Not your average internet celebrity: China’s CEOs turn online influencers

  • China
  • Saturday, 25 May 2024

Xiaomi founder Lei Jun (right) has over 23 million followers each on Weibo and Douyin. - LEI JUN/WEIBO

BEIJING: “I really want to become a wang hong (internet celebrity),” said Lu Fang.

And while internet stardom is something younger people typically aspire to, the 48-year-old chief executive of a Chinese luxury electric carmaker recently voiced the same aspiration.

“I hope everyone will help me become a wang hong,” Lu, the head of state-owned automaker Dongfeng Motor’s subsidiary Voyah, quipped to local media in April.

Lu, who says that he works hard on microblog posts every day, is not alone in his quest for internet fame.

China’s chief executives are increasingly fashioning themselves as online influencers, in a bid to boost sales as a slowing economy squeezes their companies’ bottom lines.

This phenomenon has gained prominence following the Covid-19 pandemic, analysts have said, in a reflection of the stiff competition and depressed demand that China’s businesses have to contend with today.

These CEO-influencers hold hours-long live streams, star in video clips and pen short notes on platforms such as Weibo, a microblogging site, and Douyin, China’s version of TikTok.

There, they tout their companies’ products, discuss industry developments and share light-hearted snippets of their lives, sometimes multiple times a day.

Their goal: the eyeballs, hearts and – ultimately – wallets of China’s consumers.

China’s CEO-influencers include head honchos from industries spanning electronics to tech to education.

One of the most successful is Lei Jun, founder of consumer electronics giant Xiaomi, who has over 23 million followers each on Weibo and Douyin.

The charismatic 54-year-old made his debut as his company’s live-streaming salesman on Douyin in August 2020, when the pandemic spurred more corporate leaders to use live streams to reach consumers who were isolated at home.

The revenues that he brought in then made headlines – over 100 million yuan (S$19 million) in less than two hours.

Lei is now leaning hard on his personal brand to break into China’s hyper-saturated electric vehicle market, most recently with a 3½-hour live stream on May 18 that saw him drive Xiaomi’s SU7 Pro from Shanghai to Hangzhou while 39 million people watched online.

The internet traffic that he generates, seen as a precursor to sales, is the envy of his peers.

In a Weibo post in February, billionaire tech tycoon Zhou Hongyi cited Lei as one of the CEO-influencers he sought to learn from, so he can speak for his company while saving on advertising fees.

The 53-year-old co-founder of cyber-security company Qihoo 360 has stepped up his social media presence in 2024, with a wide range of straight-talking videos and written content ranging from artificial intelligence to his exercise regime.

He hopes to amass 10 million followers before the year is out – to date, he has over 6.4 million on Douyin and 11.5 million on Weibo.

“If possible, I think entrepreneurs should all go be wang hongs,” he said on a live stream in January.

As live streams and short videos reshape how people consume information, it is important for business leaders to reach out to the public through these means, he explained.

Chinese chief executives’ growing pursuit of an online following is a reflection of the state of the economy, where demand is conservative and competition is aggressive, analysts told The Straits Times.

The practice of corporate leaders becoming brand ambassadors through a strong social media presence is neither new nor unique to China.

But marketing expert Zheng Yuhuang observed that the country has seen a renewed surge in this phenomenon after the pandemic – especially in the form of live streams and short videos.

“The economic environment is not great” and business leaders are forced to step forward as online influencers to push sales, the associate professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing told ST.

Retail sales in China, a barometer of consumer spending, saw its slowest growth rate in over a year in April, as domestic demand remains weak amid an uncertain economic outlook.

Spurring consumption is key to the resilience of China’s economy, and Chinese businesses would be under pressure to deliver in this regard, Prof Zheng added.

Assistant Professor Wei Wuhui, a social media expert from Shanghai Jiaotong University, said the rise in the number of CEO-influencers is a symptom of the intense competition playing out in the market.

“Such phenomena arise only when sales are not going all that smoothly,” he noted, pointing to how the leaders of China’s most profitable companies saw no need to put themselves online in this manner.

The CEO-influencer model is useful insofar as it helps companies attract attention to their products, while cutting down on hefty advertising costs, he told ST.

It might also help businesses find alternative paths to profitability, said Prof Zheng, citing tutoring giant New Oriental Education’s successful pivot to e-commerce after it was hit hard by a nationwide clampdown on the private education industry in 2021.

The company found a new lease of life through selling agricultural produce, books and other items via online live streams that doubled as English lessons, with the company’s founder Yu Minhong making appearances as well.

But the approach is not without its risks.

This strategy essentially ties the success and failure of the brand to the chief executive, meaning that “if the CEO does something wrong, it will negatively affect the brand”, said Associate Professor Li Xiuping from the National University of Singapore Business School.

“Like celebrities, CEOs can err or have scandals,” she noted.

China’s CEO-influencers also have to pay attention to political correctness – just like their counterparts in other countries, said Prof Wu.

The country’s internet celebrities have found themselves in trouble over ill-advised posts or comments that rankled netizens.

For example, top live-streamer Li Jiaqi faced an uproar in 2023 after dissing a thrifty viewer, and had his feed abruptly cut off in 2022 after showing footage of a supposedly tank-shaped cake just before the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

But by and large, business leaders are seasoned operators who “know how far to go”, noted Prof Wu.

They focus mainly on their own products, while staying out of sociopolitical commentary, he added. - The Straits Times/ANN

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China , CEO , influencers


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