This article was written by Tamsin Smith and originally published in Jing Daily
The exploding market for “Little Fresh Meat” (an internet term for attractive, young male pop stars) in China has given rise to a gaggle of charming, male pseudo-celebrities, many of whom make a tidy living through their social media presence.
With the continued surge of male beauty product sales in Asia, luxury brands are lining up to collaborate with these icons. The problem? These brands are finding it harder than ever to differentiate between sham Chinese “influencers” and those who are legitimately worth their weight in likes.
This challenge has turned into an opportunity for digital marketing agencies which now use self-styled KOL (key opinion leader) calculators to predict celebrity influence across social media platforms.
Amid the confusion, the biggest global labels – including Burberry, Dior, Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent – always seem to select certain names as their brand ambassadors. For these brands, choosing the right icon is essential in China’s celebrity-driven luxury market, and smaller luxury labels are smart to follow their lead.
Despite Instagram being blocked on the Chinese mainland, these globally dominant celebrities enjoy a huge following in the west on the popular social network. Jing Daily lists the six top Chinese male influencers:
1. Lu Han – 10.9 million Instagram followers
A post shared by 鹿 Han (@7_luhan_m) on Apr 30, 2018 at 2:42pm PDT
Chinese singer and actor Lu Han’s Instagram represents everything a brand could want in an ambassador to today’s Chinese youth: pleasing aesthetics, selfie-centric posts, and witty captions and trendy emojis galore.
Often referred to as “the Chinese Justin Bieber”, Lu began his career as a member of the nine-man South Korean-Chinese pop group EXO. In 2017, the Beijing-born 28-year-old was listed as the second-highest-paid celebrity on the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list.
Lu’s popularity and clean-cut image make him the choice representative for high-powered luxury brands Louis Vuitton, Cartier, L’Occitane en Provence and Lancôme.
2. Jackson Wang – 10.3 million followers
Hong Kong-born rapper and singer Jackson Wang is a member of the popular K-pop boy band Got7, but he recently found massive solo popularity, thanks to his song Fendiman.
Wang released his song about the luxury fashion brand and the accompanying music video (filmed on the roof of Fendi’s headquarters in Italy) was in tandem with Fendi’s capsule collection launch celebrating its double-F logo. The day after its release, the song climbed to the top of two separate US iTunes charts.
Wang, 24, is widely seen as a hot new commodity for luxury brands. In 2017, he won the Tencent “Video Star Award Breakthrough Singer of the Year”, and “Fashion Music Man of the Year” at the Esquire Man At His Best Awards. Wang is the only solo Chinese artist nominated for a 2018 Teen Choice Award.
3. Lay – 8.7 million followers
Zhang Yixing, known by the stage name “Lay”, began his career alongside Lu as a member of EXO. In 2016, the Chinese performer released his first solo EP, which soared to number four on Billboard’s US World Albums chart, making him the first Chinese artist to enter the iTunes Top 60.
Lay is known for his philanthropic work. The artist has made public donations to charitable organisations and created an art scholarship at his alma mater in Hunan. He has also worked as an ambassador for welfare development projects in China.
This charitable attitude is respected by China’s younger generations and has led to interest from French jewellery house Chaumet and the French skincare company Biotherm.
4. Z. Tao – 8.6 million followers
Huang Zitao, better known as “Z. Tao”, is another former member of EXO. Following his departure from the group, Z. Tao returned to China and vowed to make his mark on the Chinese pop scene, making a heralded solo debut in 2015.
The self-proclaimed “C-pop King” is famous for using his Instagram to show off his many extravagant purchases, such as timepieces by Rolex and Audemars Piguet.
In June 2017, Huang collaborated with Loewe on its “Fire of Youth” campaign, becoming the first Asian artist invited to collaborate with the Spanish luxury fashion house. Later that year, Huang chose to be the Yves Saint Laurent’s beauty ambassador, a theme that has become common on his trendy Instagram profile.
5. Kris Wu – 6.1 million followers
A post shared by Galaxy Fanfan (@kriswu) on Apr 23, 2018 at 4:20pm PDT
Wu Yifan, or Kris Wu, is a household name among many young Chinese. He also originated from EXO and has now established himself as a successful celebrity influencer.
A regular on the global fashion scene, Wu has worked as a brand ambassador for the British fashion house Burberry, which, in 2016, invited the pop star to join the catwalk at many runway shows. Wu has since been seen in the front row at other name-brand runway shows, including those of Givenchy.
On May 30, Wu posted an Instagram with the caption “Proud to be the first Chinese to hit #73 in the Billboard Hot 100”. Wu posts exclusively in English on his Instagram, which attracts a large international following. Other recent posts include brand partnerships with Burberry, Bulgari and Beats by Dre.
6. Mr. Bags – 32,800 followers
A post shared by @ mrbagss on Jun 26, 2018 at 12:08am PDT
Although Tao Liang (better known by his online persona “Mr. Bags”) has significantly fewer Instagram followers than the rest of this list, his loyal Weibo fans more than make up for it. Liang is China’s third-most influential fashion blogger, according to the BNP Paribas 2017 rankings, thanks to his 3 million followers on Weibo – a rabid group he calls his “Bagfans”.
His recent collaborations with labels Chloë, Givenchy, Dior, Fendi, and Longchamp have boasted record-breaking sales for all. In June 2018, Mr. Bags’ design partnership with Longchamp made 5 million yuan (US$772,200) in just two hours.
On June 26, Mr. Bags launched his WeChat mini-programme Baoshop, selling a jointly-designed backpack from Tod’s. This marked the first time a luxury brand has globally premiered a product through a programme created by and for a fashion blogger. The 300 pieces in the store, sold out in minutes, at 10,800 yuan (US$1,617) apiece.
With sharp, bright images of luxury, Mr. Bags’ Instagram offers his followers a peek into what life is really like in the ever-competitive Chinese influencer industry. Over the years, Liang has honed his marketing savvy better than anyone, and he is reaping the rewards of this Chinese social media prowess.