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Chinese Beauty Market Essential KOL Learnings

Published August 18, 2021
Published August 18, 2021
Michelle Ding via Unsplash

As a marketplace for beauty retail sales, China is a place of glittering rewards. $50 billion in spending last year makes it irresistible, but if the prizes are great, then so too are the challenges.

Chinese consumers are nothing if not extremely fickle and hard to reach. This is made more difficult by the majority of Western marketers trying to impose communications practices from home on a buying public resolutely uninterested in anything other than what is said to them on exactly their terms. Rarely do the two parties connect properly.

However, there is one point of assurance brand owners from outside China can rely on: a single abiding factor that can be used consistently and reliably to drive messages to the right buyers in the right way and generate sales. In China, influencers, or Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) are ever present and trusted by consumers for buying advice on a scale far larger than anywhere else. So important are KOLs in Chinese society that research of 16- to 18-year-olds reveals that becoming an influencer is the demographic’s number-one career ambition.

To win sales from the all-important millennial and Gen Z demographics, KOLs are essential. On Gen Z’s favorite video platform Bilibili, the average high-level influencer has more than 10 million followers. Influencers present enormous commercial opportunity, but it is necessary to understand the KOL landscape, the different types of KOLs, and what they do. Only then is it possible to build an influencer campaign strategy.

Each KOL type has the ability to change the fate of brands, but they often operate in very different ways.

  • Celebrity/Super KOLs: The influencing power of these KOLs is extremely high. They have the ability to make or break brands, but they also come with a hefty price tag if you want to use them. Consumers are keenly aware of the commercial relationships they have. They understand they are being “sold” to in social media posts, but they trust KOLs to filter commercial messages to those that are relevant to followers. Nevertheless, if authenticity is important, then another KOL category should be considered.

  • Product Seeders and WeMedia: The two groups operate in a similar way. WeMedia is comprised of groups of individuals that release detailed information, usually on single areas of interest. It is helpful to think of them as like teams of journalists focused on one subject. Content is usually based on long-term decision-making subjects such as finance or property buying. Product Seeders operate in a similar way, and therefore this category of KOLs of little interest to the beauty sector.

  • Niche KOLs and Content Creators: These two groups do apply to the beauty sector. They are micro influencers that have carved out small but devoted follower bases. They carry authenticity, but usually they have not made KOL activity their fulltime job.

  • KOCs: These influencers have been growing fast in terms of numbers, and in their use by brands. They are genuine customers who post positively about brand experiences to usually no more than a few hundred followers. Their importance comes from the authenticity of their unpaid posts, and the ability they provide brands to home in on exactly the right consumer targets. Sales conversion from messages is often very high, and they help build brands’ own follower numbers. KOCs do not require payment. Instead, they have to be nurtured, and respond well to receiving brand insights, limited edition, or exclusive offers.

  • Advocates/Superfans: These two KOL types exist in large numbers in China. They religiously chart the progress of their idols, or other subjects of their obsession. Superfans and advocates are quick to identify even the tiniest brand use or reference associated with their particular interest, and they have no hesitation in broadcasting it. By working with these influencers, it is possible to amplify brand messages to large numbers of receptive consumers that often number 500,000 or more.

Whatever type of KOL is appropriate to a brand, they need to be carefully selected for use. Similar to media buying, it is necessary to make selection based on target audience and price, but also on chemistry. Brands have to be able to work in partnership with KOLs.

The need for Western beauty marketers to understand and use KOLs is basically twofold. Firstly, they are a very effective way of reaching target consumers. Audiences are ready made, can be select based on follower profile, and KOLs have affinity with their audiences that makes buyers listen.

The second reason is that American and European brands usually struggle with other marketing channels. They don’t take strategic guidance and don’t undertake the necessary constant deep learning of customers, but do persist in trying to make marketing practice from home fit China. KOLs necessarily iron out a lot of shortcomings created in other marketing conduits.

Used correctly, Chinese influencers offer the best connections money can buy, and in the case of KOCs, not buy. Get KOL marketing right and you have a major part of the foundations of good marketing strategy.


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