In a country evolving as quickly as China, it’s no surprise that the fast-moving influencer industry would develop at an even more frenetic pace.
Birthed alongside social media and initially helmed by migrants from traditional media circles — those with celebrity contacts, brand relationships and an ability to create content — today the landscape has bifurcated into a higher and lower professional class of influencer.
At the mass level are many thousands of KOLs — as influencers are known in China — who are increasingly scouted and signed to “incubators.” These incubators work in a few different ways, but most behave like a talent agency, signing a multitude of pretty faces and helping brands connect with them en masse.
But the professionalization of influencers in China has also bred a new generation of independent voices, those with a unique point of view or offering that cuts through the noise surrounding the Key Opinion Leader marketplace here.
The increasingly discerning eyeballs of Millennial consumers peruse not only major platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, but also Instagram (using a virtual private network to access the blocked site from within China or checking in when they are traveling, working or studying outside their home country) and a multitude of newer short video platforms, such as 2018’s breakout star Douyin Tik Tok.
The KOLs set to have the most influence with this market are increasingly international and have built teams around them to execute a long-term business strategy revolving around self-branded products, consulting, production or agency work. This new breed of KOLs are decidedly more than just pretty faces.
Yuwei “Yuyu” Zhangzou
This colorful dynamo has personality to spare. Yuwei Zhangzou, known to all as “Yuyu,” was living in France, studying for her MBA in marketing when she started blogging about fashion and her fluent French (and English) has been a big help for her in forging relationships with major French luxury houses, including Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.
“When I started my blog in Paris, no one knew any bloggers from China, even though Gogoboi and Han Huohuo were really popular, no one outside China knew about them. It’s quite sad because people don’t realize that fashion exists in China, they just think people buy in China,” she said.
Unlike many so-called Key Opinion Leaders in the Chinese market, Zhangzou is known for actually having an opinion, using her international experience and language skills to consult for luxury brands on China strategy and KOL marketing.
Her other major revenue stream is working as a buying consultant for China’s multibrand store sector, which has seen thousands of well-funded store owners looking to find a niche in a burgeoning market catering to a growing aspirational middle class searching for their own unique style — and an increasing array of niche brands with which to represent that style.
“I was doing buying at the same time I started my blogging. In the beginning, I wanted to have my own concept store in China in the future. Now, I am doing the buying consulting and for two years have been helping stores in China get in contact with showrooms, helping them to choose the products,” Zhangzou explained.
“Besides this, I am a contributing editor with InStyle and last year I started doing my own capsule collection. This year, I will do another collaboration collection. In the future, I am thinking about doing my own brand.”
Not a new name on the fashion blogging scene, Peter Xu (better known in China by his Chinese name, Xu Fengli) actually first came to public consciousness in China as an aspiring rapper before transitioning to the fashion world. He has been photographing fashion weeks and blogging about fashion and luxury since 2013, amassing a fan base of 4.5 million on Weibo alone.
But the business of brand cooperation grew weary for Xu.
“In 2015, I got really sick and tired at that time, every brand came to us asking if we want to post about this thing or share that thing. In 2013 and 2014, Louis Vuitton came to us every week or every month asking us to talk about their bags,” he said.
“They always have the objective to grow fans and readership and this got really tiring for me, every week people approaching me and giving me bags, it felt pretty shallow to be honest.”
So, in 2016 Xu launched his own production house, Peter Xu Studio, which last year made more than 100 films for brands and events, distributing them on Xu’s own channels, as well as more than 40 social media platforms in China devoted to video content, such as Douyin Tik Tok.
“Now the core business of our team is to help brands achieve their goals, not just spread the word — which is what we were doing back in 2013. I figured out I didn’t want to be well-known, I wanted to be worth knowing. I wanted to communicate to the right people through the right channels,” Xu explained.
But Xu didn’t completely abandon his millions of fans, continuing to raise his profile as a judge on China’s version of “Project Runway” called “Fashion Master,” alongside Derek Lam and Vivienne Tam.
“That’s one part of me, more entertaining and mass. The other part of my business is really about digging down into the business of these brands to sell,” he said.
Xu does this by creating content, naturally, but also by traveling out to the hinterlands and talking to end consumers. He uses the example of working with Versace, touring second-tier cities in China such as Shenyang, Chongqing and Wuhan, talking to high-net-worth consumers about the Tribute collection, explaining its significance, what made it special.
“Sometimes we can really help brands to generate half-a-million or a million RMB of sales. That’s also a part of the things I do now,” Xu said.
“I know sometimes the p.r. goal is to have this many celebrities wear your bags, or have this many covers or media platforms talking about you, the clicks, but the clicks can be fake. We need to go back to quality, and quality of the content. A lot of brands do these big events and then they don’t even get good photos. We need to go back to the root of fashion itself and present it beautifully and authentically and holistically.”
Even less than two years into the Peter Xu Studio experiment, Xu’s ambitions are vast, and his plans for a fashion industry career stretch beyond years, beyond even decades and generations.
“I love the industry and I love to work, I work until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. in the morning,” Xu said, citing another fashion world workaholic as inspiration. “I want to be an 85-year-old fashion icon like Karl Lagerfeld.”
One of the most colorful beauty vloggers in China, Melilim Fu (Chinese name Fu Pei), breaks the mold in terms of Chinese beauty, which has traditionally been more focused on skin care and demure, natural makeup looks to emphasize a clean, fresh face. Recently, she has branched out into her first branded products, a fake eyelash kit available on Taobao for around $25.
“Of course, I want to be the most popular beauty influencer in China, but my style is niche, so I’ll settle for running the most successful beauty brands in China,” Fu said.
Her latest enterprise is a series of commercials for E, who are bringing their “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” franchise to China via the online Youku streaming service.
“We produced three makeup tutorials that will be used as commercials for the show,” Fu explained. “Creating commercials for TV is a first for me and maybe a first for any KOL in China. It’s really perfect, though, because I was the first beauty KOL to promote the Kardashian styles and products in China. I love those girls, so making a tutorial for Kim, Kylie and Kendall is like a dream.”
Fu points to the rise and fall of social media trends and platforms in China as a destabilizing influence for the professionalization of influencers here, as KOLs rise and fall with a platform, and platforms that are hot today can be distinctly cold tomorrow.
“The meteoric rise of Douyin has ushered in a whole new batch of content creators, but many of these content creators are not truly KOLs because they can’t really influence their followers’ decisions. Yes, they can get a brand’s message out there providing visibility, but a true influencer has built rapport with their audience over time, and it’s this trust that brands are really tapping into,” Fu said.
“I believe top-tier KOLs will increasing be looked at like traditional celebrities, as in some cases they actually wield more influence and popularity. Some trends will continue, like influencer created brands becoming increasingly popular. And I hope to see some KOL acquisitions by brands or at the very least more collaboratively created products — but this is a really hard industry to make predictions for. You really just need to be fluid.”
It was natural for Natasha Lau to gravitate to the world of fashion. “I have been attending galas with my mom since I was five,” the 20-year-old said over scones and iced lattes at a cafe in Shanghai’s shopping thoroughfare of Nanjing Xi Lu.
It’s not boasting. Lau is under no illusion about the source of her influence, which has seen her garner more than a million followers on Weibo and be tapped as the only Asian face in Dolce & Gabbana’s #DGmillennial campaign in 2017.
“I think I can influence people from the young generation because of my mom, maybe I already have a base of followers because she is famous and because of my background,” Lau said. Her mother, Lisa Xia, is one of Shanghai’s premier socialites and avid couture collector who was once named “The Most Fashionable Woman in Asia” by Tatler magazine.
“She has lots of fans and her fans and the children of her fans also pay attention to me and the circle is getting bigger and stronger and so I started working with brands and PR and posting on Weibo and my followers are getting more and more,” Lau said.
Born in Hong Kong, raised in Shanghai and now studying for a degree in fashion management at Parson’s in New York, Lau is representative of a new generation, the first “fu er dai” (second generation rich) of Post-Mao China, who are the envy of many but also face a number of unique pressures making their own way in the world. Lau is quick to admit she is still finding her feet, working out how she can utilize her influence and turning her very normal, girlish hobby of posting selfies, into something more.
“I think actually it’s because I’m a little bit different from normal Chinese girls. I’m more of an influencer, more of a KOL than a wang hong (translates as ‘net red’ an oft-used term, generally with negative connotations, for an online celebrity in China) or blogger. I can’t say I’m a professional blogger or a professional model, even though I walk on the runway. I can’t completely say I am any one of these things,” she said, adding that, as a Chinese living abroad she feels an added pressure to represent her, often misunderstood, homeland.
“I want to put my influence as much as I can’t to have a positive effect on the young generation. [China’s youth] have changed a lot, we want to let foreigners feel that Chinese these days are very different, they are proud, open-minded, friendly, nice, you can look at the new generation and we are so positive.”
Her personal, skin-baring style skews sexier than the more conservative cuts generally embraced by Chinese celebrities and influencers, and her comparatively curvy figure gives her a point of difference in a country where extreme thinness has always been a beauty ideal.
“I can’t resist [dressing sexy], it’s natural for me. I think I am a lucky girl because the first brand that I collaborated with was Dolce & Gabbana and I have never found a brand that I wear better than Dolce & Gabbana,” Lau said.
Fresh from appearances at the Met Ball and Cannes Film Festival, Lau is continuing a whirlwind of brand collaborations and events around the globe. High on her wish list for future career progression is her own digital magazine, and she hints at the possibility of an acting career on the horizon.
“I don’t know what is going to be the best for me but I want to explore as much as I can,” she said.
The Marginalist / Yanie Durocher
There’s no one on China’s influencer landscape who embodies internationalism and cross-cultural appeal quite like Yanie Durocher.
Born in the Chinese city of Yangzhou, Durocher was left as a baby at a local police station and adopted by a Canadian couple from Montreal. There she was raised, with French as her mother tongue and twin brothers adopted from Rio de Janeiro.
“Montreal is a very creative place, has really strong sub cultures. I [started my career] dressing Celine Dion when I was really young and did some celebrity [styling] stuff, but I realized I had to leave to do more, so I moved to New York [at age 18],” Durocher explained.
From New York, and business school, a young Durocher began exploring further afield, studying in France and then moving to Milan in 2013, where she started her blog, The Marginalist.
“It was always in my head, you know, to come to China,” Durocher said. “Even as a really little kid I could never eat cereal or what I call ‘white people food’, like peanut butter and jelly or whatever. I wanted to eat wontons, even when I was five years old, even though I didn’t understand why. When I finally came back to China, a lot of things just clicked for me, I understood more about some of the traits that I have always had.”
Her arrival in China four years ago to work in fashion PR and continue The Marginalist as a side project, coincided with the country’s social media explosion and rise in KOL culture, accompanied by a boom in Western-influenced streetwear and hip hop culture, a movement that fascinated the innately curious Durocher.
“When I talk to young Chinese people about who they follow or who they like, they might mention Zhou Xun or Fan Bing Bing, but they’ll also say, ‘It’s more like my Aunty or my Mom likes them more,’ when I ask who they really like, they say, ‘Abloh, Kanye, Gigi.’ They don’t really like the Chinese mass personalities, that is changing,” she said.
This cultural shift prompted her to leave her day job to focus on blogging and social media full-time and, free from the shackles of office work, she was able to explore a more edgy, sexy cyborg aesthetic that seems to resonate with young Chinese fans looking for alternatives to pretty and inoffensive girls who have traditionally represented the feminine ideal in China. She has since grown her Weibo following above 200,000 and also has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram. Last year, she launched her own agency, Pom-Pom, which works with brands to produce what Durocher often refers to as “meaningful” content.
“Of course, KOL marketing is part of it. I am actually very good at that, so we do the KOL thing, but I think the future is going to be strong content. I think right now, p.r. is about sales conversions, but that’s not real p.r., that’s short-term masturbation p.r.. It’s not sustainable,” Durocher said.
“Consumers are getting smarter; the market is going to change and meaningful content that can be amplified is the way of the future. A lot of agencies can’t even do this, it’s all cheap stuff, I want nothing to do with this cheap stuff. I want to do meaningful content.”
Chong Chong Chonny
The provincial city of Perth, on Australia’s rugged west coast, seems like an odd place from which one might find fame as a Chinese beauty influencer, but that’s exactly what happened to the vlogger-turned-e-commerce entrepreneur known as Chonny.
In Australia studying nursing and out from under China’s great firewall, Chonny, now 24, discovered YouTube beauty tutorials and was instantly obsessed.
“In China, there were only people doing beauty blogging that was about a really simple, natural style and that wasn’t what I liked. I wanted something special. I loved looking at YouTube videos that were about beauty tips but very few people in China were able to access this content. I like something special and that’s what I wanted to give people [in China],” she said.
“I started making beauty videos with my friends and posting on Weibo, slowly more people started to watch my videos and I gained a lot of fans. Then, after I had all these fans, my husband said, ‘There must be a way we can utilize this.’”
One of the major markers of the professionalization of the influence industry in China has been the rise of influence incubators. Some of these incubators, like Hangzhou’s Ruhan, one of the original incubators, sign KOLs to open stores on major e-commerce platforms such as Taobao. Ruhan supplies investment, professional services in production, customer service, logistics, human resources and more, while the KOLs provide a loyal base of followers to sell to.
Retuning to China and looking to turn her vlogging from hobby to career, Chonny approached Ruhan about collaborating and signed with the incubator three years ago. She has since grown her following to more than three million fans and has a store on Taobao selling merchandise that she recommends through her videos. The store now has 800,000 followers.
“Actually, a one-person wang hong operation is almost impossible these days, there is so much to manage, content, interacting with fans, production, it requires a group,” she said. “Now there is also the management of the shop, customers, logistics, understanding products, so this requires an even bigger team, that’s why I need Ruhan.”
Next on the horizon for Chonny is her own line of products.
“I want to do my own brand, that’s something I think that I can do with my knowledge of products and what people want, not everyone could do this as well as I can do, so this is what I am working towards,” she said.