Collaborating with celebrities and key opinion leaders (KOLs) is a popular way for Chinese and global brands to leverage vast fan bases, reach new audiences, and ultimately spur revenue. This is particularly true when a brand taps a celebrity or KOL who is associated with a specific niche — be it sports, wellness, cosmetics, or fragrances. “Fan-focused” collaborations are a tried-and-tested approach in China.
While brands have signed Chinese brand ambassadors and spokespeople for decades, collaborations in which the celebrity takes a more active role akin to a co-creative director and essentially “co-brands” a product or collection have only gained ground over the past several years.
Although the ever-changing dynamic of the Chinese consumer market makes it impossible to predict the results of a collaboration between a brand and KOL, here are five tips — which we explore in greater detail in our report Big in China: Brand Collaborations — that can help increase the likelihood of success.
1. Limited-edition capsule collections are king
Whether in the vein of Givenchy’s 2019 collaboration with the popular Chinese handbag blogger Mr. Bags (Tao Liang) on an exclusive pink Mini Horizon purse that sold out in just 12 minutes or the unisex Palm Angels x Team Wang apparel collection, KOL-driven capsule collections and limited-edition items ooze scarcity and attract the most rabid Chinese Culture Consumers (CCCs) interested in building their collections.
2. Take cues from local brands
Chinese brands are arguably collaborating with KOLs to the greatest effect, riding a wave of brand nationalism that has swept the country in recent years and leveraging big-name collaborations to stand out in a cut-throat retail market.
One domestic brand that has made KOL collaborations a cornerstone of its marketing efforts is the lingerie and lifestyle brand Neiwai. In April 2021, Neiwai announced a partnership with the Chinese fashion KOL @SavisLook on its Weibo account with the launch of a vacation capsule collection featuring dresses, lingerie, and accessories. The 15-second campaign teaser video released by Neiwai, along with a longer edition posted on @SavisLook’s Weibo, respectively racked up 14,700 and 61,000 views within one day.
The brand has also launched loungewear collaborations with singer Faye Wong after announcing the 52-year-old pop legend as its global brand ambassador in 2020. Neiwai has developed a positive reputation among consumers in China for its inclusive sizing and casting of models of all ages and shapes in nationwide marketing campaigns.
3. Beware of collaboration fatigue
Typically, one-time collaborations between brands and KOLs or celebrities in China — even successful ones — generate short-lived and limited influence. This makes it imperative for brands to formulate comprehensive marketing plans around a collaboration that can indicate scarcity and urgency among target consumers, include on- and offline activations that keep the engagement going after the release date, and ultimately contribute to brand building.
However, as Olivia Plotnick of Wai Social points out, “Extremes can be counterproductive, and a large number of KOL collaborations may lead to fatigue among consumers and lower their acceptance, resulting in resistance.”
4. Keep in mind: Consumers in China still rely heavily on celebrities and KOLs
In markets like North America, many brands are reluctant to work with higher-profile celebrities or influencers — whether due to cost or a mismatch between the intended consumer audience and the influencers’ reach or reputation. But brands have less to worry about with regard to the effect of celebrity or KOL collaborations on brand reputation or consumer sentiment.
As Jeff Staple, founder of streetwear label Staple, notes, “I don’t like doing [KOL collaborations] because it feels very pay for play, but in China, it’s very much more accepted. So the youth listens to that message, so we happily use that tactic in order to break through the noise and get to the consumer that we want.”
5. Yet brands must be more cautious than ever when partnering with a KOL or celebrity
Despite the obvious benefits of working with a KOL or celebrity who boasts widespread name recognition throughout China and can instantly reach — and, more importantly, sell to — a massive audience, risks remain. For starters, attitudes toward these individuals among consumers and Chinese government regulators can change at the drop of a hat, especially in China’s tightly regulated media and marketing environment.
Perhaps the biggest concern for brands is celebrities and KOLs endangering a collaboration by making statements considered controversial among Chinese authorities or falling afoul of government regulators for offenses such as tax evasion. (A frequent occurrence since the crackdown on celebrity and fan culture gained pace in spring and summer 2021.)
On June 3, 2022, one such scandal enveloped so-called “lipstick king” livestreamer Austin Li (Li Jiaqi). During a sales livestream that took place around the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Li’s broadcast was abruptly cut off after a guest held a cake in the shape of a tank in an apparent (yet possibly accidental) reference to the event. Although Li blamed the sudden ending of his broadcast on technical difficulties, most observers understood it to be the work of government censors. In the following days and weeks, Li’s normally active Weibo account — which consistently published five to six posts per day — went uncharacteristically silent, with no new posts since.
The muzzling of Li — arguably China’s most powerful and high-profile lifestyle KOL — indicates the potential danger of brand collaborations with top influencers in the increasingly sensitive, tightly regulated China market. A product collaboration that may have taken months or years to come to fruition can be scuppered or placed on indefinite hiatus if the celebrity or influencer fronting the campaign falls afoul of Beijing censors — whether for a real or, more likely, perceived transgression of ever-changing regulations.
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