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By Marianna Cerini


Over the last few years, celebrities but even more so digital media stars – people who have become self-made online influencers through the internet – have come to play a pivotal role in what’s been called the “fan economy,” at a global level. Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) can drive marketing, spending behaviour and brand awareness, driving the success of a company, be it luxury or high-street, tech or fashion.


This is particularly true for China, where top level celebrities and KOLs often count millions of followers on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) and other social media platforms. Actress Fan Bingbing – who made international news in summer 2018 for alleged tax evasion – for instance has over 62 million followers. Chinese singer and actress Xie Na, often dubbed ‘Queen of Weibo’ boasts some 119 million, while actor and singer Chen Kun has over 92 million. Influencers emerged purely from the digital sphere also show impressive figures: Becky Li, a journalist-turned-fashion blogger, has over 3.7 million followers on Weibo and 4.5 million on WeChat — not as many as the traditional celebrity, yet enough to make her one of the most sought after KOLs in the country.


Names like these hold a cachet hardly matched in the West, and brands — both local and international — have been cashing in on that through sponsorships, collaborations and ambassadorships. But is commercial reliance on KOLs always a safe card to play? And what, exactly, makes an influencer tick in 2018?




“When I follow a celebrity or a KOL, it’s because I like them for what they stand for,” says 30-year-old Jun Qiu, an instructional assistant of social sciences at Hong Kong University of Technology. “Sure, I am drawn to their styles or sometimes I am a fan of their work. But I also look at the values they embrace.”


Mandy Shen, a 27-year-old freelance graphic designer in Shanghai agrees. “It depends on what I follow them for – whether it’s just for a bit of social media ‘voyeurism’ or something more serious. In the latter case, I definitely mind what they say or post publicly.”


“I too look at their personality rather than their style,” says Vanessa Hui, a 30-year-old marketing manager at Hong Kong publishing company Edipresse Media. “I like to follow celebrities who are sharing meaningful messages and inspiring people. The values they support.”


The “2017 Bomoda China Key Opinion Leader Index: Understanding Celebrity Influence” report, published last year by the New York-based consumer intelligence company, offers interesting insights on the subject.


A KOL’s personal characteristics – from their private lives to their beliefs, their approachability versus (perceived) pretentiousness, professionalism versus slackness – are all important factors among audiences in the PRC, particularly millennials and post-millennials, who are ever more digitally-savvy and socially aware. When a brand works with a ‘positive’ KOL and shares his or her image, its chances of success and resonance are higher.




A real relationship between companies and influencers is another key factor to a successful KOL collaboration. The Bomoda study found that influencer partnerships are bound to work better when the influencer is perceived as relevant to the industry and brands he / she is touting, as well as when the collaboration level extends beyond paid posts, and into the influencer’s everyday life – i.e. in their off-duty looks and personal choices.


“Genuine appreciation of a brand from any influencer that I follow will obviously draw me more to the products of that brand,” Shen says. “If they wear something when they are on holiday or in their homes, away from paparazzi shots, I take notice – though of course it could all well be another way of marketing too. I think it really depends on the KOL. But it’s easy to see when something is a natural fit and when it isn’t.”


“It’s so easy to see when a celebrity is promoting a sponsored product just for the money – it becomes a turn-off,” Hui says. “I would probably be more inclined to buy a product from a reviewer or youtuber who gives a detailed review about a branded item, like beauty vloggers, rather than buy something just because a celebrity is flaunting it.”


Conversely, any collaboration perceived as less than authentic has the potential to harm a brand’s credibility, as French luxury brand Dior discovered after recruiting celebrities Angelababy and Zhao Liying last year, with many Chinese consumers feeling a disconnect between the stars and the brand’s values.


The KOLs ecology is a complex one – and it’s only continuing to shift. So is the millennial Chinese consumer. They are discerning, demanding and change-driven. They are also opinionated, and might not forgive icons and brands if they feel betrayed by their behaviour, or disagree with their actions.


Taking time and using the right resources to really understand what type of influencers might work best for a brand is essential for any luxury venture looking to enter the market. But, if any one lesson can be learned from Fan’s scandal, is also that creating a strategy solely around KOLs might be risky as a long-term solution.


“Influencers only tell part of the story,” Shen says. “The quality of the products or a brand’s ethos are also important to me. As is the way they approach the Chinese market in general – pop up stores versus flagships, runways, ads etc. I look at all that.”