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Social media platforms play different roles in China and the West for fashion brands – in China, companies such as Yves Saint Laurent trust in an influencer’s ability to hard sell (pictured). Photo: Shutterstock

Why use of social media to market fashion in China and West is so different – the hard sell from influencers doesn’t work in US or Europe … yet

  • In the West fashion brands use social media to raise awareness of products rather than sell directly, the opposite of what they do in China through influencers
  • Chinese customers respond to product recommendations whereas those in the US and Europe prefer subtlety, says the head of a data firm, but change may be coming

Scroll through an American or European fashion brand’s social media and if anything it will be too busy, bombarding followers with new collections, campaign shots, images of celebrities and quotes from the designers.

Try bringing that approach to China though, and retailers won’t last long.

“In Europe or the US, about 25 to 40 per cent of a brand’s social media profile comes from promoting themselves on their own channels – in China, that figure is close to zero,” says Michael Jais, the CEO of brand performance platform Launchmetrics.

And as Jais goes on to explain, once the voice of the brand is limited in this way, the entire relationship it has with customers changes.

Launchmetrics is a platform that provides fashion brands with data and insights into consumer behaviour.
Of course, every brand manager worth his or her salt knows that a very different approach is needed towards social media in China than in the West.
Many articles have been written, courses have been launched and marketing companies have popped up on both sides of the Pacific to help teach American and European companies how to break into the world of Weibo and Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), China’s answers to Twitter and Instagram respectively.
Michael Jais is the CEO of brand performance platform Launchmetrics.

With up to 80 per cent of the revenue of some fashion brands coming from China, this is a hugely important task and one that can make or break a company. That’s why Launchmetrics argues that hard data is the best way of harnessing the extraordinary power of Chinese social media.

When the entire fortunes of global brands rest on how they reach customers in China scrolling on their phones, real intelligence is needed to analyse the speed and expectations of the market.

“The systems between the two regions are completely different and you need an almost scientific approach to unpack it,” says Jais. “In China, social media is very integrated, which makes it very easy for customers to purchase something from the moment they discover a brand. The key therefore is working with the right influencers or KOLs who will get eyeballs on the product.
Chinese customers are generally far more recommendation-focused than those in the US and Europe. Photo: Shutterstock

“In Europe, it’s a different process – if you have Instagram, you might discover a brand on the site but you rarely click through to buy it there. Instead you’ll probably search on Google. We’ve seen in our own data that the conversion rates from influencers directly to a luxury purchase are very low in Europe.”

Because of this, European and American brands use influencers there to make their image more aspirational or appealing, or simply to publicise their wares and raise awareness. This also plays into the prevailing culture, which has shown that any kind of hard sell tends to put customers off both the product and the influencer in question. Subtlety is key.

No such problem exists in China, and because KOLs will often give a product a hard sell online, Jais suggests brands brief them fully on the goal of the partnership and how much conversion they want to see – taking into account that once an influencer-brand partnership works, it can be hugely profitable.
Tao Liang, also known as Mr Bags, at the Gucci show during Milan Fashion Week in 2019. An influencer, Mr Bags is known for his ability to sell out luxury bags in China in record time. Photo: Getty Images

This is because Chinese customers are generally far more recommendation-focused than those in the US and Europe.

“In China, a trusted KOL recommending the brand will come first and foremost,” says Jais. “Any KOL you work with will be very focused on the way the product and brand is exposed – they’ll be live-streaming their thoughts on particular pieces, recommending how to wear it and putting the piece in context.

“A totally different path is taken in Europe, where a brand will take an influencer to Paris, for example, and they’ll share pictures of themselves in pieces by the brand while chatting about their weekend and giving restaurant recommendations. The goal here is to inspire through nice pictures of Paris and ‘accidentally’ promote the brand.”

Chinese customers are generally far more recommendation-focused than those in the US and Europe. Photo: Shutterstock

The relationship in China is also more transactional – whereas in Europe influencers are paid a set fee or will sometimes promote pieces they are gifted, KOLs often expect a percentage of all product purchases made through their channel. “Hence in Europe it is largely about awareness, while in China the engagement is directly focused on conversion,” says Jais.

While the two models are worlds apart at present, Jais is confident that the Chinese way of operating will come to Europe.

“We help brands enter the Chinese market and measure the impact certain marketing approaches have in China versus the rest of the world. One thing I have realised is how much more effective the system is in China, so it will go to the West – of that I have no doubt.”