Are Chinese millennials bored of celebrity brand ambassadors?

Some brand ambassadorships—such as Dior’s recruitment of Angelababy and Zhao Liying—have been met with raised eyebrows from Chinese consumers.

Dior has Angelababy, Gucci has Li Yuchun, and Burberry has Zhou Dongyu.

Luxury brands in China have taken a big step forward with their ambassador strategies in 2017, hoping to ingratiate themselves with the celebrities’ phenomenal followings, a large portion of whom are Chinese millennials. But is it the right strategy?

The direction that luxury brands have taken is in line with the conventional wisdom, which holds that associating with celebrities enhances public awareness and the credibility of the brands, and ultimately influences people’s fashion purchasing decisions.

In reality, however, some brand ambassadorships—such as Dior’s recruitment of Angelababy and Zhao Liying—have been met with raised eyebrows from Chinese consumers. Critics point out a lack of coherency between the celebrities’ personalities and the brand’s emphasis on tradition.

Other brand ambassadors, like actor Huang Xiaoming (Angelababy’s husband) for the South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC) have garnered less criticism, but fail to excite anyone but the celeb’s biggest fans.

Brand ambassadors are not a dead strategy in China (at least not yet), but it is time to re-examine their role.

Two questions luxury brands must ask themselves: who is the right celebrity ambassador for us, and should we engage one at all?

Beyond movie stars and singers

One emerging trend is for brands to work with artists, instead of singers and movie stars. Fine jewellery brand Qeelin, for example, recently announced a partnership with visual artist and photographer Chen Man. Compared to traditional celebrities, artists tend to be viewed as more authentic and consistent with a brand’s values.

Another alternative is to work with Chinese supermodels, several of whom have recently broken out as personalities in their own right after appearances on reality TV shows. Working in the fashion industry, models have their own sense of style that’s seen as more sophisticated and credible than that of traditional luxury brand ambassadors.

Other examples of the trend away from traditional celebrities include wang hong, or internet influencers. Major partnerships in recent months include vlogger-comedian Papi Jiang’s ad for Swiss luxury watch brand Jaeger LeCoultre, and fashion blogger Mr. Bags’ collaborations with high-end labels such as Givenchy, Fendi, Burberry, and Longchamp.

Consumers as KOLs

Many commentators, however, now believe that even pivoting from movie stars to wang hong is not enough.

“For luxury brands, maybe it’s time to ask whether celebrity ambassadorship is still an effective tactic if the very objective here is to attract millennial buyers,” said Ray Ju, Senior Branding Consultant at Labbrand New York.

“After all, we are entering an era when millennials aspire themselves to be ambassadors of a brand, a lifestyle, or simply a kind of vibe on social media. They are not crazy about being represented by a celebrity who just happens to have a huge following on social media.”

According to an August survey by China University Media Union (CUMU), a whopping 42 percent of college students now want to become wang hong themselves after graduating.

“I believe [future brand ambassadors] will be specialized key opinion leaders and live-streamers talking to a very targeted audience, rather than the Fan Bingbings of their time,” said Louis Houdart, founder of the marketing and branding agency Creative Capital.

“Thanks to social networks, any user is her own little KOL of her group of friends, which explain all the work millennials are putting into crafting the best pictures [on their accounts],” he said.

It is no longer about being famous for 15 minutes, but for 15 friends.

Many brands in the beauty sector have already started to make consumers their first ambassadors. Houdart revealed that some brands he works with have come to realize that directly making consumers the core of their engagement and outreach strategy has become much more effective than finding a high-cost celebrity to represent their products.

“They work so hard on the graphics [and] visual aspects, and thinking of how it will look online in a WeChat or Weibo post.”

RTG’s Chief Strategy Officer Marc-Olivier Arnold expects to see more brands moving away from investing a significant portion of their marketing budgets on a single brand ambassador and instead making efforts to be a platform for a wider range of influencers to curate content on the brand’s behalf.

“It’s a win-win partnership between the brand and the influencers, instead of a simple transaction between a brand and a celebrity. It’s also a more effective way to engage in a constant, more authentic and meaningful dialogue with their specific followers, which is what China’s millennials expect,” he said.

Not so fast…

Brian Buchwald, co-founder of New York-based marketing agency Bomoda, holds a more optimistic view of brand ambassadorships in China. He believes the strategy will remain significant, but will need to be more intelligently executed.

“The strategy is hugely important in China and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. In fact, some of the largest splashes brands have made in the past 12 months are those associated with the naming of such ambassadors,” said Buchwald.

“However, as the Chinese consumer is becoming more discerning and such partnerships are increasing in price, it is incumbent upon smart brands to assiduously vet ambassador candidates. This vetting can include top of the funnel metrics related to brand awareness and general engagement. But it is critical to also now consider how such influencers impact lower funnel metrics like consumer sentiment, purchase intent, and ultimately sales.”

Ultimately, luxury brands’ should be careful not to let dubious data and follower numbers distract them from the stories they have to tell. Sometimes, by counting on celebrities, brands miss the opportunity to nurture a more authentic, organic relationship with their consumers.

The takeaway
• Chinese consumers are becoming more critical of ill-suited brand ambassadors
• Artists, supermodels and wang hong may have more credibility than traditional stars
• 42 percent of Chinese college students want to be KOLs, not follow them
• Having many consumers as brand ambassadors may be more effective than one star

Source: Jing Daily/ campaignasia.com; 18 Dec 2017

A checklist for hiring celebrities in China

Zero tolerance: Five things China’s government and/or public won’t accept in celebrity endorsers.

In recent years, foreign luxury brands in China have heavily relied on celebrities to enhance brand recognition and gain customer loyalty. Though this strategy can bring about repercussions when brands work with someone who does not fit their image, partnering with celebrities can at least bring a substantial amount of traffic and attention on social media. Marketers can then leverage this attention to promote products and tell brand stories.

Making celebrities the public face of brands, nonetheless, has become an increasingly difficult task nowadays, which requires marketers to understand the political, cultural and social reality of China and vet potential brand ambassadors.

In recent months, the Chinese government has rolled out a series of measures to regulate celebrity and entertainment circles. The most recent prominent example of this is Katy Perry, who was scheduled to perform at the Shanghai Victoria Secret Fashion Show this year. However, her visa was denied because of her 2015 performance in Taipei, where she donned a dress with sunflowers on it and waved a Taiwanese flag. The sunflower was the symbol of the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, which protested a bill that aimed to liberalize trade between China and Taiwan. However, many protesters feared further economic integration with China would encroach on Taiwan’s political independence.

The above example speaks to the necessity for luxury brands to fully understand the lifestyles, personal behaviours and relationships, as well as political attitudes of the celebrities who they want to hire. Celebrities’ massive online popularity will make their career-ending scandals go viral much more easily than others, which could bring irreversible damage to the brands that they represent.

Though there are no perfect precautionary measures that can be taken to totally avoid celebrity scandals from occurring, there are many lessons that luxury brands can learn about what the Chinese government and the public dislike based on some previous cases. The following are several issues that the Chinese government and online citizens show zero tolerance for:

1. Drugs

Drugs are totally forbidden in China. This includes marijuana, which has been legalized in many nations around the world. In 2015, the Chinese government passed a regulation that stipulates that celebrities who are involved in drug-related scandals cannot appear in TV shows, advertisements, films, etc. and brands that work with them have to drop their contracts.

The Taiwanese actor Kai Ko, who used to be the brand ambassador of the French premium cosmetics brand L’Oreal, is a prominent example of a brand ambassador running into trouble for drug use. Ko gained fame for his role in the film “You Are the Apple of My Eye.” In 2014, he was detained by Beijing police for drug use and L’Oreal issued a public statement to apologize to the public for working with Ko.

2. Political stance

It is equally important to check the political stance of celebrities before hiring them. In China, the public cannot promote Taiwanese and Tibetan independence. It is also unacceptable to criticize the country’s political system and leaders or publicly show affinity for Japan.

Lancome’s previous brand ambassador, Denise Ho from Hong Kong, was removed from her position after voicing her support for the “Occupy Central” movement, which sparked backlash on China’s social media sites last year.

3. Extramarital affairs

The Chinese online community also has zero tolerance for celebrities’ extramarital affairs. Extramarital scandals cause substantially more uproar on the Chinese internet and the unfaithful party is often harshly criticized for his or her unethical behaviour. In recent years, the Chinese populace has at times voluntarily boycotted celebrities who are involved in this type of scandal.

Montblanc‘s previous Chinese brand ambassador Lin Dan, a professional badminton player who has won two Olympic gold medals, is a prime example. He was replaced by other celebrities immediately after his extramarital affairs were exposed to the public in 2016.

4. Charity fraud

For Chinese celebrities, it is a highly valuable practice for them to participate in philanthropic activities. The government and the public like to see them give their time or money for a cause.

The Hollywood star Zhang Ziyi, who was also the brand ambassador of Giorgio Armani, came under fire for charity fraud. Zhang reportedly lied about donating money to aid people who suffered in the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008. Zhang quickly received harsh rebuke from both the Chinese government and the public. The state-owned People’s Daily wrote an open letter to Zhang, that said that her behaviours “challenged human being’s moral limitation.” The brand immediately dropped Zhang.

5. Unethical business practices

Nowadays, many Chinese celebrities have their own businesses along with their careers as actors or singers. Therefore, luxury brands have to ensure that they are aware of the kind of businesses that their celebrity partners have been running. For example, Emporio Armani’s Chinese brand ambassador Hu Ge owns a Japanese restaurant in Shanghai. Dior’s brand ambassador Angelababy is also the founder of two venture capital firms.

Last week, the brand ambassador of the high-end watch brand Jaeger-LeCoultre, Zhao Wei, was involved in a financial fraud case. Chinese authorities discovered her and her husband’s unethical activities in the country’s capital markets.

Source: Jing Daily/campaignasia.com; 20 Nov 2017