One year on from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still difficult to evaluate what the long-term impact of the coronavirus will be in terms of reshaping consumer behavior and transforming the way brands market themselves to the public. Some of the tactics brands used at the height of the pandemic were always temporary adjustments that have been or will gradually be phased out. However, some practices that started as improvisational responses to a crisis have proved so valuable that brands are sticking with them as China’s recovery from the pandemic proceeds. Here, we’ll also take a look at how one brand, Baodao Optical, built up their brand’s KOL and KOC brand advocates.
Live-streaming helped consumers purchase online
Reassigning retail staff to host live streams and communicate with customers directly through digital platforms was one master stroke brands pulled off at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown in China. Baodao Optical was one of the brands that led this trend in 2020. Indeed, Baodao has sought to internalize the habits learned during the lockdown, building an in-house talent network for cultivating Baodao influencers. One source estimated that the company’s live-streaming team now consists of approximately 800 employees. Additionally, Baodao Optical is now affiliated with more than 7,000 employee-run Dianping verified accounts, as well as over 800 Xiaohongshu accounts, more than 20 on Douyin and 200 on Zhihu.
One obvious advantage of this strategy was that it allowed employees to continue working while brick-and-mortar stores were closed. However, it also made sense from an online sales perspective. It would have been easy for brands to rely on customers making direct purchases through e-commerce platforms to drive business during the lockdown. But brands who converted their in-store sales assistants into live-streamers – effectively, promoting them to the status of brand KOLs – recognized two factors that made this a game-changing innovation.
Firstly, these brands realized that livestreaming as a medium had been a uniquely effective facilitator of online sales over the past few years. Consumers respond to relatable personalities – in other words, KOLs – more enthusiastically than they would to brand advertising and messaging. This trend was exacerbated during the nationwide lockdown that went into effect from late January to March 2020.
Brands also understood that deploying regular sales staff rather than celebrity KOLs as spokespeople and live-streamers would be more appealing to consumers in their own way. These employees put a human face on the brand that customers can trust and relate to. This was particularly important during the pandemic when many KOLs decided it was more appropriate to direct their star power to help with pandemic relief efforts and public health messaging, rather than earning money through brand collaborations. During this intense phase, many brands also decided that consumers may respond better to a more “normal” person heading up brand communications.
A brand’s employees are the perfect brand advocates
However, this latter point also applies far beyond the context of a lockdown. Baodao Optical’s cultivation of in-house influencers fits right in with CEO Wang Zhimin’s overarching strategy of transforming the company from a retailer of spectacles to a provider of a broader spectrum of optical services. Wang has made the bet that by concentrating on fostering a well-informed team of Baodao Optical influencers, the brand will be better placed to deliver a highly specialized, knowledge-based service that will be a value-add for consumers. Using regular employees as points of contact in private traffic networks can be helpful when consumers have questions or need help with a product or purchase. Building a sense of approachability through these private traffic channels and through live streaming can be vital in bringing consumers into and moving them along the sales funnel.
At the surface level, redeploying regular team members to interact with consumers through digital platforms and live streams may look like a clever marketing device. Especially within the context of the coronavirus pandemic, these initiatives turned out to be highly effective, enterprising ways to keep people employed and make the most of a bad situation.
However, Wang Zhimin sees Baodao Optica’s strategy as a reflection of a deeper, generation-defining paradigm shift away from an organization-centric relationship between the company and its consumers to a more consumer-led arrangement. The CEO believes that this necessitates a realignment of the traditional organizational chart and hierarchy within and between teams around the user experience.
One consequence is that companies need to build their own digital operations around how the consumer experiences, interacts with and uses the brand on the vast array of platforms and spaces. Baodao Optical’s in-house army of “regular” staff doubling as influencers and live streamers is a very direct and intentional manifestation of this logic.
It is very economical for brands
Developing an in-house team of KOLs/KOCs is also economical. While it’s certainly not free – producing live streams requires investment in equipment and technical support teams – companies who cultivate their own influencer talent can cut back to some degree on KOL collaboration. KOL co-operations can still play a role in Baodao Optical’s overall marketing strategy, but the company can be more selective and targeted about who it partners with.
The results of an in-house influencer strategy have been impressive for Baodao Optical. While the optical services market shrank in the region of ten to 15 percent year-on-year in 2020, Baodao recorded 5 percent growth. This was largely due to the brand’s ability to leverage private traffic through that web of employees-turned-KOCs. It’s clear that Wang Zhimin sees this as a core part of Baodao’s strategy going forward. Some have said Baodao’s extensive social and live streaming influencer operation is already more akin to an MCN than merely a marketing arm of a retail firm.
This is likely something we’ll see more of in 2021. Of course, building these kinds of programs is a large-scale and intricate undertaking and it will not be suitable for everyone. For some companies, working directly with external MCNs and through partners like PARKLU to identify effective KOL partners will remain the most profitable and cost-effective way of operating in the Chinese influencer market.