When Brand Influencers (KOLs) Go Bad — and How to Find the Right One

Written by Andrew Kuiler, CEO @ The Silk Initiative

China KOLs

PHOTO: McDonalds Weibo

Your product is ready, you’ve done the market research, you’re ready to launch – there’s just the small question of who is going to endorse your brand. Except — it’s not a small question. China’s brand landscape is littered with brand influencers (KOLs) gone bad, gone wrong, and gone greedy, and you don’t want one of them, do you?

The most obvious example of recent years was Edison Chen and his, ahem, colorful photo scandal. You can be sure that Pepsi and Samsung, among others, were not pleased with that ROI. Most recently, we’ve seen brand influencers who are omnivorous in their appetite, diluting their influence while they chase money. Take Kris Wu, for example, an actor and host of a massively viral hip-hop TV show. In the last year, he has been the face of everything from Burberry to Dell Computers to McDonalds, and many others — a clear money grab, and nothing that’s going to help your brand. And then there is always the notorious Angelababy, who seems to be walking down the brand ladder, going from Dior to a recent contract with UGGs.

China KOL


Fortunately, the landscape is more robust than just picking a celebrity and hoping they don’t turn greedy or ill-behaved. Our research shows brand influencers at four different levels, from the celebrity, where you may get a high pay-off but will definitely pay a high price, to the grassroots influencer, who may not have a legion of followers but is passionate about your brand. In between, the field is rich with people who have built followings for being passionate about what they do and their expertise, whether that is F&B or not. Interestingly, there seems to be some value in crossover between F&B and brand influencers from other fields.

It should come as no surprise that the foundation of success is credibility, and interviews with brand influencers have shown that when they are given the leeway to shape their own message (within limits), as opposed to being forced to use PR material, they are able to naturally grow and leverage their base. Hiring multiple brand influencers and leveraging the “halo effect”, where brand influencers believe in the other brand influencers used in the marketing campaign, creating a virtuous cycle, is another way to maximize the returns.

China KOL Steve Liu Weibo Dove

PHOTO: Steven Liu Weibo

It’s not a simple process anymore – find the biggest celebrity you can afford and hope they’ll accept your offer. Instead, the brand influencer industry in China has quickly developed into a complex and highly fragmented landscape. Take Dove for example, which has employed former chef Steven Liu, a judge of several cooking shows, to introduce the brand’s new ginger flavor. Liu, with fewer than 70k followers, might not have been the most obvious choice, if looking solely at firepower, but when considering his background and his credibility with those followers, his was a savvy selection on Dove’s part.

This is something we at The Silk Initiative are on top of with our clients everyday. Our LAUNCH PAD™ solution at TSI helps clients understand how and why a brand influencer-based strategy needs to work. LAUNCH PAD™ also identifies the most suitable marketing activation agency partners (Digital, PR, Ad) for your brand message needs in China. Let TSI help you get this right!