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How can brands ensure that they work with the right KOLs in China?

Excitement, love, boredom, fatigue: the relationship between brands and Chinese influencers, also known as key opinion leaders (KOLs) has had its ups and downs in recent years. However, thanks to international brands needing to connect – now more than ever – both digitally and culturally with Chinese consumers, the flames are being re-kindled.

China’s speed of digital development coupled with a mobile-first, social media-native population leaned itself perfectly to the influencer phenomenon. Several years ago, simply ‘using a Chinese influencer’ was seen as sufficient – until the inevitable happened. The market exploded with near-infinite influencers, allegations (and open confessions) of fake numbers, and with brands starting to feel less confident about the worth of views as a long-term result.

Yet over-simplifying the potential of working with Chinese influencers risks dismissing a crucial marketing strategy. Though the sheer quantity of potential brand influencers in China may seem daunting, this year has shown how ultimately valuable it is for an international business to ‘be as Chinese as possible’: in communications, in understanding and in cultural relevance.

Enough has been written about various international brand controversies seen this year, yet a moment stood out during the online kerfuffle. When brand influencers announced – with no little patriotic gusto – that they were discontinuing their relationship with the offending brand, the question had to be asked: how deep was the relationship in the first place? If an investment is to be made into collaborating with Chinese influencers, then the opportunity is there to fully engage them into the brand itself, ensuring that you are speaking to your target Chinese consumer in their own language, style, and identity.

Alongside the vital cultural understanding that an international brand must-have in China, the previously mentioned digital advancements have brought not only the excitement of working with influencers back but new ways to ensure that you are working with the right ones. ‘Engagement’ is a word that’s freely thrown around in marketing, yet the power of China’s super apps creates opportunities to see it in action. Rather than simply give an influencer your products and expect them to ‘post about it’, apps such as RED, Douyin and even e-commerce platforms such as Tmall offer diverse channels to prompt interaction between influencers and their followers.

Luxury brands are experimenting with Douyin - Lancome’s recent Qixi (known as Chinese Valentine’s Day challenge with actor Bai Yu invited users to upload videos of themselves photoshopped next to actor Bai Yu. The app provided the functions needed to make the image, with the chance for users to be ‘next to’ their idol led to the hashtag being viewed more than 44m times. Helena Rubinstein gave out prizes to winning followers who shared videos of themselves ‘in the same video’ as the brand’s ambassador Hua Chenyu, which resulted in over 90 million views for the beauty brand.

On Tmall Global, Alibaba’s cross-border e-commerce platform, “exclusive cross-border stores” (海外专属店) were launched. The first store was opened on the auspicious date of August 8 (8/8 being lucky in Chinese culture) by actress Jing Tian, whose store sells her favourite items such as a Delonghi coffee machine, Philips electric toothbrush and MixGO juicer. To date, Jing Tian’s exclusive cross-border store has 15,104 followers with products worth between RMB200 to 1,500.

Influencers in China have the reach of a media title, yet bring a personalised and authentic element to a campaign. Of course, it’s still a must to continually evaluate the effectiveness of any influencer-led campaign. The ‘back-end’ and analytical capabilities in the market mean that there’s no need for simple view-counting and estimation – post-campaign research is just as important as that which you undertake when formulating strategy and identifying your Chinese consumer-bases in the first place.

A recent report by Haima Cloud shared findings from the analysis of 80 most popular brand accounts on Douyin. The top brands include Carslan, Chando, and 片仔癀 (Pian Zi Huang), while the top 10 brands earned 70% of all brand account likes. The highest engagement was earned by influencers who take the time to do good ‘social media house-keeping’, such as replying to each comment personally and taking suggestions from followers on their next posts. The report concluded that without an efficient influencer-evaluation system, brands may experience very different outcomes from one to the next, even with the same budget and content.

Insight-led, digitally innovative collaborations with the right influencers can ensure both maximizing the power of China’s much-referenced unique digital eco-system, but perhaps more importantly, speaking in tune with the country’s unique cultural landscape.

Charmaine Lin is the general manager of client services at Reuter Communications.

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