Is Trading Celebrity Damaging Your Brand?
When news of Kris Wu’s sexual assault scandal broke, it sent shockwaves around the world, but it was her legions of endorsers who felt the pain as they weighed the fallout. And since Wu, brand headaches have only increased as Beijing tightens its grip on the entertainment industry further, leaving in its wake an ever-growing list of victims: Actress Zhao Wei, the star television Zhang Zhehan, model Zheng Shuang, singer Huo Zun, television anchor Qian Feng, influencer Guo Laoshi, and wider targets too, such as the ban on effeminate men.
Luxury names rely heavily on celebrities in China – more than in any other market – and are seen as a fast lane to fans who often go to extreme lengths to support their icons. However, the continued disruption of luxury – scandals, blacklists and cancellations, all underpinned by government regulations and crackdowns – marks an unprecedented period in the history of entertainment on the continent, which is still reeling from consumers. fallout from COVID-19.
Here, Daily Jing explores the ramifications of this ongoing crisis: what replacing one celebrity with another means for your brand, and what alternatives may be possible – and profitable.
Big names enlisting big numbers
If you look at any major luxury brand, it will have a multitude of celebrities at the helm of the brand at all times. In China, that equates to big numbers and the ability to reach countless fans, making it the strategy of choice for countless luxury brands. Dior, for example, has a large roster of top personalities led by Angelababy, who has over 100 million followers on Weibo. This vast network offers them a potential reach of more than 390 million “potential” consumers.
Meanwhile, Chanel also has a huge selection of celebs attached to the house. Actress Song Qian, among others, gives her combined access to over 270 million fans. Louis Vuitton, however, trails both, boosting to just under 200 million fans, but less than half the star rating.
Some brands are doing better than others: Chanel’s first ambassador to China, Zhou Xun, was announced in 2011 and is still around. Others are less fortunate, like Bulgarian, who faced the challenge of having to drop out of Wu earlier this year. Even so, does just breaking ties with Wu, like they did, and swapping popular actor Yang Yang make any difference to their reputation?
When it comes to working with celebrities, Tom Griffiths, co-founder of marketing agency Half A World, believes companies are often less concerned with ‘brand fit’, making it a less than genuine partnership in the first place. “More often than not, celebrities are not involved in the creative process, and the celebrity personality is not even used in campaigns.”
Given this, why should consumers care? However, there are exceptions which invalidate this rule. The Victoria’s Secret lingerie powerhouse, which is no secret to controversy in China, is one of them. The brand is currently repositioning itself and is now pushing for more body diversity. “Bringing in Yang Tianzhen was a nice surprise that offered a bit more substance than the usual celebrity campaign,” Griffiths said. “But for the most part, celebrity campaigns are fairly straightforward, and the selection of talent is based on the size of the celebrity audience.”
Therefore, while followers are the key, there are plenty of stars with very engaged fan bases in China. Indeed, some have less than perfect backgrounds to begin with, making them even more unusual choices, such as TV actor Zheng Shuang, who was hired (and later dropped) by Prada despite his controversial history. .
A revolving door of celebrity names
When homes need to cut their ties with a big face, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate downside: buyers will continue to shop; fans will always covet. Despite this, the revolving door system reveals the elephant in the room. As Sarah Yam, co-founder of the agency Red Digital, explained, “Whether or not the new celebrity is the next target in the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Chinese entertainment industry is another question.”
It’s true that stars who are shunned need to keep a low profile, opening up opportunities for newer and often unexpected names to step in. Although, as we have seen in the case of Dior’s Angelababy, which was involved in a tax scandal in 2018, if they are seen repenting, they can certainly make a comeback. Presumably good news for Zheng Shuang, who received $ 46 million fine for tax evasion.
Plus, as Griffiths pointed out, there is the potential to “turn off a few die-hard fans” as the brand appears to “drop” stardom in times of crisis. It also happened when the aforementioned Zheng was abandoned by Prada over an alleged surrogacy incident. His Weibo account is currently deleted.
Additionally, face swapping can also be a way of locating for the market, but it can impact international fans. This happened when Jo Malone China swapped out Nigerian Briton John Boyega for Chinese actor Liu Haoran for a short film (despite, for once, Boyega having a large and very personal creative contribution to the film). The impact has been much greater outside of China than at the local level; despite the international backlash, Jo Malone came out unscathed on the continent and continues to enjoy a healthy position.
Alternatives that can help alleviate excessive dependence
While a new face will certainly distract consumers in the short term – acting like what Yam calls a “pain reliever” – businesses need medium to long term ways to increase interactions with consumers. It proposes: “to invest in digital and content marketing activities” (the current Chanel perfume exhibition in Shanghai); ‘Corporate social responsibility’ (companies from Burberry to Prada have benefited from early hires) and respond to ‘the rise of’ Guochao ‘and the trend towards nationalism through local artists’ (Louis Vuitton’s Artycapucines initiative puts featuring artists Zeng Fanzhi and Huang Yuxing).
Virtual stars are on the rise. Alibaba has AYAYI, while Florasis and Centaine also have AI Ambassadors, but the practice is niche. Of course, older celebrities are also less likely to have scandals, and many brands including Cartier (Gong Li) and Chanel (Zhou Xun) have mature faces. The show, Call me by the fire features an older male celebrity bank that also rose to popularity this year. However, age is no guarantee of a trouble-free partnership.
Celebrity marketing comes with risk (and a hefty price tag) and despite the current crackdowns from Beijing, it remains the fastest way to market yourself in China’s complicated marketplace.