The influence of influencers in fashion in Asia

Willabelle Ong

No matter your stance on the matter, it’s hard to deny the colossal impact that social media influencers have made over the years in today’s digital era. But how do brands leverage influencer marketing as a tool to reach customers in Asia?

Strictly speaking, the term “social media influencer” is defined as a user who derives much of their influence through social media platforms - notably on spaces like Instagram and TikTok. This celebrity-like status can come from interests in travel, fashion, pets, food and beverage, and much more. “Content creation” has opened doors for plenty of opportunities, with influencers learning the ins and outs of how to attract and maintain a loyal cult following, which can be considered a skill in itself. Unsurprisingly, brands have leveraged this as a tool to push their products, and these days, influencer marketing has become a key strategy for promotions.

Asia is certainly no exception. In fact, Asian influencers are among the biggest personalities out there. Bryanboy, who started his blog at his parents’ home in Manila, is among the first-generation of Asian influencers. The same goes for British-Chinese Susie Lau; Hong Kong-born fashionista Tina Leung; and Korean-American Aimee Song. All of these fashion-driven influencers have built legions of followers who watch their each and every move, with fans often looking up to them. Years later, as social media has developed faster than we can keep up with, hundreds of thousands of newbies have entered the scene.

Today, almost all of the biggest influencers work with luxury brands, big and small, to promote custom content that can reach millions of presumably authentic fans.

The changing landscape of luxury marketing

In the world of luxury brands, social media marketing has become a crucial tool for building brand exposure and engaging with customers. However, these exclusive brands take a more selective approach to social media marketing, prioritising the maintenance of their exclusivity and brand image.

A recent study conducted by Emerald has shown that customers' perceptions of luxury brand pages on social media have a direct and positive impact on their emotional and behavioral responses. From brand page satisfaction to attitudinal loyalty intentions, the study highlights the importance of social media channels in cultivating strong relationships with customers. Interestingly, regional differences also come into play when it comes to luxury brands and their social media platform preferences.

The luxury industry in Asia has seen a shift in marketing techniques from traditional methods to social media influencers. With cultural and language barriers, luxury brands in Asia have had to adapt to engage local consumers effectively. Social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo are favored in Asia, while Instagram is preferred in Europe. Luxury brands in the US tend to use Facebook. The rise of influencers as a new marketing tool has been successful in connecting luxury brands with their target audience in Asia.

According to Statista, leading luxury fashion brands spent US$1.4 billion in influencer marketing in Europe alone during the third quarter of 2021.

Professor Gerard Prendergast, an associate dean of global engagement at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Business notes that an estimated 70% of companies now reserve a budget for influencer marketing, indicating their revolutionary impact. “The role of influencer marketing will continue to grow and displace more traditional forms of marketing communication such as mass media advertising,” he says.

Not all regions see equal success though. According to Spectra Partnership, studies show that not all consumers in Asia rely on the content provided by key opinion leaders (KOLs) and influencers when making a significant purchase. In fact, the impact of KOLs varies by market and age group.

In China, the majority of consumers (53%) have made a purchase based on the recommendation of influencers, while in Hong Kong and Japan, this number falls to 34% and 20%, respectively. Among millennials, trust in influencers is highest, with 40% finding their opinions on social media to be reliable. However, countries like South Korea and Japan remain resistant to influencer marketing, preferring to rely on the guidance of experts and professionals over the claims of social media personalities, states the report.

According to Amrita Banta, managing director of Agility Research & Strategy, Asia has been at the forefront of building an ecosystem of influencers close to relevant demographics. [Asia] currently rivals the US and Europe in terms of a sophisticated selection of influencers across luxury sectors,” she adds.

Influencer experiences

Renowned luggage brand TUMI has been working with influencers like Indonesian actor Refal Hady, who has two million followers on Instagram. In the Middle East, it has worked with dentist Dr. Hasan Ghoneim, who has over one million followers, for over five years.
“We love that he [Ghoneim] is a high performing professional as well as an aesthete – qualities that are perfectly aligned with TUMI,” explains Adam Hershman, vice president of TUMI Asia Pacific and Middle East. For the high-end brand, it’s all about working with people who have a mutual understanding and appreciation for its products and lifestyle ethos to build trust. “Authentic influencer collaborations are an important component for building desire and showcasing product performance,” adds Hershman, “An endorsement from a third party that is respected in a certain industry or field is a strong reinforcement that can both generate awareness and interest but also trigger a purchase.”

Singapore-based Willabelle Ong has accumulated over 900,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok combined. She’s worked with brands from Dior and Louis Vuitton to Valentino and Chanel Beauty, and received extensive media coverage as one of the to-watch fashion influencers of the decade. “In terms of luxury brands, I typically work with ones that I naturally already enjoy or incorporate into my lifestyle over the years,” she explains, “That way, the content feels authentic and organic.” Whilst different platforms have their own insight metrics, like reach, impressions and saves, Ong says that she feels the most successful campaigns are those that catch the audience’s attention and curiosity. “Naturally, people would then comment on the visuals/ product, and ask questions about it”. This engaging feedback is one of they drivers for luxury brands working with influencers.

Tsutsumi Hoang, a Vietnamese digital content creator and illustrator based in Norway, has a similar ethos, choosing to work with brands which align with her values. “I prioritize relationships with brands that I can continue to work with and support over time, and therefore it is important that we share the same values and that I truly love the brand’s DNA,” she says. She discusses a recent collaboration with Dior as a “dream come true”. What sets Hoang apart is her illustration background. “I think my success in the industry is due to my creativity, my passion for my craft, and my commitment to authenticity and building meaningful relationships with my audience and brands,” she says.

Elle Lee, a Chinese influencer currently in Shanghai, travels the world and she gets plenty of gigs along the way. A quick peep at her Instagram page shows her work with luxury fashion houses from Dior to Farfetch. Lee started earlier than some back in 2011, working as a digital strategist. Brands had just started working with influencers or back then, who were mostly bloggers. She started contributing to a website and ended up being an influencer herself, she explains. “I think brands need to use all channels and all platforms and all media in the modern days,” she says, “Consumers are not just gonna follow celebrities and big name influencers nowadays as many are just paid to promote.” With a wave of new and young influencers entering the industry with an even larger following, Lee says that her priorities have shifted as she grows older and she wants to stay true to her fans who have been following her for over 20 years. “I have other work so I am not afraid to turn away jobs which I don’t see fitting for my style or just simply not up to my quality check.”

In terms of challenges she’s faced, Lee says that sometimes luxury brands have very strict rules on the style of images or words being used. “We get a lot of guidelines and have to go through a lot of scrutiny which would sacrifice some creativity,” she notes, “However, they could be resolved by setting baselines for each other before continuing the collaboration.”

For Ellie Furuya in Hong Kong, she started her Instagram page purely as a “creative outlet for my love of food and photography”. After accumulating a following base over time, she started receiving direct messages from brands who wanted her to promote their products in exchange for social media coverage on her account. “It was important for me to promote products I would use myself, and this was a caveat I had for any brand I agreed to work with,” she explains. “I think luxury brands in particular may have a more difficult time relating to the ‘everyday’ person, and influencers can become that link,” she says, when asked about the importance of luxury brands working with influencers as a strategy, “The most effective influencer marketing strategy is when a brand is able to integrate their product with an influencer’s content as organically as possible, which takes good communication between both parties”.

Salina Chai, who’s based in Singapore, says she works with luxury brands with heritage. “ I also pick out pieces and palettes/textures when creating content that align with my personal aesthetics. For example, if I were to shoot a specific collection for a luxury brand that is known for loud colors – I would style them accordingly to pay homage to their roots,” she explains. Chai adds that the pandemic created more avenues for digital content dissemination as more users spent time online, especially in places like TikTok, subsequently impacting how consumers purchase products. Luxury brands have since launched e-shops, TikTok accounts and personalised content to adjust to the times. “Brands have updated the guidelines for creators because they want videos and photos that are more authentic and relatable,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Jakarta-based Olivia Lazuardy picks her projects based on her 11-plus years of experience in the game. “ There's a wide range of styles and items in the fashion realm, so it is too restricting to decide only based on whether I like the items or not,” she explains, “as long as both parties are willing to listen to each other and able to assimilate both values, that would be the prefect criteria.” Lazuardy has maintained a long-term relationship with Louis Vuitton in Indonesia since 2014. “ I think the main reason for the long partnership is because both of us can adapt to each other’s values.”

While some influencers prefer to manage their own accounts and liaise directly with brands, others join experienced platforms like The Asia Collective, which is dubbed as the world’s first travel agent for influencers. “ Hotels were interested to receive instant and mass exposure via high-profile influencers and influencers were keen to have complimentary luxury stays - so it was a win-win situation,” says co-founder Kelly Beckwith. The agency thoroughly reviews any newcomers’ profiles, engagement and relevant to their hotel partner’s target demographic, even requesting screenshots of their top locations by country, age range and post reach. “ Influencers are an important part of the marketing strategy for luxury brands and the right influencer will definitely “influence” those who choose to follow them,” says Beckwith.

Whilst YesStyle isn’t considered a luxury brand, it’s one of the many platforms today which recognises the value of influencer marketing. So much so, that it launched a dedicated influencer programme in 2019. Since its inception, the programme has attracted over 300,000 influencers to sign up. “We sponsor influencers with products and offer them a chance to earn an income when they work with us,” says Erik Hohmann, vice president of marketing at YesStyle. “We work with both up-and-coming and established influencers, but we always evaluate each influencer's performance,” he explains, “We analyse how many people they are able to reach and how engaging their content is. By measuring an influencer's impact, we can determine whether they truly influence their audience or not.”

Challenges of influencer marketing

Dabbling in the world of social media influencers doesn’t come without challenges though, with some regulatory bodies around the world which have not really caught up with influencer marketing. This is a challenge that brands face, as in some countries influencers are required by law to disclose that they are being sponsored by brands. The research suggests that when influencers are forced to disclose that they are being sponsored, their credibility can fall, says Prendergast.

Furthermore, emerging research suggests that virtual influencers can have high credibility, which can positively affect consumer purchase intention. Professor Prendergast notes that virtual influencers have added benefits for brands, as they are "never going to age, get sick, or misbehave in a way that damages the brand image."

But what about luxury brands in Asia? Professor Prendergast highlights the importance of influencer collaborations in this region. He notes that fashion is "conspicuous consumption" and "visibly public," meaning that it comes with social risk and the need for social approval. Influencers with a large following can help reduce this social risk. "Influencers are particularly powerful in situations where consumers are unsure of their own decision," explains Professor Prendergast. "They will use influencers as a heuristic to guide their decision making. If the influencer approves of the fashion, then so too will the followers."

This is especially true in high-context cultures, such as those found in many Asian countries, where social approval is highly valued and losing face is greatly feared. In these cultures, social media influencers hold extraordinary power.


Another challenge is the lack of transparency in some cases, with many influencers building large fake following and engagement rates. “This challenge is exacerbated by brands' lack of understanding of the metrics that make influencers marketing successful,” notes Banta.

Overall, while influencer marketing can present challenges, it also offers unique opportunities for brands to connect with consumers and shape their purchasing decisions. As Professor Prendergast notes, "with careful planning and execution, influencer marketing can be a valuable tool for brands looking to reach new audiences and build brand loyalty."

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Faye Bradley

Contributor

Faye Bradley
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