Online influencers are increasingly integral to luxury and beauty brands’ sales strategies in China. Most influencer marketing programs are still in their infancy—the majority have been active for less than two years, according to a report by Fashion and Beauty Monitor—but that hasn’t stopped brands spending a significant chunk of their marketing budget on partnerships with online influencers, especially in attempts to reach younger consumers.
Partnering with these influencers, also known as wang hong (网红), does, however, pose challenges for luxury brands. Low production videos shot by amateurs in small, cluttered, city apartments don’t exactly scream luxury. Nevertheless, examining the short history of online influencers in China shows that this space is rapidly evolving, and new opportunities are opening up.
As the internet has matured, China has seen three different waves of wang hong.
Way back in 1998, Taiwanese writer Pizi Cai became the first Chinese internet celebrity when his online romance novel The First Intimate Touch catapulted him to fame with a more introverted, nerdy audience of wang chong, or “net worms”. Influence was constrained to the realm of ideas.
As download speeds increased, smartphone cameras improved and internet access became more ubiquitous, beauty bloggers with indistinguishable doll-like faces, heavy makeup, and slim figures took off. Simultaneously, Chinese netizens began sharing pictures of less effortful beauties. In 2009, a photo of a girl with a “pure” and “bright” smile holding a cup of milk tea went viral. The cyber manhunt did not take much effort of her massive fanatical fans. Zetian Zhang, the subject of the photo, later became the host of a national TV entertainment show. Her Wanghong identity not only paved the way to becoming a celebrity in real life but also facilitated her marriage with Qiangdong Liu, the CEO of JD.com.
Two competing notions of online celebrity emerged – there were those who cultivated celebrity by emulating the stars, and those who found it by eschewing their pretence and being (or pretending to be) more real.
These days, live streaming has become an essential means for wang hong to reach their audiences. Platforms such as MeiPai (美拍), Yizhibo (一直播), and Huajiao Zhibo (花椒直播) allow influencers to reach their audience and get paid directly in virtual currency and gifts. In July 2016, a 1.5 hours live stream by Papi Jiang attracted 20,000,000 views and earned the comedian over 900,000 RMB ($136,000).
Jiang, whose official Weibo account is followed by almost 26,000,000 fans, is described as “the girl next door with attitude”. Typically appearing in casual clothes and minimal makeup, Papi Jiang films her humorous rants in her cluttered, dorm-like room. Given that much of her success came from ridiculing Chinese celebrities and their bland, safe, brand-friendly public public personas, she’s a peculiar partner for luxury brands.
Nevertheless, Swiss watchmaker Jaeger LeCoultre recruited Papi Jiang for an advertising campaign at the end of last year. In the video, which is shot very differently to her low-fi vids, Jiang is dressed more professionally. She narrates the story of why she makes videos, along with her own personal philosophies, such as “活在当下” (living in the present) and “保持善意” (being kind). This helps distinguish her as a content creator from the characters she plays. The focus on her personal beliefs and values, which are difficult to discern in more immediately brand friendly celebrities, aligns with the product Jaeger LeCoultre was trying to promote—a customized watch that owners can engrave their own mottos and phrases.
While Jaeger LeCoultre was brave enough to work with an anti-celebrity, other brands are more enthusiastic about working with less ‘real’ netizens who seem to have deliberately (even cynically) built brand-ready online presences.
One of the most successful collaborations between luxury brands and Chinese influencers is the cooperation between 25-year-old fashion blogger Liang Tao, known better as Mr. Bags, and the French luxury brand Givenchy. In February this year, an article promoting 80 limited edition pink bags posted on Mr. Bags’ public WeChat account drove 1.192 million RMB ($173,652) of sales in just 12 minutes. Realizing the buying power of Liang’s over 2.7 million luxury-loving followers, brands such as Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Gucci and Stella McCartney are eagerly developing partnerships with the young influencer.
For more populist brands, wang hong are an obvious choice to promote their products. Tmall and JD.com have both launched their own live streaming services to capitalize on the trend, and Maybelline sold 10,060 lipsticks in two hours by cooperating with Angelababy and 50 wang hong on Weitao live (Taobao’s live streaming platform) .
For luxury brands, the task of choosing the right influencer, publishing on the right platform, is trickier. But perhaps its worth the effort to reach Chinese consumers who crave the credibility and authenticity of their real digital friends.