1 Introduction

European fashion companies – especially luxury ones – have been struggling to enter the Chinese market because of this market’s financial dimensions. To do so, they need to localize their practices and messages, so to address such a different market in an adequate way. When it comes to digital media, different channels, players, and practices are to be considered: also, when it comes to the choice of Chinese social media influencers, European brands need to find the right characters, able to embody them in front of Chinese consumers.

According to the White Paper on Chinese Digital Economy Development released by the China Academy of Information and Communication Technology in 2021, Chinese digital economy reached about 5.8 trillion USD in 2020, ranking the second in the world and demonstrating that the digital economy industry has become an important engine of stable economic growth in China [30].

The digital market in China developed rapidly during Covid. It has become more and more important as one of the main strategies for European fashion companies to attract Chinese customers during Covid and Post-Covid time.

On the other hand, Chinese policy banned some major external social media channels; therefore, only local digital channels are widely used in China. One of the iconic digital media is live streaming, which became a familiar digital channel for Chinese customers to interact with livestream influencers and have an entertainment and buying experience at the same time.

The popular social media platers in China are Douyin, Taobao, and WeChat, which are somehow “China locked”: WeChat is essential to everyday life in China, Taobao requires a Chinese bank account to purchase goods, and Douyin is geographically locked to Chinese users with Chinese phone numbers [30]. Social media in China is different from social media in Europe. According to Chinese policies, various external digital channels have been banned in China, so the need for foreign companies to find “local” Chinese influencers working on the local Chinese social media is a key strategy for their digital communication and marketing [30].

Live streaming is rapidly gaining popularity in the Chinese digital market. European fashion companies are increasingly utilizing live streaming platforms and influencers to advertise their products, as this allows them to engage with a large number of customers directly, gaining in higher and more frequent sales. However, this approach carries a number of risks, especially due to the intimate relationship between companies and influencers.

European fashion brands can evoke a deep connection with customers through their storytelling and emotional expression, as well as demonstrate the quality with precise data and authoritative research. It is evident that social media influencers must be engaged in digital communication in China in order to gain greater visibility and recognition in this new market. On the other hand, influencer and celebrity endorsements are becoming increasingly risky as their status can suddenly change within an ever-changing digital communication environment.

The case of Viya, the Chinese social media influencer has demonstrated both how powerful influencers are, as well as how important and risky their selection is. In fact, in December 2021, she has been accused of taxation frauds and her channels have been put offline. Such sudden change from being a “Queen Midas” into becoming a tax evader has been a possible risk for all companies (including European ones) working with her and has demonstrated – more generally – how risky it is the choice of an influencer in China.

This paper is structured as follows: after the literature review, the research aim, and methodology are presented. The case of Viya is then introduced, in order to outline the complexity of the choice of influencers; then the interviews conducted with managers of European luxury companies are presented and discussed, highlighting their views and strategies when it comes to the Chinese market.

2 Literature Review

This paragraph covers digital marketing and e-commerce of luxury in China, as well as influencer marketing and localization.

Digital marketing and influencer marketing depending largely on the role of communication and trade interacting with each other on the internet, this hybrid models have become powerful new players in the fashion market [14]. Many companies reduce their overhead costs by utilizing e-commerce platforms and social media marketing to reach a much wider customer base than they would have been able to reach with traditional marketing strategies. Furthermore, the companies are able to measure the performance with their products and services. The use of digital marketing and influencer marketing for internationalization warrants special consideration [9], especially in fashion industry since fashion is a field of constant metamorphosis [2]. “Digital fashion” is becoming more and more popular and is arousing the curiosity of both scholars and stakeholders [22]. “Digital fashion” pertains to the digital transformation of the fashion sector as a whole, including advertising and sharing tangible and intangible products; the devising and enactment of processes for the progression of the industry and last but not least the effects of digital progress on society [23]. China has presented remarkable enthusiasm for the digitized world, characterized by a growing engagement with the e-commerce in all commercial sectors [24]. Before delving into the Chinese digital marketplace and influencers, it is essential to understand the digital marketing and influencer marketing and localization.

The influence on consumer groups is based on the acceptance of endorsements [4] and the choice of celebrity endorsers is a noteworthy issue. This has sparked interest among academics and stakeholders, starting with the research by Carl I. Hovland and his colleagues in the 1950s [10]. His initial source credibility model was followed by three other models “Source Attractiveness Model” [19], the product matching hypothesis [15], the meaning transfer model [19]. The compatibility of recognized products and multiple celebrity endorsers is a key factor when it comes to the use of their advertisements [11].

The influencers and celebrities are commonly used for purposes such as gaining attention, enhancing brand image and brand positioning [15], careful selection of celebrity/product pairings is important. This study highlights the significance of carefully selecting influencers and endorsers for products to maximize the value of endorsements. Sometimes, the use of influencer and celebrity endorsers may have a positive impact on stock prices [10]. However, the attractive endorsers may be effective (at least compared to unattractive endorsers), proficiency may be a more appropriate criterion for matching products with influencers and endorsers [25].

In China, social media has distinctive features compared to its European counterparts. For instance, WeChat has clear advantages over other social media platforms, in terms of their functionalities which make it suitable for not only the brand managers but also the luxury consumers in China and abroad [17]. The luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton, for instance, has created an efficient promotion system that includes different Chinese social media such as WeChat account, Weibo account to approach the various market needs [5].

On the other hand, the trend of following renowned social media influencers and celebrities is increasing in prevalence, particularly among the youth in China [3]. Therefore, to evaluate the efficacy of the marketing campaign to choose the social media influencers model have been developed to pick the most suitable figures.

Throughout Chinese culture heritage, the concept of “moderation” has been held in high esteem for thousands of years since the time of Confucius (500 B.C.). The way of Middle Way, also known as the Golden Mean philosophy, forms a vital part of Confucianism. This philosophy emphasizes the importance of living a balanced life, avoiding extremes and overindulgence [26]. It also encourages people to seek ways to come to an agreement and consensus with others and has a directly influenced the Chinese subjective evaluation of perception of others [26]. Therefore, due to this cultural context, Chinese consumers are more likely to accept the key opinion leaders or influencers. This culture is also directly related to consumer behavior in modern times, where Chinese consumers tend to listen the advice of key opinion leaders or influential people when choosing their products.

Therefore, key opinion Leaders (KOLs) must be well-versed in a particular field and provide insightful advice as influencer [28]. In order to determine the effectiveness of endorsement strategies, certain models have been developed to select and identify suitable social media influencers. The European fashion companies in China should draw upon past experiences and lessons to fulfill consumer desires, and quickly adapt themselves to the current market and to fit the consumer’s buying habits.

3 Research Gap, Aim and Questions

Considering the above reviewed literature, two main gaps have been identified: the first one focuses on how foreign (European) fashion companies are selecting social media influencers for the Chinese digital market; the second gap relates to the criteria used to select their Chinese influencers.

The research aim is then to examine and identify how are foreign (European) fashion companies selecting social media influencers for the Chinese digital market and which are the criteria used when selecting Chinese influencers for the Chinese digital market.

The following research questions are thus addressed:

RQ1. Do foreign, European, fashion companies need to find a “Local” Chinese influencer working on local Chinese market, especially on Chinese social media? And, if yes, why?

RQ2. As demonstrated by the case of Viya, such selection is very risky: how are companies selecting their influencers for the Chinese market, based on which criteria?

4 Methodology

Based on the research questions, semi-structured interviews have been conducted with decision makers from European fashion companies and a case study has been prepared about Viya.

Through contacting European fashion companies via Linked-in, email, telephone, events, semi-structured interviews have been made with managers from 13 European fashion companies within the different industrial sectors of Watch, Jewelry & Accessories, luxury fashion brands, consulting companies, etc. The interviewees are CEOs (7), Managers or Directors (6). The heterogeneity of the experts in our interviews have taken steps to ensure that data was analyzed in a way that considered the different backgrounds and experiences of each individual. They were all decision makers for the digital marketing sector coming from different types of fashion companies (Table 1).

Table 1. Interviewees

These companies range in size from large international fashion companies to small & medium-sized luxury fashion ones. Their headquarters are all in Europe, seven companies have already entered the Chinese market and six are willing to do so.

All semi-structured interviews were conducted on the topics of Chinese digital market and influencers. Questions did cover three main areas: The questions did cover three main areas as we believe these are the most suitable for providing answers to the research questions and for precisely communicating the relevance of the research.

  • Digital Channels.

  • Chinese social media influencers and live steaming.

  • The future of the digital market and digital communication

Among the actual questions:

  • Which digital channels does your company use to reach your customers, especially during Covid?

  • Do you use different digital channels in Europe and China?

  • Do you use live streaming in China?

  • What are your criteria for choosing Chinese influencers?

  • Why is it important to have Chinese influencers?

  • What are the risks of choosing a Chinese influencer?

  • How significance does it have for your business to engage Chinese social media influencers?

Most of the interviews were conducted in person, some of them online, through Microsoft Teams. Names have been anonymized at the request of the interviewees and their companies. Interviews lasted between 20 and 40 min. With the consent of the interviewees, some conversations were audio recorded, while for the others, notes have been taken.

The choice of examining the analysis through discourse allows us to focus it on the social elements of communication, emphasizing the importance of conversational situations. We use conversation analysis to examine the discourse present in the data to better understand the interactions between different discourses. The language used to discuss the complex use of social platform influencers, particularly regarding the dynamics of decision marking and how different customer groups interact [8, 16].

5 The Case of Viya

Viya, with original name Huang Wei, was born in Anhui Province of China in 1985 [13]. In May 2016, Viya became a Taobao Live streaming anchor for selling products, and four months later her turnover had reached 17 million dollars [13].

With the report from Taobao indicating that she has been successfully selling a wide variety of products and services, she has become a renowned social media influencer. She even sold a rocket launch for six million dollars. On Singles’ Day in 2020, her sales reached 1.3 billion dollars, thus people give her the title of the “Queen of Live Streaming” in China [13].

Behind the aura of Viya’s e-commerce anchor is her senior knowledge of the industry and support for her two principles. First, the quality of the selected products must pass. No matter the big or small brands, the products are excellent before being recommended to everyone in the live streaming. Secondly, “we must communicate with our fans honestly” [1]. Viya always treats her fans as friends and lovers. This shortens the distance between her and her fans and allows Viya to understand her fan base more deeply to plan and adjust her live content in a more targeted way [13].

However, in December 2021, due to her incorrectly reported incomes in 2019 and 2020, she had an unpaid tax liability of 100 million dollars, resulting in a fine of 210 million dollars from the Chinese tax authorities - the highest fine ever imposed on a live streaming influencer in China [13] (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1.
figure 1

Apology Letter issued by Viya on her Weibo account [29].

Viya then issued an apology letter, saying that she fully accepted the relevant penalty decision and would complete the payment of back taxes, late payment fees and fines within the stipulated time. That night, her accounts on Weibo, Douying, Xiaohongshu and other social media platforms and Taobao Live were blocked, and her Taobao store was also shut down [29].

This case well exemplifies the role an influencer, especially when working on live streaming, can have in China in order to promote the visibility of products and brands, and to ensure extensive sales. At the same time, it shows that a change in the status of the influencer herself, due to factors completely outside of the control by the partner brands, can impact not only the influencer and her business, but her partners at large, casting a possible negative light also onto them.

Hence the importance to carefully select influencers in order to avoid “liaisons dangereuses”: dangerous liaisons…

6 Insights from the Interviews

European fashion companies are stepping out of their traditional ways to reach their local large number of users and customers. The attributes associated with luxury involve emotional connections formed with individuals who seek stimulating, pleasant, and delightful customer contact that is inherently personal and subjective [7]. They are actively embracing the digital communication and increasingly cooperating with Chinese influencers.

6.1 Advantages and Disadvantages of Working with Chinese Influencers

According to the interviewees, there are many opportunities and challenges for European fashion companies to collaborate with Chinese social media influencers.

The innovations in technology are having a major effect in the fashion industry and the development in technology are transforming to the fashion sector [20]. All the interviewees stated that to use the Chinese social media influencers is particularly needed in order to (i) approach large number of users and customers; (ii) increase the awareness of the brands; (iii) increase online sales, helping their company to generate revenue. Such elements became even more important during the Covid pandemic and related lockdowns, which made the online channels the only accessible ones to keep a dialogue with prospects and clients, as well as to keep the commerce alive. Because we can clearly see that China, as the superpower of the fashion industry, will still provide an expansion of global consumption [27].

According to Exp.1: “our company is fortunate that we have a long history of working with influencers in China, so the relationship between the brand and the influencer is quite strong and stable, and this relationship has helped us successfully expand our brand awareness in the Chinese digital market.” Exp.3 and Exp.4, respectively the Founder and the CEO of two watch companies, explained that online sales are one of the key components of their digital marketing strategy, so working with local social media influencers is a necessity.

Exp.11, Founder and CEO of a jewelry and accessories company, said: “working with Chinese social media influencers is important for the company to grow and reach customers not only in the developed cities but also in other third and fourth tier cities of China”. In fact, in China cities are grouped in different tiers according to their dimensions and development. The third-tier cities include some provincial capitals in 23 provinces in China, with a total of 70 cities. As the regional economies expand, the number of the third-tier cities is increasing, in particularly the inland provinces [31]. Companies, once they have targeted cities from the first two tiers, are interested to extend their business to emerging markets within the country, located in the following tiers.

However, the interviewees also expressed the disadvantages in their experience of working with Chinese influencers.

The most common problem is closely connected with the reputation and behavior of the influencers, requiring a careful design of the legal contract binding the company and the influencers themselves. “The image of the influencers is very important for us, once we established our cooperation, their reputation and behavior are very closely related to ours. Therefore, our legal team is responsible for drafting the contract with the selected Chinese influencers, on the other hand, we also listen to our Chinese Team, since we are in Chinese market for more than decades, our Chinese team is very professional, we listen to their opinion because they know the market better and understand the image of the influencers in China.”, explained Exp.1.

Another issue to be considered, is the need to provide them with free materials, and to allow them to offer discounts while promoting a product. According to Exp.11, “Offering more discounts to customers and giving more free gifts to influencers is a disadvantage of our company, we invest more in this kind of online promotion than in traditional advertising”.

Moreover, Exp.12 said that the disadvantage of working with social media influencers was that it would waste his offline shop facilities and reduce their employment numbers. Other interviewees expressed losing the core values of the brand as a disadvantage of working with social media influencers.

In Table 2, both advantages and disadvantages are summarized.

Table 2. Advantages and disadvantages as emerged from interviews.

6.2 Criteria Used to Select Chinese Influencers

The results of the research clarified that certain criteria of selecting social media influencers will be considered and taken into account when managers make their decisions. One of the important factors depends on the type of product, such as brand fit and appeal, the image of the Influencer and familiarity with the target audience, the importance of understanding the product and the target market [6].

The criteria used to select Chinese influencers were discussed during the interviews. The European fashion companies will profit mainly from “word of mouth”, while connecting with their large number of customers in China, gaining a good impression and reaching out more local customers by working with Chinese influencers, as expressed in all interviews. The Chinese influencers will showcase the brand’s own characteristics, capabilities, and strengths to reach its sales proposition through digital channels in the Chinese digital market.

The first selection criterion of Chinese social media influencers is their followers, both in terms of numbers and in terms of typology, this was the opinion of all interviewees.

Most of the interviewees also added the skill criterion for influencers. Exp.9 said “live steaming is an online communication that happens within a certain time frame. The influencers need to have good communication skills, know their audience and customers, demonstrate the features and functionalities of the product within the limited amount of time, there are also many challenges for influencers, for examples some of the customers are hearing about the brand and product for the first time, therefore storytelling skill is a fundamental skill for selecting the influencers”.

Some interviewees indicated that the understanding of the European fashion company’s corporate culture has to be considered when making the choice to collaborate with Chinese influencers. “Influencers need to be integrated with our brand, we don’t like ‘a money transfer’ contract with the influencer, we request them to be responsive to our brand.” said Exp.1. A manager of a fashion company, especially those of luxury brands, must wisely manage the tension between catering to the local market and maintaining a consistent brand image globally. For example, facing a complex business environment with low customer recognition and loyalty while maintaining their exclusive character [18]. Other interviewees felt the personal looking and style of the influencer was very important, especially during the livestreaming or video shooting. A few interviewees believe that to understand a foreign language such as English is an additional desired skill.

However, the influencers must show their strong willingness of collaboration with the brand as Viya said “I feel like that I’m the one who helps consumers to make decisions, and I need to think about their needs.” [12].

It is very important for the European companies to work with their Chinese team or collaborate with local professional agencies to evaluate the popularity and activities of the influencers, according to Exp.1 and to Exp.3, who said: “In this way, they will keep the value and the quality of their collaboration”. As demonstrated by several recent examples, the need to “localize” a brand’s message, while at the same time preserving its identity and nature, is of the utmost importance, and requires a careful analysis and consideration of the local market, which only a local team of experts is likely to offer [21].

7 Conclusions

If we go back to the above defined research questions, we can now answer them as follows.

RQ1. Do foreign, European, fashion companies need to find a “Local” Chinese influencer working on local Chinese market, especially on Chinese social media? And, if yes, why?

Yes, they do so because of the peculiarity of the Chinese social media eco-system, very different from the one in Europe and elsewhere and because of their need to mediate their message in a way that can be better accessible by Chinese prospects and clients. The choice to collaborate with social media influencers is also done in order due to approach a large number of users and customers, increase brand awareness, and to increase online sales. However, interviews have also stressed problems and risks related with such collaborations, which leads us to the second research question.

RQ2. As demonstrated by the case of Viya, such selection is very risky: how are companies selecting their influencers for the Chinese market, based on which criteria?

The presented Viya case study has highlighted how risky it can be partnering with an influencer whose fate changes abruptly. In general, companies do select Chinese influencers based on their expected impact and impression on their followers – hence their numbers and typology is of particular interest. Additionally, they consider also their alignment with and understanding of the company and its peculiarities, as well as their story telling ability, especially if they are active in live streaming. Language skills, previous experiences, and responsiveness are further considered criteria.

This study has offered a first insight onto how European fashion and luxury companies address the Chinese market when it comes to collaborating with local influencers. It has done so by listening to the voices of managers responsible to take decisions on such a critical issue. Hence, beside contributing to the academic research on influencer marketing and localization, it provides also European fashion companies with ideal strategies for working with influencers in the Chinese digital market.

However, this study has also some limitations. In particular, the number of interviewees might be enlarged for future research activities, so to include further perspectives. Moreover, beside listening to company managers, an analysis of actual performances of influencers on Chinese social media should be done, including the contents they share and the actual response by their audiences in terms of liking, sharing, commenting.