Olivia Parker
Mar 27, 2019

Foreign vs local KOLs: who wields more power in China?

We explore the work of some successful non-Chinese influencers working in China and ask whether they command more or less influence than their local counterparts—and whether that's changing.

L-R: Brad Pitt in a 2013 ad for Cadillac in China; the Chinese actress and singer Xie Na; Argentinian Brian O'Shea, an influencer in China; Mr.Bags the Chinese fashion blogger
L-R: Brad Pitt in a 2013 ad for Cadillac in China; the Chinese actress and singer Xie Na; Argentinian Brian O'Shea, an influencer in China; Mr.Bags the Chinese fashion blogger

Five years ago, the Argentina-born aspiring actor Brian O’Shea was working and studying in Sydney. He lived next to Chinatown and, crossing the district every day on his way to work, began to get intrigued about the source of the many different cooking smells wafting about the streets. They led him, says the 25-year-old, who is now a key opinion leader (KOL) of some renown in China, into “a completely different world”.

O’Shea, who hosts a video series using the handle 伶牙俐吃 (Taste Buds), fell in love with Chinese food and started making videos about his eating adventures when he eventually moved to China in 2016. Nowadays he gets recognised and stopped in the street by fans who want to meet ‘dumpling man’, one of the characters he plays, but at first, when he spoke little Chinese, progress was slow. “It definitely didn’t work in English and I realised it’s way harder than it looks,” says O’Shea, who lived in Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities before moving to his current home in Beijing. “Then I started making the same content and uploading it to Chinese media, and people started loving it.”

O’Shea now counts over 5 million followers on Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), a million on the microblogging site Weibo, 164,000 on video-sharing app Meipai and 320,000 on BiliBili. He’s nowhere near the upper strata in terms of followers (‘Queen of Weibo’ Xie Na, the actress and singer, counts over 123 million fans) but for a foreigner, his reach is respectable. And O’Shea has worked with both local and Chinese brands including Cartoon Network (Powerpuff Girls), Google Translate (see the Weibo video below), a Chinese pizza shop and even a stomach pill brand. His foreign-ness, he thinks, is a key reason for his success with his Chinese viewers and advertisers.

“I think it’s because in the past, especially when [China] just opened up, a lot of foreigners would come here and because they were not used to the food, to the flavours, they would be like ‘this is disgusting, why do you eat this, why do you eat that, it’s too spicy.’ They would just complain a lot about the food. But having a foreigner doing videos and loving their food and accepting them and recognising they have what is, for me, the best cuisine in the world and the most diverse, I think there’s no doubt on that. They love seeing that, they get validation from my videos that make them proud of who they are.”

Local versus foreign

Assessing the feelings of Chinese people towards their country and to natives from elsewhere can be a highly sensitive subject. It makes questions around non-Chinese KOLs working in China particularly interesting: the Brian O’Sheas of the internet may be successful precisely because they add a foreign flavour, but does this make them more influential than local opinion leaders?

Broadly, no, according to Reza Hasmath, a professor of arts and political science at the University of Alberta in Canada. Professor Hasmath is in the process of publishing a survey examining (alongside other ideas) levels of trust in business among Chinese consumers, and he sees that the market is evolving to become less reliant on foreign influencers in China, for two simple reasons. Firstly, local influencers almost always have the biggest networks, making them more effective at selling products; secondly, local celebrities and influencers are more highly regarded than international ones, especially when you get down to consumers in China’s tier two, three and four cities.

China expert Ashley Galina Dudarenok agrees. “China is a very pragmatic market,” says Dudarenok, the founder of the social media-focused marketing agency Alarice and the marketer training company ChoZan. “So if Western bloggers could give the same results, the same reach, the same opportunities, they would charge the same or even higher.” The sheer numbers of Chinese bloggers — a word she uses to refer to KOLs, celebrities, wanghongs (people who portray a certain lifestyle for fun) and we-media platforms (professional companies producing content specifically for social media) — and their broader reach means they are usually the default, however.

Jason Zhang and Xie Na performing at the 2018 Tmall 11:11 Global Shopping Festival gala in Shanghai [Photo: AFP]

This also means Chinese bloggers will almost always command higher fees from brands, but that's  not to say that being an influencer doesn’t pay out for non-Chinese people. Dudarenok mentions one fashion blogger who live-streams on Meipai and makes thousands of dollars simply by wearing different outfits. “He’s a foreigner and he’s got a following of girls aged 14 to 15 years old, he doesn’t speak Chinese very well. People follow him because [they think] ‘wow, he’s so unusual, he’s blonde and he lives here and he's really dressed so differently, etc’. But does he wield that power, is he as influential as [fashion blogger] Mr. Bags? No. He's far from it.”

Many brands misunderstand the potential of Chinese bloggers, Dudarenok says, thinking of them as “just another channel”. “In China bloggers wield a lot more power. They are actually the only bloggers in the world that can sell for you, they are the only bloggers in the world that can make or break your brand. They can also give you feedback, because bloggers in China care about their reputation and if your brand is not aligned with what they are trying to say, they are going to tell you ‘no’. There are some brands that have had scandals in China that no blogger wants to touch.”

Tapping the 'token foreigner' niche

A Chinese brand would likely only use a non-Chinese KOL if their target audience was exactly within that person’s influence group, says Dudarenok. Niche reasons to use foreign bloggers typically occur in sectors like English-learning, particular fashion brands or an industry like wine-making, where it makes more sense to employ an ambassador from somewhere with a strong heritage in that field, says Dudarenok. “There is definitely a space for foreigners but it needs to have more consideration going into that decision than just ‘OK, shall we choose between Chinese and foreigner?’ Of course you’d choose the Chinese ambassador.”

Comedy may be one overlooked reason why there are some very successful non-Chinese bloggers, however. Antoine Bunel, a 39-year-old French chef who moved to China in 2012 after falling in love with a Chinese woman (now his wife and the mother of his two sons) whom he met in London, was ranked as one of China’s top 100 KOLs in 2016 by Topklout and has hundreds of thousands of followers across Douyin, Weibo, live streaming platform YiZhiBo and other sites. He’s been invited to host product launches on JD.com (one that he did for baby care brand Biostime brought in 10 million orders and RMB 2 million (US$298,000) in sales), appears frequently on TV shows, usually to demonstrate his skills cooking Western food, and has worked with brands including Lexus, dairy brand Président and Mercedes-Benz as well as Chinese names like Haier, HiDiLao Hot Pot and the appliances store Gome.

Bunel in an ad for Gome

Bunel has more of a “mission” to achieve through his work than O’Shea. He wants to use his position as an influencer to encourage Chinese people to think differently about issues like healthy eating, the environment and education, with the overarching goal to “contribute to the positive evolution of Chinese society”. His thinks his cooking work is popular with Chinese people partly because the relative novelty of many Western foods means trying them is still a way for locals to “distinguish themselves from the lower classes”.

With his mission in mind, he says he’s happy to play up to the role of “token foreigner” on some of the TV shows he stars in—sometimes it’s only realistic, he admits, because despite having taught himself Chinese there will be the occasional on-set conversation that he doesn’t understand, a common source of humour to the locals. “I am happy they laugh at me, I don’t mind, at the end of the day I am just a normal man,” says Bunel. “What I want to do though is inspire people to think about what's healthy, what’s good for them and the kids in terms of education.”

“China has a bit of a special relationship with foreigners,” he continues. “They look up to foreigners as having more understanding of many things, sometimes too much actually. So they like to have foreigners on the shows to laugh with them, or laugh at them or a bit of both at the same time.”

The yearnings of youth

As with almost everything in marketing, the newest generation of consumers promises to change everything. You can segregate foreign KOLs’ appeal by age, Hasmath says: new audiences want new role models. “The younger generation haven’t the same appeal to foreign influencers as, say, the older generations were.”

Increasingly patriotic sentiments are one theory about what drives this. “Nationalistic sentiment has definitely increased, particularly in richer parts of China,” says Hasmath. “There’s always been this idea that...relying on foreigners is not the way to go in the long run, it’s always home grown, and so the nationalistic sentiment does play a role there.” A preference for local KOLs is just a single strand of this feeling, says Hasmath: it is also seeing consumers turn more frequently towards local brands and employers.

On the flipside, Hasmath continues, aside from people like O’Shea and Bunel there are non-Chinese individuals whose “cult following”, irrespective of where they work in the world, means they will always rise above considerations of nationality: “Think of the Ronaldos of the world or the Messis of the world,” says Hasmath. The footballer Lionel Messi became an ambassador for Huawei in 2016, for instance, and fronted the Chinese dairy brand Mengniu at the 2018 World Cup

“For more mature brands it’s not really necessary for them to have these foreign influencers,” notes Hasmath. “There's often a dual strategy where they have both a local and a foreigners for the same brand, so for the global market they use the foreign and for domestic use the local. There is a twin strategy we're seeing that Chinese brands are doing.”

Whatever the future hold for him as a foreigner in China, O’Shea, for one, has no plans to leave the country. “This is my place,” he says. “I am 100% sure that in a previous life I was a panda.”

Talk China with Campaign at Digital360Festival  

Digital360Festival is Campaign's flagship event in China, where we'll be hosting senior figures from across the industry to share their expertise on all the latest hot topics from the region. It will be held on March 28 in Shanghai. For all information, please visit www.digital360festival.com.

Campaign Asia

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