What is VTubing and why do brands need to know?
After Tony the Tiger took to Twitch to play games with streamers, we find out more about the growing phenomenon of VTubing.
The VTuber avatar of Tony the Tiger, which saw its debut on Twitch in August 2022 / Kelloggs/Twitch
Last week, Kellogg’s transformed Tony the Tiger into a VTuber, begging the question of whether more consumer-facing companies consider leaping into the world of virtual stars.
On August 19, Twitch viewers were treated to the sight of Kellogg’s Frosties mascot Tony the Tiger interacting in real-time with popular streamers Brennon ’GoldGlove’ O’Neill, Chrissy Costanza and Jakeem ’BigCheese’ Johnson while playing the battle royale game Fall Guys.
Whereas once the approach would have been to dress an actor up as the tiger mascot, motion capture technology enabled a more authentic performance. Tony was portrayed in real-time by a fully 3D model that perfectly tracked the movements of its performer.
Adam Harris, the global head of Twitch’s brand partnership studio, says VTubing content increased 467% YoY last year. ”This innovative concept taps into its growing popularity... It fostered a healthy dose of competition, and encouraged viewers to interact with Tony the Tiger in real-time in chat.”
But there is a barrier to entry. While the very high-end examples like Tony or individuals like Ai Angel or CodeMiko might be the most striking, the majority of VTubers are far less sophisticated in both model and rigging.
Despite that, it has never been easier for a streamer to create a 2D or 3D model of their own (or commission the creation of one) and integrate it with a streaming tool like OBS.
In fact, some of the most popular VTuber collectives globally make the relative simplicity of their models part and parcel of their appeal. The most famous group, Hololive, has 71 active streamer accounts with over 64 million subscribers on YouTube. Gawr Gura, a VTuber from its English-language side, is the most subscribed VTuber worldwide with over 4 million subscribers.
In Asia, the trend originated with the debut of Kizuna AI in 2016, the large audience for Vtubers has similarly created a desire for brands to reach those audiences. Drinks brands like Suntory experimented with Vtubers with its branded character Suntory Nomu, who was active across Twitter and other social platforms in addition to YouTube.
Last year Netflix also introduced its own VTuber with N-ko, a human-sheep hybrid who acts as the face of Netflix’s Anime output. The idea was to both demonstrate that Netflix understands its audience and to create the start of a consumer journey by highlighting and recommending its anime content. Nao Azuma, Netflix’s communications lead for Japan, stated: ”My team and I asked ourselves how we could personally and directly be a part of this anime fan community. Living on Netflix Anime YouTube, N-ko is our official Netflix Anime Ambassador. N-ko will connect with fans around the world by hosting her very own weekly show.”
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Meanwhile, gaming company Sega also invested in the creation of models for its mascots Sonic the Hedgehog and Miles ’Tails’ Prower, both of whom host occasional short segments on YouTube and social media with the same goal of engaging audiences with the brand itself, rather than just its products.
Additionally, cementing the relationship between Sega and the VTuber phenomenon, Sonic will also have an in-game costume inspired by a VTuber in the upcoming game Sonic Frontiers.
What agencies think about VTubers
The introduction of a major brand like Kellogg’s to the VTuber practice in the west coincides with a wider bump in interest in virtual influencers. Earlier this month Dentsu Creative Singapore debuted a dedicated team whose sole focus is on virtual influencers.
Its global chief creative officer, Fred Levron, attributed the rise in commercial interest to the potential of the metaverse: “The lines between the online and offline world are increasingly blurred and we’re at the tipping point to see the potential of the metaverse fully realized.“
Pacsun, too, has redoubled its interest in virtual influencers with its collaboration with Miquela. But despite the introduction of those major consumer brands to the space, to date there are relatively few VTuber-specialist agencies in the US, Europe and UK. That has created the opportunity for the livestreaming platforms, like Twitch itself, to create on-ramps for brands like Kellogg’s.
It helps, of course, that its mascot has always been an avatar rather than a real person, suggesting that brands that have always used analog avatars will be among the first to make the leap to Vtuber-based marketing.
Sadie Garcia is director of brand marketing at Kellogg’s All Family Cereal. She explained: ”Twitch is a growing service with more than 31 million average daily visitors, giving Tony and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes a chance to connect with new audiences and engage unlike we’ve ever done before with a fun and innovative gaming experience.”
Brands, then, appear to have wholeheartedly embraced the idea that virtual influencers can be authentic – more so than real influencers, in some cases. The rise of livestreaming and gaming in particular has created another use case for those influencers, with the VTuber acting as both brand ambassador and source of entertainment. Based on investment in the space, expect to see many more mainstream examples of the VTuber phenomenon in the near future.