By Susan Owens
Prestige European fashion brands embracing the power of KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) are swiftly mastering the art of reaching out to the world’s fastest-growing luxury consumers – Chinese Millennials.
But for many brands, mystique still surrounds the power of the Chinese KOL. While Influencer Marketing in the west is within their comfort zone, the clear barriers of not only language and culture but a fully individual digital eco-system can cause a lack of clear understanding.
The Luxury Conversation’s Paris breakfast briefing (following recent London and New York briefings) to an audience of 50 invitation-only guests set out to demystify this subject with an intimate tête-à-tête at the House of Tai Ping Showroom in Paris.
The talk was hosted by Chloé Reuter (the founder and CEO of Reuter Communications and co-Founder of The Luxury Conversation below, left) who was joined by Vanessa Wu, Account Director at Reuter Communications and a Chinese Millennial herself.
The audience was made up of executives from luxury brands, agencies and media. A key speaker was China’s Zuo An Xiao (known to friends as ‘Xiao’, below, right), one of the country’s top fashion and lifestyle KOLs.
The high-octane power of social media makes Xiao the darling of several international fashion brands and a poster girl for her 3.7 million followers on Weibo. She’s adored for her dazzling smile and independent style, which was sharply in evidence when she arrived wearing a Dior ¾ length black and white jacket with a flounce of white cuffs (“I added those, they cost nothing”), black cut-off trousers with an ostrich feather trim (“I had them made”) and black mules shimmering with rhinestones (“from N21”). Be assured, Xiao is no sandwich board for brands, unlike many KOLs.
A street style star from New York to Paris – as professional as any model, photographer or stylist working in the business of fashion, she treats her life as an influencer as serious business and her insistence on her own aesthetic is key to her massive following.
The cultural nuances of marketing in China still cause issues for the world’s largest companies. This is a country where personal networks drive sales at rapid-fire speed. Those inter-connections are culturally historic, and now they’re at the heart of the most powerful marketing tool imaginable.
“IT girls in the west are China’s KOLs, but so, so much more powerful, a force on steroids”, said Ian Hylton, president of China’s fashion brand Ms. Min. “You have to throw away anything you think about an influencer in the west like Paris Hilton. In China these girls enjoy a religious following. People want a piece of their life.”
Xiao, who grew up in Qingdao and spent time in California, described her ascent as a KOL as almost accidental. “Someone recognized me (from her Weibo posts) in the street in 2012. At that moment I realised I had some power”.
However she firmly differentiates herself from “celebrities”, saying; “It’s about trust, loyalty … my followers expect me to stamp my own style on anything I wear and they want to engage with my philosophy on life”. She engages with them about the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ – including sharing her reaction to negative comments from those who talk about her “showing off wealth”. “I reflect on those negative comments that I see as an injustice and I turn them to the positive. I want to help my followers develop an attitude and grow.”
When Chloé Reuter asked Xiao if her fans though she was wearing a brand because she was in love with it or paid to wear it – all those ‘likes’ turn into hard cash – she said; “My creative collaborations (with around five brands each month) are the result of falling in love with a brand, getting to know it and the people behind it. I want to know they share my values. When I teamed up with Ralph Lauren, a brand I consider conservative, I took one piece and made it my own.
“Fashion is a language to learn to use, it’s a weapon, I encourage people to build their new self, it’s good energy.”
Her social media feeds (she runs three, including WeChat and Instagram, which she says illustrates her life is “international”) reflect a work-life balance. “Around 50% of my posts are work-related and the other 50% are about enjoying the moment and have nothing to do with fashion.”
Xiao is a girl with the world at her feet, but her lifestyle choices shine a light on her values as a Millennial. Staying in an Airbnb, rather than one of Paris’s famed luxury hotels, she said; “I want a cool experience. We all know the Four Seasons, the great hotels around the world but I‘m looking for a unique experience to share. This is what Airbnb can do. I can find something no one else has done. Fashion is no different, as Millennials are not happy with brands like Chanel, they see their mothers wearing it.”
To many there’s mystery about the Chinese passion for what Europeans see as bling. But Xiao emphasises Chinese Millennials don’t approach fashion like their sisters in the west. There are no rules – no ‘cocktail dressing’ or ‘special occasion codes’. “Chinese girls act on what’s appealing”, said Ian Hylton. “Rhinestones at breakfast, Adidas for a cocktail party. Chinese break the rules at every turn and they want to look their status”.
What does the future hold for Xiao, since many believe there’s a ‘sell by date’ for any KOL. “The right girl, with even 50,000 followers, has potential,” she says, describing a new movement of mini influencer marketing agencies. “I want to identify them, sign them, guide them and manage them,” she said. “There is travel, health, food and more. I want to discover the girls who are future stars.
“Today, fewer and fewer people really know how to manage themselves from the inside out, or have control over being captured in the most beautiful and moving moment.
“Girls swarm to participate in the fashion week scenes. But even if you put on the latest outfit, if you do not have the essence of style, you cannot be convincing”.
“My guiding principle is to adhere to my own style, never copy others and respect the rules of all designers. I encourage people not to be too cautious, but to be relaxed in a beautiful world. I want to give people an attitude, a feeling of comfort and confidence. Every day at the end of my work, I will think about what I did today, and ask myself, how I can do better next time.”
Contact us for further information on The Luxury Conversation’s upcoming briefings.
In Shanghai, we will be hosting talks related to the UK Department of International Trade’s Retail Mission in March.
In Dubai, The Luxury Conversation will take part in the Arab Travel Market in April