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The new generation of consumers: Rise of Gen Z and Cultural Opinion Leaders (COLs) – who are they?
Insights | Nov 2021

China’s influencer market is currently undergoing a major change. But what is really happening? With the new rise of new consumers from Generation Z that’s looking for more authentic and personal trendsetters, a new concept Cultural Opinion Leaders (COL) has had a major impact. In this text, NBH will find out what the term really means, and what challenges and opportunities it can have for the Chinese market.

The new generation of consumers

To understand the new concept of COL, we first need to create an understanding of Generation Z. COLs and Generation Z are strongly related to each other and in this context, there is impossible to separate them. Generation Z or Gen-Z as they are also called, are people born in the years of 1996-2010.

This next generation of Chinese consumers grew up in a different cultural context than previous generations. They have grown up in a social and media e-landscape that is largely shaped and has been characterized by influencers or KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). At the same time, Gen- Z is characterized by being extremely digital, individualistic, and good at finding creative ways to express themselves. According to data from CNB 2020, Generation Z makes up about 16 % of the total Chinese population. With increased welfare and higher purchasing power, they make up a significant proportion of Chinese consumers.

Generation Z has also grown up in a more globalized world and follows what is happening in the outside world. Many have had the opportunity to travel or study abroad. While previous generations grew up with the image that Chinese goods have poor quality and Western goods are better, Generation Z grow up with emerging Chinese quality brands and internationally recognized Chinese designers.

Western brands are still very appreciated but the ones that succeed the best are those that can integrate Chinese elements in their products in a tasteful way. Generation Z also attaches great importance to corporate values ​​and chooses the products they consider best fit their own beliefs.

Although generation Z is highly individualistic, it is mainly expressed by the fact that they want to stand out as unique and special within their community of like-minded people. This has led to a strong development of subcultures and niche markets.

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Picture from the runway ZI II CI IEN SS22 in Xintiandi, Shanghai Fashion Week 2021

What is the difference between COLs and KOLs?

In China, the KOL industry is gigantic and has a turnover of 242 billion dollars a year. By comparison, KOLs accounts for 10 times the share of sales through social media advertising in China than influencer does in the United States.

In China, the spoken word is extremely significant for consumer shopping patterns and accounts for between 20-50% of all purchasing decisions. Analyzes show that this, combined with the lack of traditional fashion media, has made the KOL industry flourish.

One difference between the KOL industry in China and influencers in the West is that KOL is a highly established and professional market that is built around agents and scouts who even have schools to train their new KOLs. KOL is business and they usually only make collaborations for a fee. It is also typical for KOLs that they are linked to specific platforms such as Taobao or TMall.

What has happened now is that the interest in KOLS has begun to stagnate and many of the biggest KOLs observes a decline in followers. At the same time, other new social media platforms are emerging, driven by Generation Z. With Gen-Z and the more diverse media landscape a new form of influencers, COL’s ore Cultural Opinion Leaders is rising, challenging previous orders.

COLs are not as tied to specific platforms as KOLs and they do not only market what they are paid for. Instead, it is important for COLs to be able to genuinely stand for what they selling and that the products represent themselves or the subculture they belong to. They also tend to not only show a polished surface but often become more personal and naked in their appearance.

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COLs: Trendsetters for new digital platforms

In addition to building the phenomenon with COLs, generation Z has also driven the development of new alternative platforms. Although WeChat and Weibo still play a major role in their everyday life, this is not where Generation Z creates social contacts and interacts with each other. Instead, we see trending platforms such as:

  • Xiaohongshu – Xiaohonshu also known as “Little Red Book”, is China’s answer to Instagram or Pinterest.
  • Pin Duoduo – E-commerce platform offering daily life products such as groceries and home appliance.
  • Bilibili – Bilibili is a video share platform. It started as a platform for comics, animations and games, but has become a video sharing platform that touches on all sorts of topics.
  • Dewu – Dewu is a reseller app that has come to be more popular. This is also sign that the younger generation care more about green shopping.

As an example, Douyin or TikTok can be lifted. Douyin has a wider user base in China than TikTok has in Europe. Douyin still grows in the age group 30-35 while it shrinks in the age group below 30.

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Picture of the digital platform Xiaohongshu

New Challenges, New Opportunites

If your company is planning on marketing on social media in China, COLs is something that should be considered. COLs can be a great asset and part of your strategy if your product is aimed at younger consumers. At the same time, you need to ensure that the product is authentic. If your product strengthens Chinese culture or contributes to the identity creation of young Chinese, collaboration with COLs should definitely be considered.

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