NEW YORK, United States — No one has weaved Western cultural touchstones with local Chinese fluency better than activewear titans Nike and Adidas. They are proof that China’s consumer appetite for Western brands continues unabated, despite market headwinds and the rise of local players.
Activewear brand leaders have been leveraging the Chinese government’s highly publicised initiatives to spur fitness while capitalising on explosive consumer interest in professional sports, health-related activities like marathons, and new definitions of beauty. Brand ambassadors and influencers — known locally as key opinion leaders or “KOLs” — can certainly make an impact on consumer behaviour.
Chinese actresses like Yuan Shanshan, Zhang Yuqi and Yihan Chen, for example, are well known for posting their fitness regimes on social media, creating buzz around yoga, pilates and high-intensity interval training. But now it is possible to measure the impact that famous faces have on consumers to effectuate purchase intent and drive sales — rather than merely to build brand awareness.
Western influencers, ranging from basketball’s Lebron James to football’s Sergio Ramos, as well as celebrities long associated with activewear such as Kanye West and Olivia Palermo, are established and bankable figures who move the publicity and sales needles in China too. But it is Chinese talent that often proves more valuable, more efficient and more durable.
To test this thesis, our company Bomoda ran a large-scale analysis over a 30-day period (covering mid-October to mid-November 2016), ensuring that we captured the pivotal 11/11 Single’s Day event. Our analysis examined 5,000 Chinese and foreign celebrities, athletes, and bloggers who are tied officially or unofficially to Nike, Adidas or New Balance in the mind of the Chinese consumer.
For each of the three groups of influencers, we reviewed content they or their aligned brands created via social media platforms Weibo and WeChat as well as content generated by the influencers’ fans and the press that mentioned them. We also tallied statistics pertaining to audience size, engagement, engagement quality, and purchase intent empowerment. Next, we investigated their sway on actual purchases on branded products on Taobao and Tmall. By leveraging an algorithm designed to weigh these varying metrics, we then tabulated a composite ranking for each influencer.
Understanding the rationale behind a consumer’s response to an influencer can be as important as knowing who they respond to in the first place.
Western athletes including such notable NBA megastars as Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and James Harden, as well as footballers Paul Pogba, Sergio Ramos and Leo Messi, led the top 10 Weibo and WeChat influencers. But athletes such as Chinese volleyball star Hui Ruoqi and fencer Dong Li also ranked among the top 10. In fact, Hui Ruoqi generated the highest reads per post of any athlete found in the study. In the celebrity category, Chinese nationals dominated. Fan Bing Bing and Yang Mi carried a wide lead over a distant third place Kayne West on WeChat and Janine Chang and Eddie Peng posted similarly impressive results on Weibo. In total, Asian celebrities accounted for 60% of the top celebrities on Weibo and WeChat.
To put the scope of these personalities’ impact into perspective, Taiwanese born actor Eddie Peng, who Adidas engaged in 2012, was mentioned on Weibo 250 times, generating 9,500 engagements and 3,100 authorised and grey-market sales for the brand in 30 days. NBA player James Harden, who Adidas signed to great fanfare, was mentioned on Weibo 699 times, generating 10,357 engagements, but only 331 authorised and grey market sales for Adidas.
Interestingly, Chinese athletes who do the best with Chinese consumers are not necessarily those who dominate the sporting landscape via individual or team victories. Rather, they often have a humanising backstory that captures public interest like when Hui Ruoqi underwent open-heart surgery less than a year prior to captaining Chinese National Volleyball at the 2016 Olympic Games. Fencing star Dong Li, is as famous for his role as an adorable dad on Chinese TV’s “Where Are We Going Dad” as he is for his epee and sabre.
Chinese fans of celebrities associated with activewear brands also tend to be more emotionally connected with a brand because of their affection for the celebrity’s personality. In other words, artistic accomplishments are not the only binding force. Kris Wu, the Chinese rapper and actor who previously fronted Adidas Originals, is loved as much for his controversies and for his public battle with heart ailments as he is for his music and film roles. Similarly, actor and singer Edison Chen, who ranked 14th on WeChat, elicits heat and loyalty among his fan base despite, or perhaps because of, his involvement in public sex scandals and Weibo wars with other celebrities.
In fact, diehard fans for both Wu and Chen use social media to express gratitude to brands that continue to embrace these stars; expressing a desire to purchase even more of the brands’ products as a reward for their loyalty. Chen Chien-Chou, a former Taiwanese basketball star, is today more famous for his role as an investor in a local basketball team than his own prior basketball prowess. Consumers appreciate and are moved by his business acumen, charisma, and filmmaking capabilities.
Still others have become activewear influencers by breaking out of previously accepted stereotypes. Xu Weizhou, the prominent Chinese singer, first gained fame on an internet TV show where he played a gay man. In a country where homosexuality is still less accepted than many Western nations, Xu has a massive impact on shoe sales in China via the ever-present sneakers he is photographed wearing on stage and on the street. Pride in the swimmer Ning Zetao swelled in recent months as he became a crossover star in the West due to his good looks and muscular physique. His popularity among his home audience, particularly women in their 30’s, was in no small part driven by the satisfaction felt by many that he changed Western preconceptions of Asian men.
The growth of China’s influencer market trend shows little sign of waning in 2017, whether the celebrity was born in Los Angeles or raised in Wuhan. In fact, the metrics of our analysis supports a growing interest in this form of marketing. But to maintain a positive and aggressive sales trajectory in China, it is critical for brands to understand greater nuance. Understanding the rationale behind a consumer’s response to an influencer can be as important as knowing who she responds to in the first place.
Brian Buchwald is the co-founder and chief executive officer and Andrew Roth is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Bomoda.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.