The article first appeared on the Business of Fashion.
HANGZHOU, China — In a grey high-rise office building, housed within an unglamorous industrial zone a stone’s throw from a gritty garment district in the city of Hangzhou, is the headquarters of Ruhan, one of China’s most influential companies you’ve never heard of.
Feng Min is Ruhan’s chief executive, a rotund chain-smoker partial to polo shirts, flat-top haircuts and soccer. Ruhan’s success with digital influencers means he has his pick of up-and-coming young women who want to work with him, and what he is looking for, he says, is deceptively simple: “They need to have good content and they need to be appealing to [other] young women.”
The business of influence is a glamorous one — outwardly, at least —which explains, in part, why it’s growing at an astounding rate in China. Recent research from Tencent, one of the country’s biggest tech companies, shows 54 percent of college-aged respondents identify “online celebrity” as their number one career choice. It’s easy to see the appeal: designer freebies, relatively easy money and millions of adoring fans. It’s the same the world over.
But in China, the pretty faces of online influencers — known as “KOLs” (key opinion leaders) or “wanghong” (Chinese for internet celebrity) — are often just the façade of an industry run behind the scenes by companies like Ruhan, one of the country’s most successful “wanghong incubators” or “KOL academies.”
These firms employ a range of services that go far beyond the remit of influencer agencies operating in Europe or the US. Over eight levels in their Hangzhou headquarters, several hundred workers, overwhelmingly aged in their twenties, diligently answer customer service queries, handle logistics, edit photos and create content for Ruhan’s stable of 50 KOLs. One-third of the content creation floor is devoted to the team of just one KOL, Zhang Dayi.
Ruhan, and several companies like it, continue to churn out an army of online influencers — largely young, beautiful girls passionate about fashion, beauty and fame — who make up the increasingly homogenised faces of the wanghong economy, projected to reach 116 billion yuan ($18.3 billion) by the end of this year, having doubled in value in just two years, according to CBNData.
Fresh off the assembly line
When Chinese netizens refer to a “wanghong face,” they usually mean a pointed chin, large eyes and small mouth. The look has become so pervasive that video tutorials teaching girls how to apply makeup or style their hair in “wanghong style” is now shorthand for glistening pink lips, dewy porcelain skin, peach-toned cheeks and tresses falling in gentle waves.
“These wanghong, they have a similar style, like an adorable Chinese doll... They look exactly the same and there are hundreds of thousands of these so-called ‘influencers’ on Taobao, Weibo and live-broadcasting [channels],” says Yu Xiao Ge, formerly editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar China and now one of China’s most influential online personalities, who has taken a different route to success. With 50 million yuan ($7.9 million) sold through her WeChat store, BuyBuyBuy, since its launch in September of last year, Yu (also known by her English name Hugo Yu) wields digital influence by organically building communities of likeminded young women through her WeChat mini programmes iSnob and iDS.
But as Yu notes, many of China’s newer female influencers are cute, inoffensive carbon copies of one another who have been groomed by incubators after earning a core audience on their own. One reason for this homogeneity is undoubtedly the narrow definition of beauty traditionally accepted within Chinese culture, but another is clearly the influence of firms like Ruhan.
Ruhan’s roots are telling. Prior to 2014, it was a clothing manufacturer called Libeilin, making mass-market women’s clothing at factories in Zhejiang Province (of which Hangzhou is the provincial capital) generating 200 million yuan ($31.4 million) per year on Taobao, Alibaba’s C2C market- place site.
Rather than rely on a traditional approach to building its brands, which would have required significantly larger advertising spend every year to attract eyeballs on Taobao’s ever-expanding ecosystem of brands and store- fronts, Ruhan decided to try something completely different. Enter influencer Zhang Dayi, a model who, over a couple of years on Sina Weibo’s micro-blogging platform, had grown an audience of about 250,000 young female fans with her frank, amiable and approachable fashion and life- style-related posts.
Ruhan partnered with Zhang Dayi, investing in the growth of her audience — industry insiders estimate this investment at between five and 10 million yuan ($798,000-$1.6 million) per year at the beginning, though Ruhan declined to confirm the actual figure — and within 18 months, her audience had grown to around four million followers.
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