Key Takeaways: Nanjing-based brand Shein recently overtook Zara and is fast approaching H&M as one of the world’s biggest fast-fashion brands.
The brand’s success can be largely credited to its internet-viral social media strategy, which has seen it appear in countless clothing haul videos on TikTok and YouTube. Shein also works with popular celebrities — Katy Perry, Lil Nas X, Rita Ora, Hailey Bieber and Yara Shahidi have all represented Shein over the past year.
There are not many Gen Zers on social media who aren’t familiar with Chinese fast-fashion brand Shein. On TikTok alone, #shein has garnered 6.2 billion views and appears in more than 70 other trending hashtags, while over on Instagram, Shein’s ten verified accounts, representing some of the 220-plus countries and regions it ships to, boast a total of nearly 30 million followers.
Founded by entrepreneur Xu Yangtian (aka Chris Xu) in Nanjing circa 2008 as Sheinside.com with a focus on selling inexpensive wedding dresses, the company pivoted to broader retail in 2015 and since then, it has been on a path to internet virality via global social media.
As a direct-to-consumer (DTC) retailer of apparel, home goods, pet supplies, and just about everything else, Shein has doubled its sales for eight consecutive years. Its latest financing round valued the company at more than $15 billion, according to LatePost, approaching the likes of H&M ($23.1 billion) and overtaking Zara ($14.7 billion).
The brand predominantly relies on social media marketing, inviting fans around the world to join its affiliate program, through which up-and-coming influencers can receive commissions for promoting the brand with posts of their outfits. As a result, Shein’s Instagram includes images from paid partnerships with mega-influencers like TikToker Addison Rae alongside reposts from lesser-known creators with follower counts in the 2,000 to 50,000 range.
Emily Trenouth, head of influencer marketing at advertising firm MediaCom, says that Shein’s social media strategy achieved mass awareness through its influencer affiliate program. “They have a really robust two-pronged approach of partnerships and collaborations with macro-influencers, while simultaneously running a huge micro-influencer always-on program,” she said.
In India alone, Shein was collaborating with around 2,000 influencers in 2018, its first year in the market, according to an interview with Shein India General Manager Malcolm Yam, who also noted that the company was reaching out to potential collaboration partners nearly every day.
The high volume of influencer partnerships is reflected in the brand’s frequent and consistent posting across each of its Instagram accounts, which generally feature five to eight new posts per day. And by using country-specific accounts on Instagram, Shein is able to finesse its local influencer strategies and create more relevant connections with consumers in each of those markets.
Trenouth emphasized how well Shein understands the types of content that resonate most with Gen Z consumers, such as “competitions, hauls, Reels, TikToks and live DJ sets.” She noted, “There’s a community of Shein fans who actively want to participate and be associated with their brand, which is evident from the 734K+ hashtag uses of #Sheingals on Instagram.”
Shein hosts Instagram live shows every Wednesday, and recently celebrated its fourth anniversary with an Instagram Live event hosted by Renee Ariel (17.5K followers) and Fiona Zaring (2,707 followers) during which viewers had the opportunity to win gift cards and redeemable points while watching clothing reviews. And last year, the brand enlisted A-listers Katy Perry, Lil Nas X, Rita Ora, Hailey Bieber and Yara Shahidi to appear in its #SheinTogether livestreamed fundraiser concert to support the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.
While Shein has a strong digital strategy and is investing in online video, the brand’s defining strength is its social media presence based on user-generated content. As the epitome of a customer-centric brand, the label is perhaps best known for appearing in millions of review videos or “clothing hauls” across TikTok and YouTube. Of the ten most-watched Shein try-on videos on YouTube, only two were sponsored by the brand.
Shein offers a notoriously huge number of extremely inexpensive products, adding as many as 500 new items for sale each day, which encourages shoppers to seek out hidden gems and share their discoveries with others.
According to Trenouth, clothing hauls represent the most successful format for fashion brands within influencer marketing, simply because consumers want to see clothes on real people. “Hauls are really advancing,” she said. “As we’re starting to see them within TikTok and Reels videos instead of having to watch a full 15- to 20-minute YouTube video, brands and influencers can demonstrate more looks within a shorter time period, and ultimately reach more potential customers.”
As these videos continue to captivate Gen Z, so will Shein. The next decade might see young consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental concerns of excessively fast fashion, but until their shopping and viewing habits are driven by greener consciences, Shein’s social media strategy will continue to top the competition.