The New Allure of Overseas Chinese Influencers | China Decoded, BoF Professional

This season’s fashion weeks may be a turning point for brands’ China-focused marketing strategists, leaving them with a larger, diverse and perhaps more complex network of influencers around the globe.

With ongoing travel restrictions keeping the mainland’s key opinion leaders (KOLs) stuck at home, many brands are filling the marketing void with KOLs living outside China. Not only can overseas KOLs be an attractive alternative for brands readjusting strategies in response to Covid-19′s knock-on effects in the short-term, but they also allow them to diversify their marketing budgets in the wake of Beijing’s recent crackdown on certain celebrity ambassadors and other ostentation in the entertainment industry.

And what the overseas influencers may lack in terms of the high profiles of top China-based KOLs, they want to make up for it in other ways, including a loyal fan base. It’s no surprise then that overseas KOLs are already part and parcel of many brand strategies.

As Elisa Harca, co-founder and Asia chief executive of Shanghai-based digital marketing agency Red Ant, explained, “We have always had overseas KOLs as part of our [general] strategies,” adding, “There are still more heavy hitters [in China so] the lion’s share of our resources will go to mainland KOLs, but we always try to ‘pepper in’ some of the internationally based ones with the right brand image.”

More Diverse, More Global

For the most part, Harca said the Chinese netizens who gravitate toward overseas KOLs are living, or have lived, outside their home country and have both relatively high spending power and a desire and openness to explore foreign brands. But there are also aspirational Chinese followers of overseas KOLs, those who have never studied or worked abroad and want to explore the world vicariously.

Put another way, “influencers living outside of China are able to ‘be the eyes’ of Chinese consumers by exploring local shops and providing unique, personal insights for their audiences back home,” said Kim Leitzes, managing director for APAC at technology and data analytics provider Launchmetrics.

However, the key for brands is to get the best of both worlds, said Leitzes, noting that the “real potential” of overseas KOLs lies in identifying those with followers both in China and overseas, allowing brands to generate a more global return on investment.

While overseas KOLs help brands scale product awareness rapidly, they can provide other benefits that are arguably now even more important in a post-pandemic market, such as greater geographic diversity for campaigns. What’s more, communication, payments and contractual arrangements tend to be easier to navigate outside the mainland due to China’s “walled gardens” — the barriers, like third party links, that businesses use to keep users on their platforms, said Leitzes.

The Bigger Business Case

Many of the key lessons and rigour that brands have learned while working with China-based KOLs apply to those overseas.

“Once you understand what you’re looking to achieve, it’s much easier to identify the key voices that will generate impact and work with them on the channel that is most adapted to your target audience, whether it be in the mainland or abroad,” said Leitzes.

But overseas KOLs, who are often bilingual posting in Mandarin and English, are increasingly adept at mixing Western social media channels alongside key Chinese platforms such as Xiaohongshu and Weibo.

Some overseas KOLs are using video-centric platforms like TikTok and Douyin, or Youtube and Bilibili to attract Gen-Z shoppers. For @Alfie’sAngel, a Chinese woman with a British boyfriend, this has meant posting fashion, beauty and lifestyle content on Xiaohongshu, Weibo, Bilibili and Douyin, where she has 4.3 million fans. On Bilibili, the couple post candid videos about their relationship alongside fashion and beauty content.

There are also KOLs like Paris-based Chinese model and KOL Xiayan Guo , whose collaborations include Byredo, Dior and Louis Vuitton, and will be attending Paris Fashion Week shows like Louis Vuitton’s on Oct. 5. She uses her social media channels to introduce Chinese followers to Scandinavian designers Baum und Pferdgarten and Samsoe Samsoe, which can be hard to find in the mainland. Meanwhile, her 80,000-strong Instagram following allows her to provide Chinese businesses, like Sleep Over Sleep, exposure to Western audiences.

Meng Mao is another Paris-based overseas KOL, who is mastering a similar mix of followers. She’ll be sharing her Paris Fashion Week moments — including a Miu Miu cocktail party and Etam runway show — on her Instagram, which is followed by more than 74,000 (a mix of overseas Chinese and others based outside China, as well as followers from the US, her second-largest demographic), in addition to her 1 million Weibo followers, about 90 percent of whom reside in China, she said.

Mao is experimenting with different formats to showcase her experiences, like hosting a styling session on Sept. 22 from the Carven store in Paris, which will be livestreamed on the brand’s Tmall flagship. For Paris Fashion Week, the plan is to film a vlog — Mao has been finding that video formats are proving popular with her audience.

While China-based KOLs will likely continue being the first port of call for brands selling to the key market, it’s looking like overseas creators will have a growing role at in-person events and other major brand moments outside the country. And as Harca noted, brand campaigns have room for both — for example, Red Hat tapped Mao and Toronto-based Emma Zhang (also known as Oh Emma) to create sponsored content alongside more than 60 China-based KOLs in a recent campaign with American brand Mother Denim.

“That’s what I hope to achieve, being a kind of connection between brands and the Chinese audience,” said Mao.



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