Benefit Cosmetics signed actress Yang Zi in early 2017 as a brand ambassador for China.


In an online celebrity smackdown between Kendall Jenner and Sulli, who will win?

Well, beauty brands better learn that it depends on which nationality is asking the question. While the Kardashian-Jenner clan has unparalleled selling power in the U.S., they have almost zero in certain Asian countries — especially in South Korea.

Data from digital research firm L2 revealed that social media posts featuring Jenner perform dismally in the Asian nation. For instance, content on Estée Lauder’s Facebook page in the region mentioning Jenner, a brand ambassador since 2014, could sometimes generate less than 500 likes per post, said Danielle Bailey, research director at L2.

In the U.S., though, association with the second-youngest Jenner sibling — or any Kardashian-Jenner sibling — pulls significant weight. A Facebook post from March 6 on Estée Lauder’s page with a video featuring Jenner garnered 7,000 likes, 14 times the amount of the brand’s posts in South Korea.

“The story there is very local. Local brands really dominate the conversation from a digital perspective…and celebrity is a big part of what happens in [South] Korea as well, driven by local celebrity. The ability to export global celebrities into the [South] Korean market is rather difficult,” Bailey said.

“Jenner is the face of Estée Lauder and globally she is huge,” she continued, noting that Jenner just doesn’t resonate in South Korea the way local celebrities do. On the flipside, Sulli, a 23-year-old South Korean actress and model who got her start in a girl band at age 11, could generate almost 3,500 interactions on a Facebook post in that country.

According to “Beauty: Korea,” a report recently released by L2, the country registered $12 billion in beauty sales in 2016, a 5 percent increase from the year prior. The study also identified South Korea as the ninth largest beauty and personal-care market globally and fourth largest in Asia-Pacific, after China, Japan and India. In China, Bailey listed Dior, Lancôme and Chanel as the top prestige makeup brands and Lancôme and Estée Lauder as the top prestige skin-care brands, based on first quarter 2017 market share.

These statistics prove that a presence for leading global brands in Asia today is mandatory. And, as Lauder’s South Korean miss with Jenner shows, beauty players trying to penetrate Asian markets via influencers need to think beyond the usual suspects, who by and large hail from the U.S. and Europe. Linking with the right online talent in Asia, especially the native influencers who reign in South Korea and KOLs, or Key Opinion Leaders, in China, could present a sizable opportunity for Western players trying to raise brand awareness.

While not a Western player, this is exactly what Japanese brand SKII did to speak to Chinese, South Korean, U.S and European consumers. In April, the Procter & Gamble-owned company wrapped up its most successful digital campaign ever, “Face the Wild |Face the Camera Extreme Expedition,” a partnership with National Geographic that tapped four global ambassadors to amplify the message online.

The group included Milan-born, Los Angeles-based influencer Chiara Ferragni; Kasumi Arimura, a Japanese actress; Nini, a Chinese actress, and Lee Si-young, a South Korean actress and national boxer. Collectively they drove 13.27 billion digital impressions and 4.46 million social actions in five weeks. Additionally, a two-day event in Okinawa, Japan, in March saw 1.34 billion impressions and 3.37 million social actions and engagements.

“I did notice that in China, brands’ strategies are changing slightly. More and more brands try to assess bloggers or KOLs as an uprising retail platform. They pay more and more attention to sales conversion rate, and would give a certain code to a specific KOL so they can trace the sales,” said Becky Li, a Guangzhou, China-based KOL who has 1.63 million followers on WeChat and 2.37 million on Weibo.

The former Chinese journalist turned KOL has worked extensively with American beauty and fashion brands, she told WWD, which span Tom Ford Beauty, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, Philosophy, P&G, Elizabeth Arden, Sephora, Rebecca Minkoff, Michael Kors, Coach and Asos. Her work extends to the lifestyle and automobile space as well, including partnerships with Buick, Cadillac, Jeep, Tiffany & Co., Shopbop, Amazon, Starbucks, Airbnb, HP and Dell.

“A lot of U.S. bloggers are based on Instagram and share their style or attitude through street snaps or their daily outfits, mainly.…In China, [since] the most popular social platform is WeChat…we are more likely to share text-based contents,” said Li, who visited New York earlier this month to meet Rebecca Minkoff and to attend Bobbi Brown’s three-day launch event for its new Crushed Lip Color. “I do have street snaps and do videos sometimes, but most of the time I am sitting in front of my laptop, try to publish two posts on a daily basis. One of them is a feature of the day, the other one is an advertisement.”

The sales she drives through her social platforms are impressive: Li recently introduced a limited-edition Mini car in a shade of Caribbean Aqua, and all 100 cars sold out in four minutes, she said. Each car was priced at about $42,700, which means Li drove nearly $4.3 million in sales for Mini in under five minutes.

During China’s Valentine’s Day period in August, Li published an article on fine jewelry brand Tasaki and “their official web site was paralyzed because there were too many people crushed in and this is not the first time our followers did this.” Less than 30 minutes after Tasaki’s e-commerce site was up and running, six limited-edition bracelets — equivalent to about $12,500 — sold out.

A partnership with boutique Kate Zhou resulted in about $153,000 in sales for the shop in two days, and an approximately $244 saddle bag Li codesigned with Rebecca Minkoff sold out in one weekend — 1,200 were made — resulting in almost $293,000 in sales for the brand.

But it’s not just the use of native influencers and KOLs that brands need to rethink when developing their digital strategies abroad, Bailey explained. It’s the concept of celebrity altogether. The notion of having a “celebrity face” has been a prevalent theme in Asia for some time, she noted, but it’s now more dominant than ever.

“You see brands in the U.S. that don’t use celebrities that in the Chinese market have celebrity ambassadors just to have a seat at the table. In China, you basically need to have a celebrity ambassador. A year ago I maybe would have said you could get away with it [not working with celebrities], but just to be part of the conversation [now] you have to have one. Everyone is doing that,” Bailey said.

Furthermore, leveraging this talent across platforms — especially live-streams and tying that live-streaming to commerce — has been very effective in China.

“You can actually tie the celebrities to commerce in China,” Bailey stated.

She cited Benefit Cosmetics as example of a brand that doesn’t use celebrities in the U.S. but has celebrity ambassadors in China.

Toto Haba, senior vice president digital at Benefit, said the brand started getting serious about celebrities in China after the Brow Collection launched in July 2016. Benefit partnered with a network of local beauty influencers in the region, but after analyzing post-launch engagement, the brand saw a gap.

“Celebrities drive a much bigger share of voice in China than they do in the U.S. when you’re looking at beauty conversations. That’s when we realized that we need to play in this space much more,” Haba stated.

The brand signed actress Yang Zi in early 2017 as a brand ambassador for China. Yi, who has more than 23 million followers on Weibo, signed a yearlong contract that will most likely be extended. Most notably, Yi was integral to the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton brand’s launch on Tmall in July when she hosted a two-hour live-stream with Chinese blogger Gogoboi the day the store went live.

Haba claimed the event drove the “highest engagement that Tmall has had for a beauty launch.” More than 2,300 units of Benefit’s Goof Proof Brow Pencil were sold during the event, equivalent to about $55,000 in sales in two hours, which comprised almost a third of the almost $153,000 in launch day sales.

Another example of a celebrity driving a brand, albeit an American one, is MDNA Skin, Madonna’s skin-care range that originally launched in Japan three years ago. (Unlike in South Korea, American celebrity remains powerful in Japan.)

The brand, which contains nine stockkeeping units that range from $50 to $600, will make its debut Stateside at Barneys New York on Sept. 26. Shannon Goldberg, vice president of marketing for MDNA Skin, said in an interview last month that the brand is “playing close attention” to what the key visuals are for the U.S. introduction.

“In Asia, American celebrity cachet resonates a little bit more. It’s a little more meaningful [there], whereas here [in the U.S.] we have to really watch how we’re positioning the brand — as not just another celebrity brand, but rather a brand that is great and can stand alone by itself,” Goldberg said.

She was careful not to say that Madonna as the face of MDNA Skin will “come second” in the U.S.

“She’s truly the creator behind this brand. It’s not just another celebrity brand,” Goldberg insisted.

A question Bailey raised, though, is figuring out how much consumers are buying into the celebrity face versus the actual equity of the brand.

“China, in general, is a hard market. You have to continue to feed the beast, and the second you take your foot off the accelerator, from a marketing standpoint, the consumers have moved on. This makes it hard for brands to compete,” Bailey said, noting that this year has also seen a “huge increase” in luxury brands selling in China, led by the LVMH portfolio.

The trend started at the beginning of the year and continues to grow as premium brands have “given in” to the idea that domestic retailers are an acceptable distribution platform for premium beauty. Many have started to sell aggressively through Tmall, she said.

These brands are also seeing success when it comes to influencers driving sales and transactions occurring on social platforms, even with high ticket items such as handbags that retail in the $1,500 to $2,000 range.

Li agreed. She said that during the most recent Chinese Valentine’s Day period, luxury brands comprised a sizable portion of her 15 advertisements that were published on her social channels over a two-week period, including Dior, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Piaget, Tasaki and BMW.

“Social or digital commerce is a reality there, whereas it’s just a notion here. It’s a theory that everyone hopes will take off, but in Asia, and China specifically, that train left the station a long time ago,” Bailey said of Western brands “just starting to connect the dots.”

Asia seems to have figured influencer-led social commerce out, and Bailey has proof: China’s Mr. Bags collaborated with Givenchy on a WeChat sale for a special-edition Horizon bag for Chinese Valentine’s Day on Aug. 10. All 80 units of the $2,035 bag — or $162,800 total — sold out in 12 minutes. When Mr. Bags was tapped by Dior to promote a limited-edition Lady Dior handbag, more than half of the 200 bags were sold to his followers. He helped Chloé sell all 85 units of a limited-edition Faye bag in an hour.

Gogoboi even has his own WeChat storefront, which sells an edited assortment of product from Net-a-porter, Yoox and Farfetch. In July, Givenchy went so far as to launch its new Duetto handbag collection on Gogoboi’s WeChat boutique. The featured black-and-white style sold out in 30 minutes, and within three days, all seven styles were completely sold out.

“They have their own pipelines where they can reach and sell directly to consumers, it’s kind of amazing…[and] in the luxury space it’s even more amazing,” Bailey said. “They [luxury brands] do a ton of collaborations and are selling those out in hours.The power of KOLs is very strong.”

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