For Chinese Retailers, Influence Is a Luxury That Can’t Be Easily Bought

In just a few days on November 11th, China will celebrate Singles Day, the massive retail holiday that last year proved twice as large as Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

As the day approaches, Chinese and international brands will have their eye on a new class of Chinese consumer that wields enormous power over the market but can’t be bought.

“You need to build relationships, real authentic relationships [with these influencers],” says Bonnie Chan Woo, founder of e-commerce site WOMANBOSS Inc. and CEO of Hong Kong-based retail advisory Icicle Group.

“Instead of sending them money, you send them care packages…and you don’t ask them to post. They will generate content that is authentic and that really connects with the consumers.”

These so-called Key Opinion Consumers (KOCs) are leaders of communities on Chinese social media platforms, and they are influential because of the trust and authenticity they inspire in close, tight-knit communities.

“These people are hugely influential…Their objective is to build communities around themselves,” Chan Woo told the audience at Fortune’s Global Tech Forum in Guangzhou, Friday.

In the West, Chan Woo explained, social media platforms have been built to service advertisers but those channels can’t be relied upon in China, where WeChat is really the only dominant social-media operator. Foreign brands need to go to different lengths to develop connections with discerning Chinese consumers.

“The [advertising] system has grown up a little bit differently [in China,]” said Max Kahn, President of market research company Coresight Research. “It’s much more sort of about the experience, and about doing a livestream and being within the normal flow of the social medium.”

As this model has seen such success in China, more U.S. brands have been looking to adopt it, Kahn says, pointing to Guess’ recent livestream on TikTok as evidence. TikTok, however, is a Chinese-born app so this example perhaps points more to the migration, rather than imitation, of Chinese marketing concepts.

But, just as brands often find their global strategies don’t necessarily work when entering China, trends that work well in China are often due to specific characteristics of the market. In China, for example, do-it-all apps like WeChat can collect almost infinite data on their consumers, meaning that advertisers have a much stronger ability to target their ads.

“These are closed-loop ecosystems,” Chan Woo says. “We keep telling [foreign brands]: this is a different market.”

Author: Fortune Editors