Zhang Dayi, Papi Jiang, Wang Tao, Fil Xiaobai, twins Viviandan and Miumiu, Ma Jianguo, Angelababy, and Aikeli Li. While these names may not mean much – or anything at all – to the average Western consumer, they wield a wild amount of influence in Eastern markets, and these Chinese influencers are giving their western counterparts a run for their money.
For several years now, as social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo have increased in popularity in China, a space for bloggers and writers has emerged and gained importance among the Chinese consumers. In connection therewith, key opinion leaders (“KOLs”), as they have been coined, have been positioning themselves as reliable and trustworthy avenues through whome companies can engage with their consumers, particularly as traditional advertising formats continue to fall out of favor. And in a testament to their growing influence, over the past year or so, alone, these individuals have become a million-dollar commodity in China and beyond.
As noted by Forbes’ Joe Escobedo recently, “Like the Kardashians, Chinese KOLs wield a lot of influence in the country. For instance, according to a report by online retail giant Alibaba’s Taobao, Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing has generated $74 million USD in e-commerce revenue.”
Another example of the power of persuasion of these individuals: Givenchy tapped big name KOL, Mr. Bags, for a Valentine’s Day 2017 initiative. The China-born, New York-based 24-year old, who boasts more than 1.28 million followers on Weibo and WeChat, helped the Paris-based brand sell 1.2 million RMB (nearly $200,000) worth of bags in 12 minutes after encouraging his followers to shop.
He has teamed up with Stella McCartney, Saks Fifth Avenue, Galeries Lafayette, and several other big brands and department stores.
According to a 2016 report released by global consulting firm R3 Worldwide and data-analytics agency Bomoda, Christian Dior, Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Givenchy – in that order – are the most successful luxury fashion brands in China when it comes to KOL engagement. Zara landed the number 10 spot. The report, entitled, “China Luxury, Beauty and Fashion Insights,” looked at “mentions, reports, likes, reads, sentiment, purchase intent and total engagement — to form an overall picture of the strongest brands and the strongest opinion leaders.”
Gucci secured the top spot as the strongest KOL performer on WeChat, while Dior and Chanel were most successful on Weibo.
As for the individual influencers, themselves, in addition to native Chinese figures, such as Xu Weizhou, Huo Jian Hua and Lin Xin Ru, Kendall Jenner landed on the list, as her “street style is favored by Chinese female Millennials to a greater degree than any other Western personality and this has aligned her closely on Weibo and WeChat with ‘now’ trends, such as slip dresses, crop tops, activewear and slippers.”
The KOL wave has not come without criticism, though. The joint R3, Bomoda report acknowledges that there are varied opinions about the efficacy of KOLs: “Naysayers claim that KOLs are overhyped and overpaid, merely attracting eyeballs and not sales. While we agree that there is some validity to this position, we also believe KOLs are — and will continue to be — an integral component to the Chinese consumer journey.”
The report’s author, themselves, found that many of the KOLs are “indeed inefficient, but this is more a matter of misaligned and mismanaged expectations than a lack of relevance. For every one celebrity who commands large sums to promote a brand’s products but fails to generate the expected results, there is an unheralded and unpaid fashion blogger generating the necessary engagement and positive sentiment to affect sales."
Yet, Western brands do not seem to be deterred. “Every brand I talk to wants to know how to work with KOLs, and every brand dreams of connecting to luxury consumers through social media. China’s digital landscape is unique, and this applies to KOLs too. The KOL market has become a business in its own right, and key KOLs can charge astronomically high fees too,” Chloe Reuter, CEO of Shanghai-based luxury communications agency Reuter Communications told Jing Daily last year.
Since KOLs have infiltrated the market and given that many “will endorse a different brand each day of the week,” Reuter says “the most important thing is for luxury brands to develop real relationships with their preferred KOLs, in the same way that they would with brand ambassadors. Take time to meet them, to connect and educate them about the brand. Make them fall in love with it. Look at your relationship as a long-term one rather than a ‘one-post’ one.”
Sabrina Lee, managing director of R3 China, echoed this notion, saying: “Managing KOLs in China today is like managing TV media investment in the 20th century. You need to build relationships, brand synergy and above all, you need to carefully track the ROI of each KOL.”