China’s lucrative influencer industry is an extremely crowded place. According to local consultancy iResearch, the number of Chinese KOLs (key opinion leaders) with more than 100,000 followers grew 51 percent from 2017 to 2018, and mega-influencers with more than one million followers zoomed 23 percent. Notwithstanding this burst of newcomers, the clichéd messages of Chinese social media influencers have remained static. Beauty influencers typically specialize in tutorials to achieve a V-shaped face, white skin, and K-pop style makeup. Thin and pretty fashion influencers frame their glossy lifestyles with comments that consist mostly of “wow,” “oh,” and “cool.”
Repetitive content has led to the following reality of the Chinese digital landscape; that key opinion leaders are abundant, but actual opinions are rare. As the influencer business has become rapidly commercialized in recent years, Chinese millennials have also invented vocabularies ad hoc to manifest their resulting influencer fatigue. Popular terms like “人设” (persona), “套路” (tacky moves), and “人设崩塌” (persona collapse) show the generation’s growing appetite for something more real and original.
Here, we look at three figures who are challenging the status quo in China’s influencer landscape today:
The Posh Icon: Teresa Cheung
Hong Kong-born socialite and actress Teresa Cheung has long been a controversial figure in China. The gossip-filled Chinese celebrity media have sometimes decried her as a gold-digger who shopped two different billionaire ex-partners into bankruptcy. Despite the rumors, she is also well-known for her upper-class upbringing, good taste, and shopping obsession.
In October 2018, Cheung opened her WeChat account “aroseisaroseisarose” and started publishing articles on style and self-care. Even with today’s continued decline of reading rates on WeChat, her account became an instant sensation and went on to gain an average of 100k+ article views and pages of long-form comments. Readers find her knowledge of luxury goods, informed wording and unabashed display of wealth a rare breed in China’s influencer world.
Comments like “Miss Cheung is the rare survivor of fine taste in an era that everybody can be a self-made influencer,” or “She has achieved that innate status from years of being in a highbrow society,” frequently appear under her articles.
While addressing the standard topics of fashion and beauty, Cheung’s content has the literary artistry that more typical influencers lack. Beauty influencers commonly describe a lipstick color as “amazing” or at best “boy-slaying,” but Cheung once called a color “the natural, sober rouge on the female protagonist’s lip from a French art-house film.” Although it is unclear if Cheung will take sponsored content in the future — she doesn’t know — her endorsement may carry weight given her readers perceive her as a connoisseur of fine things.
The Geek: Master Si from “Hi Betterme”
In China’s ultra-competitive beauty influencer world, Master Si, founder of the account “Hi Betterme,” has found her niche. While most beauty influencers strive to make people buy more, she, intriguingly, works so that people can buy less. An ex-Microsoft UI designer, Master Si has channeled her natural-born geekiness into her content. A long list of citations from scholarly articles often comes up at the end of her posts, but her mission remains simple — to dispel myths about skincare in China.
China’s post-80s generation has grown up with many beauty myths. “Eating pig feet adds more collagen to your skin” was believed by many to be true, or “you need this nipple lightening cream to be date-worthy” are just a few examples. Decades of anxiety-stricken advertising have made such false beliefs deeply rooted in the Chinese mind. Step by step, “Hi BetterMe” has tried to undo all of that. From educating readers about deceptive words in beauty ads to advising them on how to shop rationally, the account prizes scientific research as its most valuable asset. Now owning an internet-wide fan base of three million, the KOL/account has also started collaborating with top beauty brands like Esteé Lauder and SK-II.
The Openly-Gay Liberal: Jiang Sida
Chinese KOLs rarely express their own opinions, only those of the brands and products they promote. Content about social issues and current affairs is hard to find. But Jiang Sida is different. An openly gay public figure, Jiang made his first nationally-aired appearance on the Chinese talk show “Says the Weirdoes” and later became a producer of his own show “Transparent Person.” Now, he runs a WeChat account that garners an average of 80,000 views per article and produces content for brands like Chanel and SK-II.
A strong, liberal attitude has set him apart from other KOLs. In his WeChat, he writes about the use of “vous” and “tu” (formal and informal “you”) during the French revolution, the feminist ideology of Simone de Beauvoir, and the terrorization of “HIV” in Chinese society. Jiang’s liberalism has won him an audience of broad-minded, urban millennials, and along with that, a portfolio of premium-brand clients.
In December 2018, he collaborated with Chanel on a short film “Black or White” to promote the brand’s J12 watch series. In June 2018, he collaborated with SK-II on a video to endorse the brand’s “Bare Skin Project.” Jiang’s content has a real romantic streak and doesn’t head straight into the product message. Instead, he wraps the branded content in conversations on gender equality, mental independence, and other substantive ideas.
Although they come from very different backgrounds, these three opinion leaders are united by their intellect and strategy. As consumers become more skeptical of influencer endorsements, the impact they’ve made are proof that fresh opinions can still cut through the market noise and build success.