Can creativity be manufactured at scale, packaged up and sent out into the world? Pop music is packed with examples of successful ready-made superstars; Korea’s biggest cultural export, K-pop, perhaps the best example. Young starlets, like Dong Bang Shin Ki, Stellar and Prince Mak, are carved from raw material into perfect pop icons, primed to make huge amounts of money as they win the hearts and minds of young people the world over.
For many of us, influencers on social media are now as much a part of pop culture as musicians. It’s unsurprising then that they are the latest cultural product to be built on an assembly line. Influencer incubators, much like the tech incubators that popped up in cities across the west over the last decade, offer prospective social media megastars a mixture of training, social boosting and talent handling.
And in China, these influencer incubators are scoring major hits. Ruhnn, for example, launched a $125m IPO in April last year and has helped propel the careers of talent such as Zhang ‘BB’ Xi, who has claimed at least a million followers since being picked out by the incubator.
Ruhnn identifies potential talent by using advertising to direct new audiences to new prospects. If the new audience sticks, the influencer is considered for a contract that will see the company take on commercial partnerships on their behalf, bringing in advertisers. In return, the influencer gets four months of intensive training as well as the help they need to run their accounts and e-commerce platforms. The model isn’t so different from the multi-channel networks developed for talent on YouTube.
Camellia Tan is the managing director of strategic growth at VMLY&R Asia and says China is a market particularly suited to this model. “Influencer incubators are trying to leverage an opportunity. In China everything can be faked, so people have little trust in advertisements – they are more likely to believe a real-life person talking and demoing a product, and just assume the influencer is being paid.”
Likewise, Tom Elsden, the client director at digital consultancy Mailman, says the model is smart, but that it may have a short lifespan. “It’s a smart business move given the size of the influencer market in China. They’ll have to stay progressive though, and agile to changes in the market. As soon as these companies stand still they’ll get caught out and left behind.
“Influencers are a worldwide phenomenon, but they have gained major traction in China due to a lack of public trust in brands and, subsequently, the power of ‘word of mouth’. China is extremely quick to react to these new business opportunities, whether it’s bike-sharing or influencer incubators and many will be trying to carve their own slice of the market.”
A key reason that this model might not work elsewhere, however, is that few markets have the scale and size to invest in it. “This is a trend that China has made its own and it would be hard for another country, beyond the US, to match the level spent on this,” says Elsden.
Tan also believes the incubator system would be hard for others to mimic. “This model may work elsewhere, but not on this scale. There are similarities – we’ve seen tons of influencers on YouTube and if you consider how Korea cultivates K-pop stars, it isn’t dissimilar. Incubators need to consider if they will invest in grooming megastars who can reach millions at a time, or a stable of micro-influencers – not unlike elsewhere in the world.”
Brands are buying into the model, says Tan, with it particularly useful for those launching new products. She says this requires brands and agencies to be “more nimble” as content won’t be scripted. Influencer marketing, after all, requires brands and agencies to relinquish some control. She also says results are not guaranteed and that top influencers can be a major investment.
Another factor in the longevity of this model rides on businesses being able to keep up with shifts in consumer trends, as new platforms such as TikTok start to hit mainstream scale.
Lucy Robertson, a senior accounts manager at Seen Connects, says TikTok will play a major part in influencer activity across the world in 2020. “79% of influencer partnerships currently take place on Instagram, but we expect to see platforms like TikTok start to take a share of voice here – especially when aiming to target a younger demographic.
“We’re also seeing further trends in long-form media, with influencers using Instagram captions as a form of microblogging. Gone are days of keeping it short and sweet – we predict a rise in using the platform for meatier storytelling.”
For Robertson, however, the key reason she doesn’t see incubated influencers catching on is that the content they produce is inauthentic, whereas the main reason people stick with influencers is that they connect with their personalities.
“From a creative marketing perspective, this new phenomenon could very easily be seen as dehumanizing. The whole point of influencer marketing and their selling power is that they are real people, with their own minds, style and voice. If we wash all influencers with the same brush, they will go from niche creators to carbon copies – simply a hook from which to hang the product you’re trying to sell.”
Whether these incubators will see the same success elsewhere in the world, only time will tell. It seems doubtful though. In a market like China however, where commerce and entertainment have become hard to separate, this more nakedly commercial approach to personality will not only be tolerated – it will be celebrated.
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