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“Influencer fatigue is real” stated in new white paper on Chinese influencers

By Rachel Douglass


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Image: Highsnobiety

A report made in collaboration with Tony Wang, from consultancy firm Office of Applied Strategy, and streetwear site Highsnobiety has unveiled details on where brands may be missing the mark with Chinese consumers and what they can do to attract the younger generation leading the way.

Entitled ‘The New Key Opinion Leader is Here’, Highsnobiety suggests in the comprehensive report that brands need to update their understanding of influencer marketing in China, in line with the rise of a new influencer type taking over the authority.

The importance is emphasised by a detail in the paper asserting that Chinese influencers drive 10 times the size of social commerce in comparison to the US, at an estimated size of 242 million dollars.

Considered irreplaceable by WWD marketing editor Tianwai Zhang, it is these influencers that are a vital part of the significant and fast-paced development of China’s commerce. Western marketing tactics, therefore, don’t apply to the influence-driven economy, that takes into account the collective social structure present throughout the country.

Introducing the Cultural Opinion Leaders

The report notes this continued importance of Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), a term adopted in China, and their hefty influence, but suggests brands tend to fall back on a limited list of the same 50 or so KOLs.

Denni Hu, the senior editor of Vogue Business China, said in a quote: “Most brands are too busy chasing after short-term numbers or copying each other to really innovate and get ahead of the curve. I’ve realised there are only so many established KOLs that big brands typically work with. So if every brand is working with them, it becomes increasingly hard to differentiate.”

Image: Gucci Facebook, Xiao Zhan

Offering an alternative, Highsnobiety acquaints readers with the new Cultural Opinion Leaders (COLs), a fresh variant of the KOL, that are driven by Gen Z and have grown up using different platforms, replacing Weibo and WeChat.

Raised in China after the ‘90s, the report suggests that these influencers have different cultural contexts, underlying values and motivation driving their fashion. Their ability to engage with younger audiences more authentically has enabled them to rise swiftly up the ecosystem.

To conduct its research, the article addressed four KOLs, four industry experts and three brands, including VP of global marketing at Crocs, Emily Sly, actor and co-founder of Clot, Edison Chen and former senior fashion editor of Elle China, Leaf Greener. Each individual involved offered their own take on how brands approach the market in China, as well as highlighting common misconceptions many brands possess about the market.

”The next generation of KOLs in China are going to create culture…”

While many assume China is primarily cut off from the global internet, those interviewed highlighted that this was in fact not true. Utilising virtual private networks (VPNs) and an increasing interest in travelling abroad has seen the creative community in China expand its horizons.

Chen said: “I believe the next generation of KOLs in China are going to create culture - combining domestic and international references online and then translating it into something of their own making. It’s now finally coming back to the community and building it.”

Further misconceptions involved social media platform usage, with brands still looking to Weibo and TikTok as central points of contact with Gen Z, despite the rise in Bilibili and Little Red Book. Unlike Western social media, influence can often only be credited to one platform per KOL, and not diffused over multiple channels.

Furthermore, it notes that traditional KOLs at the heart of a strategy don’t necessarily mean sustainable growth or brand relevance.

Image: Prada SS22, Milan/Shanghai

“We’re really starting to think about how to deepen relationships with our KOLs, involving them even in the product development cycle and getting feedback from them,” said Emily Sly. “For us, part of the solution is integrating partners and influencers into the brand and design process.”

Main differences in traditional KOLs and the fresh new COLs

Unlike their counterparts, the new COLs are focused primarily on driving dialogue and engagement, with less desire to present aspirational lifestyles and more on fostering topical communities.

Their focus centres around bringing both domestic and global cultural circles into play, instead of taking significant influence from outside of China. The report sees this as a newfound sense of cultural pride, referencing brands that have tackled this sphere, in consideration of Chinese culture, in a tasteful way.

“I have a lot of national pride,” said Hazel Meng, an influential KOL. “I love to see brands engage with Chinese culture and audiences in a tasteful way. I don’t like it when they force something on us. I don’t like it when brands take a symbol and slap it on products, like the phoenix on a bag. That’s what a non-Chinese designer thinks we want.”

She continued: “For example, I’ve really been in love with Prada for the past few years, they are in the unique position of having supported the restoration of a historical building in Shanghai called Rong Zhai. All their events are in the house, involving a blend of fashion, cinema and art.”

This quality runs closely alongside the desire for authenticity, with Meng further stating: “Fans are picking up on the importance of authenticity and are sensitive to it. If it doesn’t seem genuine, they get personally upset at me.”

The report goes on to outline possible strategies for brands to take when approaching this new generation of culturally aware, as well as further emphasising the current ‘influencer fatigue’ that it has noted among consumers.

It is these COLs that Highsnobiety notes will be the winning factor in achieving a connection with the next generation of consumers in China. It states: “The brands that can harness the cultural credibility of these COLs will be positioned for long term success in the country.”

The report concludes: “Engagement over reach; authority over aspiration; community over following.”