The Symbiotic Relationship Between KOLs and China

A lot has been written regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the world economy and fashion and luxury brands’ experts have been very proficient in hypothesizing the post-virus era. 


It is too early to make decisive statements on the ability of the Chinese market to rebound, given the fact that the world's second-largest economy contracted 6.8% according to official data released on Friday 17th of April. Yet, the Hermes store in Guangzhou reportedly sold goods for $2.7 million when it reopened last weekend. Although this figure has not been officially confirmed by the French brand, a plethora of influential and affluent clients made their purchases digitally visible across Weibo, Xiaohongshu and, of course, WeChat.  


The Chinese government has been very proactive to consolidate its broadband network and has strenuously promoted the adoption of smartphones across the country. The latest data suggests that an average of 76.8% of the Chinese population is connected to the internet. The rate of ownership of a smartphone will also be reaching about 0.78 billion by the end of 2020. Current mobile phone subscriptions as of September 2019 have already reached nearly 1.6 billion. With all the major global social media platform blocked and with the government's penchant for citizens control it was only natural that China developed its net ecosystem. 


With its peculiarity – integrated efficiency. Xiaohongshu, also known as Little Red Book, has grown to become China's first lifestyle shopping platform since its launch in 2014. Mostly dedicated to a female audience and in sharp contrast with other e-commerce platforms, Little Red Book focuses on a unique blend of the trusted user-generated content word of mouth advertising and online community-building.  


The Little Red Book is the reflection of a highly integrated online ecosystem that takes 875 million netizens through a series of experiences that support each other – from search video streaming to e-commerce and payment platforms without forgetting social media that have a unique take in portraying and pushing products. KOL – or Key Opinion Leaders – as influencers are known in China, are crucial for the commercial success of fashion and luxury brands. 


I had the chance to sit down at a very socially acceptable distance with Landon Du who lives in Shanghai and who is a PR expert with a career that spans from Ogilvy the international communication agency to Shanghai Fashion Week. I am determined to understand why KOLs are so influential. Our conversation focusses straight away on a crucial principle. Perhaps Europe has slightly higher numbers in terms of mobile users and high-speed penetration but China is fundamentally a younger country – younger than the house of Dior- with a government that grants the role of modernizer to its Gen Z.  


A generation that is naturally apt to technology and that has worked as a fundamental factor to push into modernity even older age. Landon tells me that today, in tertiary cities across the country, senior citizens have abandoned the tradition of watching the news on their TV set and are instead using their smartphones. 


Life in China is swiftly moving online. Everyone is a content-creator everyone has become a believable editor of his or her own life. Yet KOLs yield a specific power on a massive audience ready to spend a pretty penny using their mobile. 


Therefore, this societal background is necessary to understand the role of KOLs. Landon goes on telling me that this excess of realness has singled out a few KOL in the fashion and luxury industry for their ability to retain a sense of an outlandish dreamlike lifestyle that repackages products in a very aspirational yet reachable context. 


Naturally, my next question verges on the fact that the contrast between real and dream has been at the base of printed media and fashion for over a century. Have KOLs replaced editors? Which would be plausible given the current situation of the publishing industry. Yet in Europe and the US, we feel that the power of influencers has dramatically diminished. 


Landon refocuses my attention on one word – integration. In a highly consolidated system, KOL is part of a very well-oiled machine with and cover a very definite role. Very knowledgeable not many in numbers and very well trusted KOLs are integrated into the marketing communication plans of brands without overlapping the purposes of fashion editors who are generally understood to be behind the scenes or the one of celebrities who are considered to have an intense but short-lived impact.  


KOLs work on beautifying what the general public contextualize in their daily routine with their expertise and targeted audience people believe them because their role is more multifaceted more approachable yet authoritative commanding a continuous engagement that flows with the brand's message and more importantly with the brand's strategy. 


The critical take-away on KOL and China is not necessarily their daily functions, which are relatively similar to our influencers, but their integrated role in a very well implemented and supported multi-channel strategy.

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