How KOL marketing is killing brands

There is obvious hype around Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in China. Media spending budgets have switched from traditional media to influencer-based media. KOL economy has experienced double digit growth for the past few years. A recent survey concluded that 54% of the new university graduates want to become a KOL.

Why is KOL marketing so effective in China in the first place?

KOL has indeed become one of the most effective ways for a brand to connect with its target audience. The reason is simple: Chinese consumers see friends, family and social media influencers they follow as their trusted source of information.  With the near complete and seamless integration of social media, especially WeChat- into everyday life, these idols have amassed a huge following and understand the importance of connecting with their fans. This has led to users buying products directly from KOLs, and KOLs working with every brand out there it seems. Lu Han 鹿晗 (cover image) and Fan Bing Bing 范冰冰 (as shown below)  are 2 very good examples of KOL who are working with brands which have contradicting values (e.g OFO vs KFC). Most KOLS even have their own online stores with some even having brick and mortar shops.

How is it killing brands in the long term?

We have observed a lot of confusion among brands often mixing the concept of a campaign idea and campaign distribution. A campaign idea should incorporate and reflect your brand belief and what your values are. Distribution on the other hand, is just a question of finding the right platform and medium to share the idea.  KOLs definitely belong to the latter. KOLs can help distribute campaign ideas, but they are not your campaign ideas. In some case, the beliefs between the brand and the KOL can align, creating even more powerful impact. Unfortunately, this is not something we have observed a lot in recent campaigns. The majority of China’s most successful brands such as Huawei and Mobike who are brand leaders in their respective industries have struck the right balance in focusing on strong values, only using KOLs for specific goals, which ultimately has helped them differentiate themselves from their closest competitors.

As a matter of fact, top KOLs are often associated with many different brands which actually stand for different values which creates confusion in the consumer’s mind. Moreover, many KOL-driven marketing campaigns simply do not have a message like the advertisements above to the right compared to the more message-driven, visual advertisements beside them. They only feature a KOL with the product, creating no emotional connection with the user. Certainly, this can still create short-term brand awareness because these KOLs have a very loyal follower base, but this will eventually lead to significant problems for the brands.

My values are my KOL’s values

The first risk is that, by associating yourself too much with a KOL and forgetting your own brand identity, you lose control of your brand. Brands put themselves at the mercy of whatever the KOL says or does, as people associate your brand with the KOL more than anything else. This was the case for Pepsi and Samsung during the Edison Chen scandal; as if they needed a KOL to put them further behind Coke and Apple respectively.

My Marketing Budget is My KOL’s pocket money

Brands also become financially dependent on their KOLs. If your product or service is mostly associated with one person, then all the power rests in their hands.  Don’t let this happen to your brand. Take control, take ownership and make sure your marketing reflects what your brand really stands for. KOLs are just the icing on the cake, not the cake itself!

My KOL is better than yours

Choosing the right KOL is difficult. Many brands are competing in a “My KOL is better than yours” challenge. Unfortunately, in many cases, it’s very hard to differentiate yourself in this type of competition. Certainly some KOLs are “better” than others, have more followers than others – who knows if they’re real though, and apparently have a better “image” than others, but how can you really tell? Are they even worth the investment and how do you know if you will really get the right results. It’s the Wild West out there and who knows if you will strike gold.

In summary, let us make our point very clear. Using KOLs is often a good alternative, but it’s never enough. Never. Before thinking of which KOL to use, you must find your own brand identity and brand message. Coca Cola has had the same message and same value oriented towards community and happiness for over 150 years. This is why they are one of the most valuable brands in the world.

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In the long term, your KOL will die. Don’t let your brand die with them.