Americans who have heard of influencer marketing usually associate the term with Kim Kardashian West. For better or worse, her name is synonymous with the paying of Instagram celebrities to post content about products.
Kardashian West recently strode into the Chinese influencer market by joining a local social media platform called Xiaohongshu, or Little Red Book. The app is used by more than 100 million Chinese beauty fans to discover international cosmetic brands and purchase their products. Analysts suspect she joined because she plans to sell her KKW Beauty line direct to Chinese consumers using the app's native e-commerce functionality.
Kardashian West may have been an early mover in the influencer space in the U.S., but we highly doubt her success there will translate to sales in China. Here's why:
1. Influencer marketing in China is well-developed already
China has an entire industry that scouts, trains and develops social media influencers. The top influencer incubator, Ruhan, manages the incredibly popular fashion blogger Zhang Dayi. To put into perspective just how successful she has become since signing with Ruhan, Zhang reportedly pulled in $46 million in 2016, slightly surpassing Kardashian West's annual earnings ($45.5 million) that year.
Influencer marketing is big business in China. There's stiff competition from deeply entrenched local players. These players know the market far better than outsiders.
2. Influencers provide a unique value proposition for the Chinese psyche
Chinese society is fundamentally a high-context culture, where personal relationships and reciprocity build trust. It's this high-context culture that underpins China's thriving influencer economy. It's impossible to "hack" the trust of Chinese customers because, here, more than anywhere else, relationship-building takes time.
"In general, Chinese consumers are more 'reassurance driven', relatively speaking, and they trust less," says Tom Doctoroff, chief cultural insights officer at Prophet.
Kardashian's goal will, yes, require significant time and effort. But, that's not all. It will also require localizing her approach to online influence.
3. Foreign brand-influencer success is tied to existing brand recognition
On the surface, the cross-border e-commerce market that Kardashian wants to tap into looks extremely lucrative. The market size for cross-border sales is expected to reach $140 billion by 2021. However, no successful foreign product can take its success for granted in China.
In-market brand recognition is the word of the day in China. U.S. awareness doesn't translate to awareness in China. It's no surprise, then, that when foreign brands want to build awareness there, they seek local influencers to collaborate with, not foreign ones. Chinese local influencers spend years building communities of fans through product tutorials and personally engaging with their fans.
"Keeping Up with the Kardashians" was not released in China until earlier this year, on the video streaming platform Youku. Very few Chinese people are familiar with Kardashian West, not to mention her KKW Beauty line.
One of the best indicators of organic awareness and market demand for brands that are not available in China comes from "daigou" sellers, who shop for goods overseas and sell them in China. Currently, there are 35 daigou shops on Alibaba's Taobao marketplace selling KKW Beauty products, and these shops only sold 221 KKW Beauty products in September, according to data from the Taobao marketplace. This data suggests that awareness and demand for Kardashian West's brand is quite low.
4. If you're coming late to the party, bring friends
If Kardashian West releases KKW Beauty products on Xiaohongshu in the coming months, she should know that the vast majority of Chinese beauty consumers are not eagerly counting down the days until they can purchase an unknown brand produced by an American celebrity.
Instead of using her own name, a better strategy for Kardashian West's China market entry would be to take a page from her own book: use influencer marketing and align with established local influencers. She could use her fame to build relationships with some of the biggest names in the Chinese beauty industry, then collaborate with them on content and product promotional campaigns. Kardashian West's personal brand in China would naturally build through association over time. Without the right local partners, it will be nearly impossible for her to cultivate the community of loyal fans necessary to succeed in China.
Or, she can sign up for Mandarin lessons.
Elijah Whaley is Chief Marketing Officer of PARKLU, China's premier influencer marketing platform, based in Beijing.
Joel Backaler is author of Digital Influence: Unleash the Power of Influencer Marketing to Accelerate Your Global Business (Palgrave Macmillan), based in Los Angeles.