Influencers may only dominate fashion and beauty sectors in western markets but in Asia, and particularly in China, social media stars can make or break a brand.

In China, influencers - or key opinion leaders (KOLs) as they are often referred to - have the respect of the masses, with thousands tuning in daily to learn about the latest organic cleaning detergent or the newest wine out of New Zealand on a number of platforms such as Weibo, WeChat and Tmall.

There's no denying the internet and social channels dominate Asian markets and millennials, so much so that traditional bricks and mortar retailers have merged the two worlds.

Sarah Heller, founder of Heller Beverage Advisory and a Master of Wine, says female influencers play a critical role in China's wine trade, evident by rising female consumption statistics in Asia.

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"Social media is at an interesting intersection at the moment, in inline with e-commerce," Heller told wine producers at the Sauvignon Blanc symposium in Blenheim last week.

Though expensive, around $7000 per month, social media marketing - "contemporary retail", is increasingly the way wine is being sold to the masses in China and particularly so for international wine labels.

Fan Bingbing, Feng Fan, Xiaowen Ju, Lu Han, Vanessa Hong, Wanwan Lei, Leaf Greener, Fil Xiaobai are some of China's most popular influencers.

Another, Isabella Ko, founder of Oh My Dear Wine Boutique, is known to create social media content promoting wines and has done so for New Zealand wine brands.

Heller says Ko has built an image around being sophisticated and so the masses and food and beverage outlets trust her with wine recommendations and trying new labels.

Influencers in China create video content, often through live streams, telling a brand's story and sending it out to thousands of their followers.

Red wine is the wine of choice in Asian markets due to perceived health benefits which makes selling large volumes of white varieties particularly difficult, even with social media and influencers' help.

"E-commerce is really a major factor in China for wine," says Heller. "China is one of the few markets where New Zealand exports are more heavily weighted towards reds than whites but that's shifting over time. It used to be 70 per cent red, now it's closer to 57 per cent."

China is New Zealand's biggest export market in Asia, with 2.5 million litres of wine imported in the year ended June 2018. Unlike western markets, Chinese consumers do not choose their wine based on foods that will complement it.

Instead, they look for brands which exert luxury and fit with their lifestyle.

Popular Chinese influencer Feng Fan makes a living by sharing videos discussing various products, including New Zealand wine, with her millions of followers on Weibo. Photo / Instagram
Popular Chinese influencer Feng Fan makes a living by sharing videos discussing various products, including New Zealand wine, with her millions of followers on Weibo. Photo / Instagram

Heller says packaging and appearance is the key for wine producers to crack the Asian market. "In China, people are wanting something that's striking and classy. It is very important in the Chinese market that it is classy, particularly above a certain price point."

She says producers wanting to sell higher volumes in China and other Asian markets need to use "more evocative language" and imagery in their marketing.

Villa Maria exports wine to 14 Asian markets with China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea its largest markets in the region, on a volume basis.

The family-owned wine business, which has vineyards in Marlborough, Hawke's Bay and Auckland, relies heavily on KOLs to promote its wine in China as there is still relatively low awareness of New Zealand wine there.

Though China is Villa Maria's eighth largest export market, the company still faces challenges with selling large volumes of its white varieties due to lower demand.

E-commerce is really a major factor in China for wine.

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Michele Lam, Villa Maria's export markets manager, says her team in China works closely with lifestyle bloggers and influencers to ensure the brand is well represented in the market.

"There are increasing opportunities for us in China, there is a positive image of New Zealand as a wine-producing country and it remains a key market."

Hong Kong-based Master of Wine Debra Meiburg says cracking Asian markets is a tough feat given most countries making up Asia favour spirits over wine, and particularly red wine over white.

Meiburg says there are barriers for international wine producers to sell into China.

"Why is it so difficult to sell white wine in this market? Partly because it's an alien concept. When we first put white wines in the market in China people were a little bit confused and thought it should be white liquor, and so when they tasted these wines they thought it was flat and insipid," she says.

"One of the other problems with white wine in our market is, from an Instagram standpoint, is it is sexless - it just doesn't show beautifully in photos in the way red wine has shown for years."

Debra Meiburg says wine producers face many barriers when selling into China. Photo / Instagram
Debra Meiburg says wine producers face many barriers when selling into China. Photo / Instagram

Another barrier for wine producers and exporters is wine is an unfamiliar temperature at the table, with hot water the most common drink of choice when eating a meal.

Meiburg says it will take decades for Chinese consumers to convert from red to white wine as there is a mass perception of sauvignon blanc and white varieties being budget drinks, and are commonly only sold by the glass in China.

That being said, around 1.6 million people in China have cash assets of around US$1.5m and 100 million have around US$500,000 waiting to be spent.

"In Hong Kong, the influence of buying is 67 per cent personal recommendation and China takes it into the crazy realm of KOLs," Meiburg says of KOLs' selling power and ability to influence the markets.

"KOLs are enormous in China - the figures are mind-boggling - they are so powerful and they drive a high percentage of the market, mainly driven by video."

Luxury is the way to crack the market - at least for sales by the bottle. If it's not luxe and does not have "wow factor" selling large volumes in China is not possible, Meiburg says.

At the end of 2018 China had 819 billionaires - not millionaires, billionaires.