Chinese Idol Industry and Fan Economy (1): What is It?

After China’s idol industry has experienced explosive growth since 2018, it has developed a new fan organization with strict discipline and code of conduct — the “Fan Circle”. It’s a group gathered with loyal fans and actively support their idols online and offline. Fan Circle has gradually transformed from brand audiences to active participants and brand marketing facilitators all because it’s a way to show their love to idols.
In China, understanding the Fan Circle’s rules and behaviors is very important for brand marketing and development. As the entertainment industry is becoming more mature in China, how can brands establish a good relationship with idols’ fans? In this analysis, you will better understand the consumption behaviors of Chinese fans.

1. Consumption for idols is becoming part of the daily consumption of Chinese young people

1.1 The commercial influence of Chinese idols is impressive

According to the data from the White Paper on the Idol Industry and Fan Economy in 2019》,  with the rise of post-95 and post-00 consumer power, the younger generation’s willingness and ability to consume for idols are continuously growing. It is estimated that in 2020, the Chinese idol market size can reach 100 billion RMB. Unlike ordinary fans who passively accept cultural influence, fans in the “fan circle” call their way of expressing their love for idols as “support”. They strive to maintain and grow their idol’s popularity, reputation and business value. Fans in the “fan circle” will frequently purchase music albums or products endorsed by idols as well as actively and repeatedly generate posts and comments on social media. In China, buying idol-endorsed-products has surpassed supporting idols’ works and become the second most important way of supporting. Corresponding brand sales and word of mouth are also in full swing with the fan circle’s hel

Chinese Idol Industry and Fan Economy

1.2 Fan circle are shifting from youth to diversified crowd

According to the 《Sina Weibo 2019 Star White Paper》, the total number of fans of entertainment stars on the Weibo platform in 2019 reached 19.2 billion, an increase of 2.5 billion. Women account for more than 80% in fan circles, and those born in the 90s and Generation Z account for about 83%. The young fans born between 95-01 have the highest contribution to idol endorsement consumption.

In terms of fan attributes, besides the high proportion of “girlfriend fans” in the traditional sense, more fan levels such as “mother fans” and “sensible fans” are emerging, and the purpose of popular star-chasing has become diversified. The middle-aged people with high spending power also actively participating in the fan economy. They regard idols as the deep sustenance of their emotions and give family-like care. Simultaneously, “career fans” who take “caring about idol career development and facilitating resource acquisition” as their mission have risen significantly, accounting for more than 40%.
Chinese fans economy and fans portrait

2. A brief history of the labor division and development of Chinese contemporary fans: how did such a huge sales volume come from?

2.1 What is Fan Circle?

Traditional stars are promoted based on their acting, singing, or other performing skills, so they cannot be replaced. Therefore, they have a cooperative relationship with the capital. Capital provides funds, and traditional stars provide performances and productions. However, the current post-90s idols are more like assembly line production, supported by capital tools. From casting to training, from marketing to production, all are managed by one giant company. Therefore, idols usually have very little bargaining power; the fund behind takes the actual charge.

Chinese fan economy
If a brand invites KOLs for live streaming sales, it needs to consider the operation team’s strength behind KOL. When carrying cooperation between a brand and an idol, the brand also needs to understand the fans’ labor division and operation mechanism. First, we need to distinguish the essential difference between fans and Fan Circle. Fans are ordinary people, and Fan Circle is an organizational tool to make more profits for capital. There are subtle labor divisions, such as professional fans, anti-rumor, comments-control, data-operator, and publicity. Below we select some critical fan functions to introduce:

2.2 What are professional fans?

Many people think that professional fans are enthusiastic fans or the earliest fans of idols. For traditional fans in the early years, yes, but for current idols, they are not. Since the framework of Fans Circle is managed by capital, the professional fans directly obey the capital.

To simplify, idols and professional fans are both capital wage earners, idols are responsible for attracting customers, and professional fans are responsible for active customers. They are actually in a tie. The professional fans’ daily work is to urge fans to consume or boost ranking data, and at the same time, produce content and words that are conducive to celebrity public opinion and distribute them to the fans below.
Chinese Fan Economy fans organisation
After understanding some of the basic labor division in the Fan Circle, we can roughly understand how an idol can endorse dozens of brands while ensuring sales and reputation — the strong fan organization behind provides excellent support. Our next question is: Why such a large and sophisticated organizational system appears in the contemporary era, and why are Chinese fans willing to spend so much time, energy, and money on their idols?

2.3 A brief history of Chinese fans economy development: Why do contemporary fans in the Fans Circle share their idols' glory and shame?

The essence of idol chasing is the admiration and imitation of idol by fans. In the history of New China, the earliest idol should be Lei Feng in the 1960s. He is the first national idol who gained appraisal “learn from him”.

In the 1970s, Teresa Teng’s appearance was criticized at the time and became a depressive voice. The essence is the return of personal emotions under decades of collectivist values.

In the 1980s, Cui Jian’s “Nothing” announced Chinese rock music’s birth and represented the official return of “Oneself”.

In the 1990s, idols represented by “the four kings” answered the question, “What kind of life do I want to live?”

At the beginning of the 21st century, singers such as Jay Chou and Stefanie Sun told everyone that there is no need to live a conformist life. On balance between the collective and the individual, the tide of individualism has won a full victory.

In September 2012, Lu Han won a Guinness World Record-the for most commented Weibo post globally. This event announced the advent of the Fan Circle era. In 2014, prototypes of a new generation of Fan Circles, such as TFBoys, began to appear. In 2018, accompanied by idol trainees, a new generation of Fan Circle has completely stepped onto the stage. Until 2020, when the Xiao Zhan incident broke out, the Fan Circle completely invaded the public’s vision across the country. The series of disturbances brought about also made the market realize the strength of this organization group.
Chinese Fan Economy Idol Industry development
Fan Circle is selling traffic on the surface, but it sells a sense of identity, and the customer is the Fan Circle users themselves. Because people are social animals, collectivism restrains us and gives us a sense of belonging and identity, a grand narrative, and collective goals, so people understand why they are alive. Therefore, in the era of collectivism, everyone calls for individuality. However, when the era of individuals in the 21st century comes, countless people begin to fall into confusion and doubt under the manifestation of freedom. Who am I, and what is the meaning of my life?

Today’s young generation lacks the spirit of the times, lacks ideal pursuits, lacks a vital goal, and entertains themselves to death. Everyone began to yearn for the collective again and desired for a collective to give themselves identification. The Fan Circle gave everyone everything they wanted. Or it satisfies everyone’s collectivist needs illusory.

3. To be continued:

After the above analysis, we have learned that Fan Circle is a consumer force that cannot be underestimated in the current Chinese e-commerce market. From brand marketing to product recommending, Fan Circle can provide efficient solutions for a wide range of influence. As a brand, how to integrate with idol fans? How to conduct a series of idol marketing activities to increase sales while also gaining brand fans? The next article will introduce the latest Chinese fan e-commerce models, idol marketing, and fan economy through different cases.

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