- Tom Influencers have always existed. Movie stars or sporting greats have been used for a long time to endorse products, but increasingly endorsements come from self-made online personalities.
- Businesses and brands can’t expect the same level of control they may have enjoyed in the past. Consumers expect endorsement to be genuine and authentic.
- While the platforms used in the Chinese market are different, the amount of influence these online personalities have is just as significant – if not more so – than in the West.
I make videos, put them on YouTube, and for some reason people watch them.” -Tom Cassell
The influencer economy, in reality, always existed. Companies used to pay movie stars or sporting greats to endorse their product in a traditional television advertisement. Now they pay the likes of Tom Cassell, a leading YouTube personality among Gen Y, whose self-made videos created with have been viewed over 2 billion times.
As Cassell put it at the Tripartite Economic Summit, “I make videos, put them on YouTube, and for some reason people watch them.” A lot of people, as it turns out.
With over 12 million subscribers across his two primary channels, Casssell has a greater viewership than many major television channels but has none of the camera or production crew that they do. His videos are either of himself playing video games, vlogs (video-blogs) that document his daily life, or videos made in partnership with brands.
The reach and depth of connection that stars like Cassell offer is perhaps best illustrated by a story he told of the day he arrived at Auckland airport and ran into a backpacker who was leaving New Zealand after four months of travel. “He was like, ‘I love what you do’ – he pulled down his top and, lo and behold, he had my logo tattooed on his chest,” recalls Cassell.
One key lesson for businesses wanting to partner with these modern-day influencers is that they can’t expect the same control they may have enjoyed in the past. Cassell won’t promise that he will be an image of perfection, and certainly can’t promise he won’t swear in his videos – no matter what the values of the brand may be.
The broader message here is that whereas in the past the audience of an endorsement advertisement was paid for by the company, now the audience is owned by the influencer themselves. As such, partner companies are buying into an entire person; the full package – good and bad.
“If I do happen to swear in a video, I know it’s not the best thing that they want. But it’s natural. The brand doesn’t need to come in and change who I am, because my audience would pick it out straight away.” -Tom Cassell
“If I do happen to swear in a video, I know it’s not the best thing that they want,” admits Cassell. “But it’s natural. The brand doesn’t need to come in and change who I am, because my audience would pick it out straight away.”
While YouTube will be familiar to a Western audience, companies looking to find the same connection with influencers and their audience in the Chinese markets will have to broaden their horizons. “They don’t have access to a lot of the platforms we see overseas,” explains Keiko Bang, CEO of LIC-Bang Media. “They have been, however, very innovative in their own way, and we are seeing influencers bringing great power and money to the table.”
One example of the scale of this power, and the accompanying sums of money, was an auction for an advertisement in a video of Papi Jiang – “China’s national sweetheart” – which opened at US$33,000. Within moments, the bidding shot up to $1.5m, and finally settled at $3.5m.
While the platform in the Chinese market is different, acceptance of these influencers in their entirety – extreme language or not – seems to be just as important as in the West.
“The vloggers can get a little controversial, but that’s not because they are politically motivated – they might just curse, or have a slightly overt opinion about something.” -Keiko Bang
“The vloggers can get a little controversial, but that’s not because they are politically motivated – they might just curse, or have a slightly overt opinion about something,” says Bang. “They’re really expressing the voice of the new millennials in China.”
Han Han, a Chinese rally driver with around 40 million social media followers – who also “can be controversial” – was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.
“In China, the agencies have really concluded that the middle class is driven by the tastes of women,” says Bang. An example of someone that can provide a gateway to this market is Yao Chen. An actress, she was included on the Time 100 list in 2014, and is the most-followed celebrity on Weibo, the country’s hybrid version of Twitter and Facebook, with 80 million followers.