Zhang Dayi live streaming through her Weibo account, modeling (house-designed) coats and sweaters for her fans.
This live streamer, wearing a sweet smile and a rimless round-framed pair of glasses, is Zhang Dayi, a widely-known cyber celebrity in China. A regular scene for Chinese fashion influencers - introducing products through live streams has become the new trend. In this one-hour long live video, Zhang displays 10 coats and sweaters in her first half hour. She acts as a shopping guide, a model, a stylist and even as customer service, presenting clothes her team designs while giving style consultations and answering questions about the design, fabric and price of her clothes. This live video has been viewed 9.73 million times over the last two months.
Who would have thought this amiable girl next-door would’ve raked in a record-breaking nine-digits operating one of the top-selling stores on Alibaba’s online marketplace Taobao?
Born in 1988, Zhang began her climb to fame as a fashion magazine model in 2009. In 2014 she set up her own Taobao shop with her partner, Feng Min, the founder of internet celebrity incubator Ruhan E-commerce. Astutely managed, her Weibo accounts saw a boom in follower growth from 250,000 to more than 4 million in one and a half years. Part of her fame stems from the sales legends that surround her: she is said to have established record sales over two consecutive Singles’ Day online shopping festivals on Taobao. On Singles Day 2016, her Taobao shop made it into the top ten for Taobao’s Women’s Wear category.
Zhang is one of the most prominent cyber celebrities in China. Behind much of her success in retailing is the rising trend of China’s “Internet Celebrity Economy”.
1. China’s Wang Hong Industry
“Back in the latter half of 2014, we noticed the rise of cyber celebrities, and they saw explosive growth in 2016,” said Zeng Ming, Chief Strategy Officer of Alibaba in an article posted on WeChat.
The word “wang hong” has seen a boom in search volume since November 2015 according to Baidu Index, the big data platform of search engine Baidu. In February 2016, Papi Jiang, dubbed the top “wang hong” of 2016, became a household name for her viral short videos. She focused the public’s attention on the internet-based cyber celebrity. Not long after Papi Jiang came the boom in Chinese live streaming platforms that we see today.
The development of this ecosystem in China and the US has seen a shift to where internet celebs are now able to make money out of their fans. In the U.S., among the many kinds of web celebs that have risen to fame on social media, the most successful kinds to have monetized their huge fanbases are the fashion icons. They blog about style or do make-up tutorial videos, becoming Youtube or Instagram personalities earning large sums from brand sponsorship.
In China however, the most profitable types of internet celebrity are the fashionistas based on Weibo and Taobao. They are now becoming a significant force in the online retailing business in China.
Personal charisma: an outstanding appearance, good taste, personality or an enviable lifestyle. With a pretty face and a slim figure, Zhang Dayi is considered attractive in the eyes of many. Having been a model for at least nine years, she has formed her own taste in style and is experienced with modelling and photo-shoots.
Another key to attracting viewers is to demonstrate an enviable lifestyle. Cherie, another top Chinese fashion influencer, said in an interview that, “ your fans have to believe that you are truly living the perfect life as seen through your photos, rather than just posing.” She adds, “you are actually selling a kind of lifestyle through these photos you show them, something which satisfies a fantasy that their lives could be as good as yours when they put these clothes on.”
Style: their expertise and aesthetic taste are key to nurturing loyal fans and converting them into consumers. According to a report by CBN Data released in May 2016, a majority of the consumption around internet celebrity-run Taobao shops stems from females aged between 22 to 28 years old dwelling in first and second-tier cities. This group of people typically shows strong consumption for beauty products.
Meanwhile, the fastest growing market segment derives from those born after 1995. Chinese people in their early twenties are marked by a pursuit of fashion trends and personalization, while at the same time, having not formed a strong sense of style and being more inclined to be impacted by recommendations from internet celebrities. Celebrity recommendations save users the trouble of searching for products in the vast sea of choice afforded by e-commerce platforms. These recommendations are also felt to be exclusive, which grants users a sense of uniqueness allowing them to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Affinity: apart from content updates, another vital routine for the internet’s wang hongs is fan maintenance. Keeping an approachable image through frequent interaction with fans brings them much closer to their fans. Instead of the sense of superiority and distance one might feel interacting with an A-line superstar, the relationship between fashion influencer and fan is more equal, mutual and intimate. Zhang Dayi creates an image of a frank, honest and amiable girl in her fans eyes. Her fans call her “auntie” and nickname themselves “E cups”. Interacting with her fans via comments and replies on Weibo is part of her routine. This also includes regular surveys of fan design preferences via social media posts. Even when she becomes embroiled in fights with people who condemn the quality of her products, her fans come out to fight back and show their support.
Shared values: another reason for the success of a celebrity brand is the existence of a shared set of values among fans. Internet celebrities form a set of values through the social images they post across the web. A fan might admire an individualistic attitude towards consumption and self-investment. For instance, a post by Zhang Dayi reads, “you are not simply spending money shopping, you are building an ideal empire for the person you aspire to be.” Celebrities are commonly portrayed as being attractive, but at the same time, strong and capable of operating a lucrative business at a young age.
China’s wang hong’s are constantly reinforcing this image and conveying values to fans through their exclusive communities created on social media. Fan recognition of these values increases the coherence and group loyalty of the community. In all, the web celeb becomes an incarnation of a set of values, and fans aggregate around a celebrity under the spell of this powerful force of attraction.
The Weibo platform ecosystem facilitates the job of influencers by offering various communication channels including embedded short videos and live streaming functions in-app. The Weibo app is also well-designed for converting viewers to shoppers. It provides a window-shopping function that enables a user to browse products sold by the influencer within Weibo. It also has a seamless connection with the Taobao app (Alibaba has a strategic investment in Weibo) meaning users are able to be directed to Taobao effortlessly through in-app links.
Ruhan E-commerce assumes the role of supply chain manager and e-shop operator. In terms of supply chain management, the company is in charge of fabric purchase, patternmaking and design, and outsourcing manufacturing to partnering factories. In terms of online shop operations, apart from daily routines and after-sales services, Ruhan also innovates by offering pre-sales and speed-sales in order to avoid inventory overstocking, which is a deep-rooted problem for the traditional apparel industry.
For those having just started on their journey, with little experience in styling and social media operation, Ruhan E-commerce provides designers, buyers, and even assistants to assist with shooting photos, selecting samples and making patterns. The company also acts as talent management helping with curating a set style and image for its clients and training them to blog, pose for photos, and interact with fans.
According to our survey, 41.7% of respondents reported a dislike of, or even disgust of internet celebrities, mainly due to the stereotypical impression formed of web celebs. 51.1% reported a neutral feeling towards them mainly due to a lack of knowledge. Only the remaining 7.2% showed a positive attitude.
Zhang Dayi is no doubt the most successful case of a web celeb pivoting from a field to becoming a fashion influencer and a Taobao owner. However, there are tons of other fashion influencers who are finding it harder and harder to acquire fans. Though shedding the negative image has become a top priority for the internet celebrity industry - essential for long-term development - this will likely be a slow and unpleasant process.
Nevertheless, regardless of when exactly the public begins to hold a different attitude toward this group, the undismissable fact is that web celebs have already become a leading force today in the online retailing business in China. And this success is likely to grow and last.