Bloggers' recipe for online fame
Internet celebrities are the new superpower of marketing and sales.
The key opinion leaders known as KOL are gaining loyal followers and fans because they are relatable and amiable. As regular people living regular lives, the audience can relate to the majority of wanghong personalities in a much better way than they would with famous stars. Followers often trust the influencers’ recommendations without reservation.
If you are following a number of wanghong on Chinese social media, sooner or later, you’ll find the majority of them will start to “cash in” on their influence by selling products to fans, either creating original brands in their areas of expertise or reselling products from other brands.
Beauty influencer @Gracebabi, for example, started her brand with makeup sponges, then the successful business expanded to produce makeup brushes, eyebrow pencils, makeup remover wipes and more.
But for food bloggers who specialize in developing recipes or reviewing restaurants, creating a brand should be a prudent decision, as they have to be responsible for the health of the people who purchase and eat their products.
Several super food influencers have launched original brands, selling snacks, condiments, instant meals and more.
Aige Chibaole (@艾格吃饱了) is one of the early food influencers to have launched a full-scale business. Now a food review and e-commerce platform, Aige Chibaole started as a personal food blog by Wen Jia, a former journalist who became popular with her restaurant reviews and snack recommendations on WeChat and Weibo.
The first product Wen developed was a Chinese pecan snack. Its huge success motivated Wen to quit and focus on her WeChat subscription account and new snack brand. The account introduced team management in 2016, and three years later, its products are sold not only on major e-commerce platforms, but also in retail channels like city’super and Hema Fresh.
The brand’s products are more expensive than the market average, for higher quality and smarter marketing.
Rishiji (@日食记), which translates as a daily food diary, is a cooking blogger with 17 million followers on Weibo. The account shares beautifully shot and edited recipes with storytelling, and most are easy to follow.
With millions of followers, Rishiji started to sell food items on its flagship Tmall store, ranging from chili sauces, noodles and snacks to coffee.
The products feature artistic designs and chic packaging, catering to the preference of the brand’s young urban audience. The medium-priced food items sell very well: The No. 1 item in the store is a scallion oil sauce at 19.9 yuan (US$2.8) for six bags of 20 grams each to serve with noodles as a dressing, and more than 100,000 have been sold.
Li Ziqi, a food blogger and Internet celebrity from a rural village in Mianyang, Sichuan Province, has more than 16 million followers on Weibo. She spent years making videos about traditional Chinese lifestyles ranging from cooking to handicrafts. Some of her top videos gained more than 100,000 reposts, such as making a clay oven to bake bread and crafting the Four Treasures of the Study (brush, ink stick, paper and inkstone) from scratch.
For a long time, people wondered how she could make money with content that contained no promotional material. By the looks of it, she wasn’t doing it for the money, but to spread the lifestyle, culture and Chinese cuisine.
Then in August last year, Li announced her own brand and flagship store on Tmall, and the first products she developed included honey, lamb stew and herbal tea.
On the first day, the Tmall store had 700,000 followers and tens of thousands of products were sold, mostly purchased by the loyal fans she gained over the years.
The price of her products is high: A 248-gram jar of honey is 89.7 yuan, a 220-gram bottle of spicy beef chili sauce is 34.5 yuan, and the instant lamb stew (360 grams), which has been discontinued, was sold for 67.7 yuan at the time of release.
As her business took off, Li also collaborated with Palace Museum Food to create a chili sauce (59.7 yuan for two 200-gram jars), which is sold in Palace Museum Food’s Tmall store.
Wang Gang, a professional chef who shares recipes in textbook style, suddenly became a wanghong last year. Amid the large number of food bloggers who are presenting an exquisite and chic lifestyle, Wang’s humble yet efficient cooking videos were like a breath of fresh air. His videos always start with him holding the main ingredient, even when they are alive (which caused some controversy). Wang has 2.2 million followers on Weibo.
Wang opened a Taobao shop shortly after he became an Internet celebrity, selling snacks and condiments. The spicy beef tallow hotpot broth base is among the most popular items, priced at 39.9 yuan for 500 grams.
Internet celebrities are in the business of profiting from the presence they built over time, but high views cannot guarantee the quality of the products they sell. Do the alluring wanghong products marketed and sold by Internet celebrities actually deserve trust?
The Li Ziqi brand received polarized reviews. On one hand, her fans were very happy and gave rave reviews before even trying the products, while some people considered the pricing to be unreasonable for the quality the brand delivered.
The beef sauce, for instance, received mostly positive reviews, but several users encountered problems such as the sauces were moldy or there was too much oil and not enough beef in the jar.
Rishiji also received reviews claiming that products expired or were too close to the expiration date.
It should be noted that in order to sell food products, brands must acquire all necessary certifications and e-commerce platforms are responsible for checking and vetting them.
Some platforms are going too fast with the very lucrative influence-to-cash business model, and oversight tends to happen when they are eyeing the profits. Short-video platform Douyin, also known as Tik Tok, was involved in a food scandal that gained wide attention online.
On May 27, a user surnamed Dong published a story on her WeChat subscription account detailing her frustrating shopping experience on Tik Tok.
After a promotional video of a humble, sincere woman selling palm-sized roasted shrimp snack appeared in her Tik Tok feed several times, Dong finally bought a bag of the seemingly delicious shrimp that were claimed to be “salt-free and suitable for pregnant women and children.” The shrimp retailed for 198 yuan per 250 grams and there was a 4-yuan coupon.
Dong filled out the shipping information but the site didn’t ask for payment. Instead, it sent a message that said the product would be shipped in 24 hours, cash on delivery. When Dong finally received it, the shrimps had a pungent fishy smell and were nowhere near the quality shown in the video.
The label on the bag of shrimps had no manufacturing information but simply contact details of the sales company, a date of production, shelf life and a note to store the product at 0 degrees Celsius — the product were transported at a normal temperature without ice packs.
When Dong returned to the order information page to find ways to return the product and get a refund, to her surprise, there was no order listed. She also couldn’t reach the page of the product through the link in the text message.
The order came through on a platform called fxg.jinritemai, although the site claims that food dealers must have a food production license and circulation permit in order to sell products, the company that sold the shrimps provided nothing but a business license.
In two days, Dong’s story went viral and gained more than 100,000 views. When the e-commerce platform reached her to verify information, it was already eight days since the vendor had declined a request for a refund.
According to Dong’s second post updating the shrimp case, the platform told her that the shrimp vendor was shut down permanently and they would pay triple the amount she spent as compensation (despite the law requiring 10 times in cases of food safety) and they hoped she would delete the post. Dong refused.
By exposing the problems to the general public, Dong gave a wakeup call to platforms which have now started to review vendors’ credentials and certifications more closely.