In collaboration with Tony Wang from the consultancy firm Office of Applied Strategy and Highsnobiety, a report has been released that reveals details about where brands are not reaching Chinese consumers and what they can do in order to appeal to the next generation.

Highsnobiety’s comprehensive report, titled “The New Key Opinion Leader Is Here”, suggests that brands should update their knowledge of influencer marketing China in light of the new type of influencer taking over the authority.

A paper explains that Chinese influencers are 10 times more likely to drive social commerce than those in the US. It is estimated that the US has 242 million dollars.

Tianwai Zhu, WWD’s marketing editor, considers these influencers irreplaceable. They are integral to China’s rapid and significant economic development. The influence-driven economy is not a market for Western marketing techniques. It takes into consideration the entire social structure of the country.

woman holding star-themed string lights

The Cultural Opinion Leaders

Although the report acknowledges the continued importance of Key Opinion leaders (KOLs) in China and their influence, it suggests that brands tend to rely on a small number of KOLs.

Denni Hu, senior editor at Vogue Business China, stated in a quote, “Most brands are too focused on short-term numbers, copying one another, and not really innovating. It’s not easy to find established KOLs with big brands. It becomes more difficult to distinguish if everyone is working with them.”

Highsnobiety offers an alternative. It introduces readers to the Cultural Opinion Leaders, a new variant of the KOL that is driven by Gen Z. They have grown up using other platforms, replacing Weibo or WeChat.

The report reveals that they were raised in China after 1990s. It also suggests that their cultural contexts, values, and motivations are different. They have been able to connect with younger audiences authentically, which has allowed them to quickly rise up the ecosystem.

The research was conducted by four KOLs, four industry professionals, and three brands. Emily Sly was the VP of global marketing for Crocs. Edison Chen, an actor and cofounder of Clot and Leaf Greener, was also involved. Each participant offered their perspective on how brands approach China’s market and highlighted common misconceptions about the market.

“The next generation KOLs in China will create culture …”

Many people assume that China is isolated from the internet. However, those who were interviewed said this was not true. The creative community in China has expanded its horizons through the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), and an increased interest in traveling abroad.

Chen stated that he believed the next generation in China’s KOLs would create culture by combining international and domestic references online, and then translating it into their own creations. It is now coming back to the community and building it.

Another misconception was about social media platform usage. Brands still look to Weibo and TikTok as their central point of contact with Gen Z, despite the growth in Bilibili, and Little Red Book. Influence can be only credited to one KOL per platform, unlike Western social media.

It also notes that traditional KOLs in the strategy’s heart don’t always mean sustainable growth and brand relevance.

Emily Sly said, “We are really beginning to think about ways to deepen our relationships with our KOLs. Involving them in the product development process and getting feedback from them. We believe that integrating influencers and partners into the brand’s design and branding process is part of the solution.”

There are main differences between the traditional KOLs, and the new COLs.

The new COLs focus more on dialogue and engagement than their predecessors. They have less desire to promote aspirational lifestyles and more emphasis on building community around topics.

They are focused on bringing together both local and global cultural circles, rather than imposing significant influence from China. This report identifies a new sense of cultural pride and cites brands that have taken on this challenge, taking into account Chinese culture.

Hazel Meng, a prominent KOL, said that “I have a lot national pride. I love it when brands interact with Chinese culture and audiences in an elegant way. I don’t like when brands force us to do something. I don’t like when brands use a symbol to adorn products, such as the phoenix on a bag. This is what a non-Chinese designer believes we want.”

She said, “For example, Prada has been a true love for me over the past few decades, and they have the rare distinction of supporting the restoration of an historic building in Shanghai called Rong Zhai. They host all their events in the house. It includes a mix of fashion, cinema, and art.”

Meng stated that this quality is closely related to the desire for authenticity. They get upset at me if it doesn’t feel genuine.

The report also outlines possible strategies that brands can use to approach this new generation of culturally-aware consumers. It also highlights the current “influencer fatigue” among consumers.

These COLs, Highsnobiety argues, will be the key to connecting with China’s next generation of consumers. “Brands that harness the cultural credibility and influence of these COLs will have a long-term success in China.”

The report concludes that engagement is more important than reaching, authority over aspiration, community over following.

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