Influencers have been one of the buzzwords and one of the controversial topics in European marketing for some years now. In China, the topic is even bigger. There it is so-called Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) or Wanghong (Chinese for Internet celebrities) who charge brands with their image, and are expected to drive sales.
The market volume of Key Opinion Leaders is huge, and according to Internet portal Business of Fashion, it is estimated to be worth over 18 billion dollars. According to a survey by tech group Tencent, over half of college-age Chinese would choose being a ‘Wanghong’ as a career.
‘Chinese influencers use various (social) media channels’, says Danny He, Project Manager ISPO Shanghai at Messe Muenchen Shanghai ‘such as Sina Weibo (comparable to Twitter), WeChat (similar to WhatsApp but bigger), Douyin (music videos/social network), livestreaming on the shopping platform Tmall and so on“.
Most content, according to He, serves to demonstrate a connection between KOLs and the brands, and to present the strengths of the product.
Initially, KOLs were mostly used by luxury goods brands and most of those KOLs were already celebrities, for example actors or singers. Now ‘virtually all brands are working with KOLs”, says He. There are even specific KOL academies that are training potential Internet stars of the future.
What the contracts between the Key Opinion Leaders or their agents and these companies look like is difficult to find out. But of course, the top KOLs are also among China’s top earners. Luhan, an actor and singer, who enjoys being called the Chinese Justin Bieber, earned approximately 26 million euro in 2017 according to Forbes. Luhan has ‘over 51 million followers on Weibo’, says He. But that still puts him a long way behind the most successful KOL on Weibo: singer, designer and actress Xie Na had well over 90 million followers at the end of 2017.
But even in this booming sector, there are collaborations that come about without money. Global Development Manager of women’s fitness brand Lorna Jane, David Brown, tells us that the company is in the fortunate position that “KOLs come to us and want our products – even without being paid.” The company has made a principle of giving KOLs product, but not money.
The diversity of the business is shown, for example, by German climbing boot brand Lowa, which uses Key Opinion Leaders intensively in China via its distributor. They include actors or musicians, “because”, says Matthias Preussel, Sales Director Asia Pacific, “our boots are perceived as lifestyle products there”. They have chosen their KOLs accordingly.