Aja (background), a "virtual human" specially designed for the Chinese market, is unveiled at the fifth CIIE. (PHOTO BY CHINA DAILY)

Every edition of the China International Import Expo sees many new products and services making their debut, but the fifth edition could be considered somewhat unique because it also welcomed the birth of a "human" named Aja.

Aja is, to be exact, a virtual human.

The hyper-realistic virtual influencer, or key opinion leader, was officially unveiled on Nov 7 during the announcement of the launch of a joint venture between Gusto Collective and WML at the CIIE's Consumer Goods exhibition.

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Gusto Collective is a company that assists clients with creating content and experiences using the latest technologies. WML, a subsidiary of Hong Kong conglomerate Fung Group, is a sports and wellness company.

The joint venture, called Gusto Mojo, will manage Aja, which was specially designed for the Chinese market.

"This is our fifth time attending the CIIE and we have always chosen this important trade platform to make important announcements regarding our group," said Sabrina Fung, chairwoman of WML.

The launch of Aja comes amid the growing popularity of virtual influencers, or KOLs, in China, where online personalities hold considerable sway over consumers' preferences.

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According to the China Consumer Report 2021 released by global management consulting firm McKinsey, 44 percent of Generation Z consumers polled revealed that bloggers and online influencers are among their top sources of influence when it comes to product recommendations.

The virtual KOL segment in China has been expanding at a frenetic pace over the past few years, with Bloomberg reporting the sector's growth of 70 percent between 2017 and 2021, when it was worth $960 million.

Among the most popular of such personalities in China is Ayayi, which was created through a partnership between Shanghai-based Ranmai Technology and Japanese virtual human company Aww Inc.

Since making its debut on social media platform Xiaohongshu in May 2021, Ayayi has amassed nearly 800,000 followers on Weibo and has been utilized by major brands including Louis Vuitton, Guerlain and Tiffany and Co.

Another such influencer is Noonoouri, which has been featured in campaigns by luxury brands like Dior and Balenciaga. The character was also used to promote the e-commerce platform of Tmall's Luxury Pavilion.

Fung pointed out that virtual KOLs make sense for brands because, unlike human personalities, they will never run the risk of being involved in scandals or making controversial comments. Virtual KOLs also have the advantage of being ubiquitous — they can be present at multiple locations simultaneously.

"A virtual human is not constrained by time or space and this provides brands with a different dimension when it comes to engaging customers and selling their products. The virtual world can offer new possibilities not available in the real world," added Shashin Surti, managing director of Gusto Collective.

"In the same vein, these virtual humans will unlikely replace human influencers, at least not for the time being, as there will always be a need for the human touch in certain scenarios. I foresee virtual KOLs becoming a niche but necessary part of every brand's marketing arsenal."

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Surti revealed that Aja has already been used to promote NBAbranded grooming products that are distributed and sold by WML. The virtual human will also be used to promote the Shanghai International Fashion Education Center's 3D fashion design curriculum.

According to Fung, Aja will be branded as a 21-year-old Shanghainese woman who loves urban sports, hanging out at cafes and attending fashion shows.

"I wanted Aja to be Shanghainese because I'm half Shanghainese and I also see Shanghai as the 'epicenter' of China when it comes to being cosmopolitan, just like what New York is to the United States and what London is to Britain," she explained.