At 25, Su Yulie was heralded as the youngest angel investor in China. Now, the 33-year-old is surfing some of the biggest waves in Thailand and Hainan, showing off his boxing skills, and doing Muay Thai on the beach, and brands from Volcom to Honda have taken note. More than your average Chinese health and fitness influencer, Su is the poster child for young Chinese consumers who are aspiring to a better, more exploratory, spiritual lifestyle. Helping his case is Su’s follower numbers, which have soared into the hundreds of thousands across platforms like Weibo, Keep, and WeChat. But brands and marketers may find Su’s method somewhat surprising—after all, he’d rather be surfing than doing social media.
Interview with Chinese health and fitness influencer Su Yulie
Su can barrel roll a small plane and master advanced yoga moves, but his social media habits are another story.
“My friends in the Chinese health and fitness influencer business all tell me that I don’t social network that professionally,” he tells PARKLU. “A lot of health and fitness KOLs are really well prepared—they do their makeup, they get a stylist, and they put together very good videos, but I’m more freestyle. It reflects who I am.”
Despite the lack of strict methodology, Su doesn’t have any trouble enthralling his fans, some of whom have loyally followed him ever since he first found national fame as an angel investor. Su believes his followers are looking for authenticity in his content versus a feed that looks overly planned.
“I just post what I want when I feel inspired—like when a view is beautiful or the music around me is beautiful,” he continues. “After all, this is first my life, and it’s part of my business second. …I just want to be a normal person, but one with so many friends.”
Of course, Su explains, he does have to follow an agreed upon routine when it comes to direct brand co-operations—the fitness guru has worked with the likes of Lululemon, 7-Up, Honda, Martin Guitar, and is Volcom’s brand ambassador. But perhaps more importantly, Su works with them to create killer content that will deliver a message that can drive cross-industry engagement.
A relatable fantasy
Not long after Su made his journey from finance to an adventurous, healthier lifestyle, the Chinese government launched a campaign to boost national spending on sports to help its citizens get more active and combat a growing health crisis. These efforts have led to an explosion of health and fitness influencers on Chinese social media and crazes for everything from running marathons to Cross Fit.
But Su takes “the pursuit of an active lifestyle” to an extreme. He describes his days in finance as a time when he felt sleepless and drained on a regular basis. He traded that in for a life of testing his mental and physical limits in ways that make him feel alive and energised. As he travels to the best beaches around the world, with inspiration from like-minded YouTubers and Instagrammers, he has trained to be a lifeguard, a scuba diver, a skier, yogi, boxer, and more; he doesn’t specialise in one particular activity, preferring to keep his message more general.
“Normally, I choose the best season in a place and I do the best sports that destination has to offer,” he said. “I focus on the basic idea of sports and lifestyle. The purpose of my training is not just to learn one sport—it’s training my basic sports skill or sports ability. And then with my training, I can do whatever I put my mind to.”
Chinese consumers are beginning to relate to influencers like Su thanks to the government-led shift in priorities and a general lifestyle upgrade. Brands like Honda and 7-Up have played up his personal story and his range of athletic talents to appeal to a broad range of inspirational young consumers who are not only concerned with getting fit but seeking a higher purpose and more fulfilling life experiences.
“For me, the most important thing I can provide to my fans is that they see, ‘Oh, there’s a guy that really lives like this, and he’s so normal—he’s just the same as me,’” he said. “’If he can do it, then I can. This is not a dream—this is somebody’s reality.’”
Taking creative leadership
During partnerships, brands often find a Chinese health and fitness influencer that aligns with their values and the brand creates the content for them to share. But brands can also trust influencers to leverage their talent and be the biggest experts on crafting content that will resonate with their followers.
For example, when collaborating on content with Su for its latest commercial, Honda had him write the narrative that ran through the ad, and Su also wrote and performed the music, as well as starring in the ad. On Weibo alone, the ad received hundreds of shares, and nearly 500 comments, and is just one of a series of mini-stories from Chinese Honda Accord owners.
Su’s advice to a wannabe Chinese health and fitness influencer is to think outside the box and even look ahead to trends in the West when it comes to crafting content for a brand partnership. He’s currently exploring the potential for content inspired by Black Mirror’s current Netflix hit, “Bandersnatch”, in terms of how the show’s choose-your-own-adventure format could be applied to his own life, which currently spans a wide variety of activities and possibilities.
Peppered among his online posts about surfing and making music, Su has made time to give back to the environment where he spends most of his time. The Beijing-born health and fitness influencer recognises the burdens of pollution, so when he lived in Hainan, Su hosted beach cleaning parties on his birthday. “Now my surfer friends have taken over that legacy, celebrating their birthday with a beach cleaning party,” Su said.
More millennial and Gen-Z consumers in China are motivated by opportunities to make a social impact and are environmentally conscious, and their favourite influencers are, too. Brands that align themselves with these values should consider collaborating with a Chinese health and fitness influencer on content that reflects this to connect with their fans on a more meaningful level.
“I always think people are willing to listen to something real,” Su said. “So if you talk about it from your heart and show that it’s a problem, they will want to do something.”
Beyond creating rich content in the health, fitness and lifestyle sphere, Su has established a loyal following thanks to regular engagement from his fans.
“Some have been following me since they were in high school or even middle school, and now they have jobs,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll message me to update me on their progress or what promotions they’ve received. I feel like a big brother to them.”
Time and again, influencers demonstrate one of the most effective ways of relating to your customers is to communicate with them on a deeper level—answer their questions, become their friend, thank them respond to their feedback—and take their feedback seriously when creating future content.
“When you always show them good energy, and they share that good energy back with you, that’s very touching,” Su said. “It really moves me.”