, she has garnered around 3,000 followers on Instagram, with contentincorporating a combination of her adventures and amplification towards the bank’s latest offerings, from promos to their services.

Cheung later said that for the foreseeable future, they are looking forward to combining the best of technology in AI and analytics to further improve Hazel’s digital reach. 

“We’re working on bringing Hazel to the next level through latest technology like motion capture and AI that allows virtual and augmented interactions with customers – by then, Hazel can attend live interviews and offer live unboxing experience to audiences. We’re also actively looking at other collaboration ideas that can bring to live Hazel’s character and personality more,” he concluded.

This recognition is based on Google Analytics results on the most-read stories of 2022, along with editorial validation on the significance of a leader’s contribution, campaign results, and overall impact.

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Marketing Featured East Asia

Chinese kid’s clothing Balabala partners with Ogilvy Shanghai to unveil new virtual influencer Gu Yu

Shanghai, China – China’s kid’s clothing label, Balabala, has partnered with advertising agency Ogilvy Shanghai, to launch its new official brand ambassador, Gu Yu, a one-of-a-kind virtual child influencer. This latest move is part of Balabala’s brand rejuvenation journey, shifting away from the traditional fashion marketing playbook in favour of innovative, tech-infused activations that resonate with the new generation of digital-native parents.

Gu Yu, which translates literally as ‘grain rain’, takes her name from the eponymous Chinese lunar calendar festival on 20 April, signalling a rise in temperatures and the arrival of heavy rainfalls essential for good crop growth – a symbolic nod to Balabala’s belief in promoting children’s free growth and self-expression. 

To bring Gu Yu to life, Ogilvy Shanghai has conducted extensive target consumer research and analyzed data sets of children’s faces that were then aggregated into a 3D rendering software to create an initial prototype. The creative technology team then used a suite of AI and 3D modelling tools to further refine her facial features including eye shape, hair thickness, and skin texture, and animate the virtual influencer in various scenarios as she explores her passions.

First introduced to the world on the social commerce app Xiaohongshu, Gu Yu doubles up as an independent fashion blogger, connecting with fans through regular short-form content that documents her life as an influencer, such as sharing behind the scenes of upcoming promotional videos and introducing some of the most recent clothing item releases from Balabala, alongside real-life child models or in the form of NFT digital collectibles.

In this first phase of a multi-dimensional strategic repositioning campaign for Balabala, Gu Yu acts as a modern companion of real-life children with their unique passions and lifestyles by showcasing a variety of outfit styles, inspiring kids to express themselves freely through fashion.

Thomas Zhu, group executive creative director at Ogilvy Shanghai, shared that bringing Gu Yu to life has been an incredibly exciting creative journey, from the very early research and conceptualization stages where they defined her key traits, facial features and personality all the way to technology implementation and agile social content creation. 

“As one of the first virtual influencers for a childrenswear brand created in China, Gu Yu is a testament to Balabala’s commitment to digital innovation and positions the brand as a true metaverse pioneer in the kids’ fashion category. We look forward to seeing her interact with fans over the next few months in novel, exciting ways,” said Zhu.

Meanwhile, on e-commerce, Balabala took the launch of these new modern silhouettes up a notch to release a limited-edition ‘meta dress’ NFT piece, which 1000 lucky customers could get their hands on by shopping on the brand’s flagship store or by using their loyalty points. Gu Yu’s presence will not be limited to China’s top social media and commerce platforms. Soon she will be at the heart of new phygital experiences, where digital and physical boundaries will blend in to deepen customer interactions – from walking down the runway at Balabala’s offline fashion shows to co-hosting in-store brand events, fans will be able to connect with Gu Yu way beyond their smartphone screens.

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Marketing Featured Global

Meet Kami, the world’s first virtual influencer with Down syndrome

London, United Kingdom – Down Syndrome International (DSi), an international disabled people’s organisation, has teamed up with creative agency Forsman & Bodenfors and global digital modelling agency The Diigitals to create the world’s first virtual influencer with Down syndrome named Kami.

Kami, which is short for Kamilah, will be active on her Instagram account to give people a peek into her daily life, her likes, her quirks, her friends, and her interests. In addition, she will exist to shine the spotlight on people with Down syndrome while fulfilling a bigger and more powerful mission to make the digital world more inclusive with #TheKamiPledge.

The three organisations involved saw an opportunity to revolutionise the digital space by creating the world’s first virtual influencer with Down syndrome.

“By intentionally giving Down syndrome to someone who is universally known as ‘perfect’ in the social sphere, Kami will be a powerful representation that Down syndrome is not a flaw, or a mistake, and that she does not need ‘fixing’,” DSi said in a press statement.

For Kami to be a truly authentic representation of real women with Down syndrome, a panel of over 100 young women volunteers with Down syndrome across the DSi global network were consulted to collaborate on her creation as a virtual model – acting as the faces, physiques, gestures, voices, and personalities that Kami will embody.

Rachel Kennedy and Firrdaus Yusoff, creatives at Forsman & Bodenfors Singapore, said, “In a world filled with pixel perfect virtual models, creating Kami is a way to completely reframe Down syndrome in the online space. We want to make it impossible to ignore Kami and everything she stands for. As we get to know her, Kami’s true potential will depend on how the world embraces her in her virtual form.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Boys, executive director at DSi, commented, “We have always been acutely aware that the digital space has had little or no place for people with Down syndrome. Creating Kami as a welcoming and relatable representation in the digital space for young women with Down syndrome is an incredible milestone for DSi. We have high hopes for Kami and the transformation she can bring to digital diversity.”

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Marketing Featured East Asia

Red ginseng firm KGC taps virtual influencer Rozy

Seoul, South Korea – The majority of brands have acquired technology to charm more consumers, which resulted in the latest trend of virtual influencers. Joining the hype, South Korea’s red ginseng company, Korea Ginseng Corp. (KGC), has appointed Rozy, a virtual human, to be its exclusive model for its products. 

‘Rozy’ is designed with 3D technology by analysing the face and characteristics, and like ordinary influencers, she uploads photos of her daily life and actively communicates with her fans via comments on Instagram.

The appointment is in line with KGC’s brand concept of its product. The company believes that Rozy’s lively and youthful image will engage many youth, as its products are especially targeting the Millenial Z generation, who seeks a unique experience.

According to KGC, as women’s social status increased, economic activity became more active, and interest in health and self-management increased. This led women to begin taking care of their own health by focusing on value consumption and maintaining self-management. In addition, after the corona crisis, ‘self-medication’, which manages one’s own health through steady exercise and intake of health functional foods, became very popular among the Millenial Z generation, which is commonly referred to as Koreans in their 20s and 30s.

“Red ginseng is a representative health functional food that has been loved in Korea for a long time. Through the process in which ginseng is made from red ginseng, its efficacy is enriched and it is upgraded to be able to be stored for a long time,” said KGC in a press statement.

The company added that this move will enable them to communicate with a wider customer base together with Rozy.

In July 2021, Shinhan Life, along with advertising agency TBWA\Korea, was the first one to rope in Rozy for a brand campaign.

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Marketing Featured Southeast Asia

Thais follow virtual influencers regardless of gender or ethnicity

Bangkok, Thailand – The popularity of virtual influencers is becoming more prevalent online, and is evident across consumers in Southeast Asia, including Thailand. In the latest survey conducted by consumer research platform Milieu Insight, large majority of Thai consumers have no preference when following virtual influencers.

According to the data, 74% of the respondents say that they have no preference at all in regards to the ethnicity of the virtual influencer. Meanwhile, 18% say they want a Thai-based virtual influencer, and 8% say that they don’t want a Thai-based virtual influencer.

Regarding communication, 64% of the respondents say that they have no preference on whatever language the virtual influencer uses, while 32% say they prefer it to speak Thai, and 4% say they want other languages other than Thai.

Lastly, 58% of the respondents said that they have no preference whatsoever of what the virtual influencer’s gender is. Meanwhile, 9% said they want it more masculine, 19% say they want it more feminine, 13% want them to be more androgynous, and 3% have other options.

Credibility-wise, 9% of Thai respondents say that virtual influencers are more credible than their human counterparts. Meanwhile, 34% say that they are just as credible as normal influencers, 33% saying they are less likely to do so, and 25% saying they are not sure.

In terms of interest in following virtual influencers, 21% of the respondents say that they are interested in following virtual influencers, 55% saying they are somewhat interested, and 23% saying they are not interested.

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Marketing Featured Southeast Asia

What do Viets perceive of virtual influencers?

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam – As influencer marketing is continuing to grow in popularity, especially in Asia, there has been another rise of influencers: virtual influencers. More recently, more companies are playing with the idea of marketing through virtual influencers. These computer-generated public figures almost have a life of their own – reflected on their social media accounts – and even work with brands to promote the latest products.

In the latest survey conducted by consumer research platform Milieu Insight, it has found that 45% of Vietnamese consumers are very interested in following virtual influencers, while 44% said they are somewhat interested in, and 11% saying they are not interested.

In terms of credibility, 21% of respondents say that they trust virtual influencers more than their human counterparts. Meanwhile, 37% indicated that virtual influencers are to be trusted at the same level as human influencers, 27% said that they are less credible, and 14% said that they are unsure.

Meanwhile, in regards to local preference, 60% said that they want the virtual influencers they follow to look Vietnamese, while 16% say that they want them to look non-Vietnamese, and 25% said that they have no preference. 

On the aspect of how these virtual influencers communicate, 71% said that they prefer to be communicated in Vietnamese, 9% said they prefer someone not communicating in Vietnamese, and 21% said that they have no preference.

Lastly, in terms of gender appearance, 49% said that they want virtual influencers to look feminine, 20% want them being masculine, 14% want them to be androgynous, 2% have other options, and 15% say that they have no preference.

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Marketing Featured East Asia

Meet Hazel: Hang Seng Bank’s new virtual spokesperson for its digital banking brand

Hong Kong – As the line between reality and the virtual world is disappearing in favor of the metaverse setup, Hong Kong-based bank Hang Seng Bank has introduced its new key opinion leader: meet Hazel, a virtual spokesperson for the bank’s digital banking brand.

True to Hazel’s mantra of ‘It’s our world now!’ to communicate a virtually-integrated lifestyle, Hang Seng Bank aims to showcase with their latest virtual persona on how technology and innovation have released many of life’s constraints, making it possible for people to do more and achieve more.

Hazel first debuted on Instagram during Christmas 2021, where she shared visions of a young and active lifestyle that slash marks fashion, sports and other creative arenas. She even released a collaboration with Hong Kong-Canadian singer-songwriter Jay Fung.

Her first appearance in Hang Seng Bank’s promotional video was released this month, where it focuses on discovering the new era of digital banking and feeling empowered to achieve #AllOfTheAbove—an ideal lifestyle with unlimited possibilities.

Lucia Ku, head of customer propositions and customer management at Hang Seng Bank, and the one who spearheaded this virtual persona launch, said, “We want Hazel to embody young ideals. When we set out to develop Hazel, we surveyed nearly 750 young people between the ages of 18 and 30 to deepen our understanding of their preferences and attitudes to life. We then injected the essence of our findings into the personality of the character created.

According to the campaign, Hazel is a 25-year-old teen with diversified interests and skills. She is at once an illustrator, a model and a dreamer. She seizes every opportunity to play to her strengths and try new things. She is also a fashion trendsetter who is passionate about music, art and sports, particularly yoga. Hazel’s life philosophy echoes that of many young people: she aspires to be independent, impatient to lead a life full of excitement, is able to explore at will, try new ideas and experiences, and always ready to take on new opportunities.

In addition, Hazel’s digital-savvy, slasher-focused approach to life reflects Hang Seng’s deep understanding of customers’ changing attitudes and needs. It is emphatically focused on innovation and advancement to provide seamless online/offline, omni-channel future-proof banking services that empower its customers to, like Hazel, choose #AllOfTheAbove.

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Marketing Featured Global

Virtual influencer Rae introduces beauty of virtual landscapes with OSIM ambassadorship

Singapore – Following its Asia-first collaboration with Singaporean artist Benjamin Kheng for a music video, local-based virtual influencer Rae is back at it again, this time being tapped by Singapore-based healthcare company OSIM for its global campaign that merges virtual reality (VR) experiences with their massage chair therapy experience.

The campaign, which promotes OSIM’s latest uDream Pro chair, invites users to a five-sense experience of massage therapy, and with virtual reality (VR) technology, users can wear VR headsets and enjoy virtual landscapes being showcased by Rae, ranging from an ethereal garden to the vast galaxy, which encourages one to imagine and travel beyond the universe while indulging the senses in wonderment.

OSIM’s campaign tagline, #uDreamOutOfThisWorld, encapsulates how users of the uDream Pro chair can relieve stress while at the same time being enchanted by the scenery they witness virtually.

“Living in both physical and virtual realms enables me to experience out-of-this-world magic, and I’m very excited that I can now share these dreamscapes for the first time, made possible by OSIM uDream Pro. It’s awesome how technology is so closely intertwined in our lives, as we harness it to enhance our well-being and re-connect with ourselves. I look forward to starting my new journey of self-care as I travel through the metaverse and beyond,” Rae said regarding her participation in this latest campaign.

Rae joins the long list of brand ambassadors OSIM has tapped, including Singaporean singer JJ Lin, Hong Kong actor Andy Lau, Hong Kong singer and actress Sammi Cheng, K-drama actor Lee Min Ho, to name a few.

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Platforms Featured Southeast Asia

WATCH: This latest MV by SG musician Benjamin Kheng merges reality with virtual influencer Rae

Singapore – In a first-of-a-kind music collaboration in Asia, Singapore-based singer Benjamin Kheng has recently published its newest music video called ‘WORLDS’, with virtual influencer Rae also taking part in the video, signaling the creative merge of reality and virtual talents.

Rae’s singing is made possible by her latest text-to-speech (TTS) technology that allows audio content to be generated almost instantly. The technology also allows Rae to express her bold personality through a new medium, deepening her engagement with her followers in the digital world and online communities. As a virtual being, Rae speaks in an alto tone with a slight robotic pitch, and is effectively bilingual in English and Mandarin, opening up room for more versatility and creativity in content formats for collaborations.

Speaking about her participation in the music video, she notes that her presence at ‘WORLDS’ was a way to ‘find her voice’, and that it symbolized the natural extension of their interactions across two different realms.

“To create a new experience, we experimented with an electronic treatment for my voice, in contrast to Ben’s vocals. I enjoyed every bit of the co-creation process, from the recording to the filming of the music video. For me, the song expresses the friendships and rapport I’ve established with every individual across our universes. It’s about how our worlds, while different, can converge and connect. I hope that fans will enjoy checking out the video and listening to the new release,” Rae stated.

Meanwhile, Kheng commented, “The song was written about a loved one who passed on, and how I missed her so much I’d dream of lifetimes with her. I was so curious as to how working with Rae would be, but finally meeting ‘her’ was a blast. She might be virtual but she, her team and the whole process felt real ‘real’ to me.”

Rae, as seen on one of her promotions with the new Audi R3 Model last May.

Rae, who debuted last October 2020, has worked closely with local and international brands as their representatives, including working with Audi Singapore for the promotion of the new Audi A3 Model, as well as launching her own non-fungible token (NFT) series collection called ‘TAKE A BYTE’ in July this year.

Virtual influencers, both the human-like and caricature ones, have been recently popping out in support of brand campaigns. For instance, South Korean insurance company Shinhan Life has tapped virtual influencer Oh Rozy for their latest brand campaign, done in collaboration with creative agency TBWA\ Korea. In the caricature realm, ‘VTubers’ or virtual YouTubers have proliferated, from Sony Music Japan announcing auditions for their large-scale VTuber project, to AirAsia debuting their first-ever virtual idol Aozora Kurumi.

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Marketing Featured East Asia

WATCH: Korea’s first-ever virtual influencer comes to life, thanks to this insurance company’s campaign

Seoul, South Korea – The majority of brands are turning to the power of technology in an effort to attract more consumers as through its leverage brands are able to cook up out-of-the-box marketing campaigns, and one that’s been emerging as a trend lately are influencers – no not the human ones – but the highly resembling, and animated counterpart of the breathing face of the brand – the virtual influencers. A lot of countries are seeing their brands jump to the bandwagon, but here’s what’s hot as of the moment – Korea has just launched its first-ever virtual influencer through a campaign by Shinhan Life, the newly established insurance company in South Korea.

Being fresh to the market, Shinhan Life has launched its first brand campaign titled ‘Shinhan Life adds surprises to life’, unveiling ‘Oh Rozy’, the country’s virtual human.

Done in collaboration with advertising agency TBWA\Korea, the campaign aims to target the country’s Millenials and Gen Zs, who are reshaping the conventions of the financial investment markets. By featuring virtual human ‘Rozy’, the company seeks to break down the traditional codes applied to financial communications to appeal to the targeted audience, as Shinhan believes that this demographic is responsive to trends and they prioritize personal values including individuality and preference when choosing a brand or a product. 

‘Rozy’ is designed with 3D technology by analyzing the face and characteristics which Gen Z in Korea prefers the most. She currently has over 21,000 followers on Instagram and like ordinary influencers, uploads photos of her daily life and actively communicates with her fans via comments.

Throughout the brand film, ‘Rozy’ is dancing to the music in various locations including the forest, city, and subway with the message – “That surprising life begins when you meet Shinhan Life.”

According to Shinhan Life, the music used and Rozy’s dance moves were specially created for the campaign after analyzing the most popular music and dance content from the short video app TikTok for those in their 20s and 30s. 

“As the brand ambassador, Oh Rozy has given Shinhan Life new and exciting ways to communicate and engage with Gen MZ, who are rising as the major consumer segment in the financial market,” said TBWA\Korea’s spokesperson.

The new campaign will be airing across TV, digital, and social.