China’s Celebrity Ambassador Minefield

Luxury brands navigate the risks and rewards of banking on celebrity ambassadors, Alibaba gears up for Singles Day with the launch of China’s largest robotics warehouse, and apologises for a sexist marketing blunder. Read China Decoded to make sense of the market


Original article was published by Business of Fashion.  MGI Entertainment was interviewed by Casey Hall.

The original file can be found here

An article by Casey Hall

The Celebrity Ambassador Minefield

With the announcement of Kris Wu as Louis Vuitton ambassador, China’s “little fresh meat” have crested the celebrity endorsement wave. Some of the Chinese ambassador choices luxury brands are making seem out of sync with their traditional DNA, but how much does it matter?

SHANGHAI, China — Kris Wu, known in China as Wu Yifan, is a divisive figure. Much like One Direction, Justin Bieber or the succession of Western pop-star heart-throbs that came before them, Wu is derided by hip-hop aficionados for his quick journey from baby face to bad boy, questioned over the legitimacy of his talent and ribbed for the proportion of his fan base made up of excitable young women. Whether Wu cares what his critics have to say is of course another matter but, either way, they have almost no impact on his bankability or his superstar status.

It is this fact which has luxury brands, and their mass market counterparts, lining up to work with him. Last week Louis Vuitton joined Burberry, Bulgari and McDonald’s in tapping the 27-year-old K-Pop alum turned actor, hip-hop star and reality TV “producer” as the face of their brand in China, home to the world’s largest pool of luxury consumers.


TFBoys’ Wang Junkai in Dior Homme


“The trend of international brands signing up Chinese talent as ‘global spokespersons’ is not new, and in my opinion will only grow in the years to come,” posits Jonathan Schenker, chief executive at Bookmark Entertainment, an agency with offices in Shanghai, Los Angeles and London, tasked with bringing together brands and celebrities from across the East-West cultural divide.

“Chinese buying-power is unprecedented and many global brands, especially in fashion, rely on it, both domestically and overseas. It is inevitable that brands will make every effort to appeal to these customers by aligning with China not just locally, but on a global scale.”

With more than 44 million Weibo followers, there is no doubting Wu’s ability to garner attention for any brand he works with. Just 24 hours after the announcement of his new gig as Louis Vuitton’s global ambassador, the news had been shared – alongside mostly positive commentary – more than two million times on China’s top micro-blogging platform.

Fresh meat expiration dates

For Joyce Weng, Bulgari Greater China’s brand communications director, the decision to bring a ‘xiao xian rou’ (or ‘little fresh meat’, the Chinese term for fresh-faced male celebrities who appeal to a rabid female fan base between the ages of 12 and 25) celebrity on board as brand ambassador didn’t feel contrary to the DNA of the 134-year-old heritage brand.

“To me, when we started looking at Kris Wu a few years ago, he was a nice and smart and [a] pretty boy. We had different discussions and meetings to get to know him better. He gave me the feeling of seeing the future of China, that’s what I felt in him,” Weng recently said on stage at the BoF China Summit.

The long-term contribution to that brand’s DNA, that isn’t able to be measured in short-term metrics.


“He has been the one to help us to talk to Post-90s, this [generation of consumers] in China who really are the future.”

For all the hype surrounding the rise of influencer culture in China (locally known as KOLs, an acronym for Key Opinion Leaders), a recent white paper released by influencer marketing agency, Wearisma, showed the top 10 influencers with the highest reach in China are all traditional celebrities, with the highest engagement rates universally garnered by male singers.

Like Wu, male pop-stars such as Lu Han, Li Yifeng and Jackson Wang have racked up endorsement deals with luxury brands galore alongside their social media followings, some reportedly charging as much as 1 million yuan ($146,000) per social media post.

Some of these pairings have given Chinese consumers, as well as industry observers, pause as to their suitability. Earlier this year, the announcement of Lu Han as Audemar Piguet ambassador proved particularly jarring to fans of the 143-year-old Swiss watch brand, whose international ambassadors are more likely to be traditionally masculine athletes, such as LeBron James and Novak Djokovic, in contrast to the distinctly effeminate Lu Han, who like Wu is a former member of South Korean boy band, EXO.


Lu Han, Li Yifeng and Jackson Wang in campaigns for their respective ambassadorships


Although there has been a distinct shift in what is considered an appropriate spokesperson for a luxury brand all over the world, the pace and intensity of this shift seems even more dramatic in China, where the luxury market seems to evolve faster than anywhere else on earth and where luxury brands are competing for eyeballs in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Given the pressure to achieve short-term success, it is little wonder brands bow to the pressure of attention grabbing celebrity partnerships.

Though Lyndon Morant, chief strategy officer at L’Atelier Asia Pacific, is sympathetic to the position of brands, particularly in a country such as China, where five percent of the posts on social media feature celebrities and KOLs but account for a staggering 77 percent of engagement, he warned against brands becoming slaves to the numbers.

“If all you want is comments, likes, shares, then you can buy that, but the long-term contribution to that brand’s DNA, that isn’t able to be measured in short-term metrics,” he said on stage at the BoF China Summit last month.

Walking a tightrope over a minefield

This being China, there is an added complication of working with celebrities in a communist-run country routinely rocked by officially-sanctioned crackdowns on ostentatious wealth, as well as morality campaigns. The bigger the name becomes in China, it seems, the more likely they are to attract the wrong kind of attention.

This year has, of course, seen the very public fall from grace of Fan Bingbing – China’s most famous film actress and herself a prolific endorser of brands, including Louis Vuitton, De Beers, Guerlain, and Montblanc – who disappeared from view for three months, before re-emerging last month with a public mea culpa and a massive $129 million fine for tax evasion.

“The reasons some of these celebrities have gotten in trouble in China is because they aren’t promoting wholesome Chinese values. If you look at the nature of celebrity [in China], they have to be seen as instruments of the people of China, of the government,” managing director of MGI Entertainment, Michael MacRitchie explains.

Perhaps in a nod to China’s increasingly restrictive atmosphere, Wu has recently tempered his carefully cultivated bad boy image.

If you look at the nature of celebrity in China, they have to be seen as instruments of the people of China, of the government.


Ahead of the launch of the second season of the phenomenally popular “The Rap of China” reality show this summer, he released songs and social media posts overtly praising the motherland, perhaps in order to appease officials who aren’t necessarily thrilled with the Wu-led hiphop influence that has permeated Chinese cultural life over the past two years.

“This kind of thing ebbs and flows, but for now, the big names are still going to sell [the most product],” MacRitchie says.

An unofficial alternative

The members of boy band TFBoys – Wang Junkai, Wang Yuan, and Yi Yangqianxi – may only be 18-years-old, but they already boast over 50 million followers apiece on Weibo. They are also at the forefront of a new kind of celebrity-luxury brand alliance to emerge in China over the past 12 months – the unofficial kind.

Gartner L2’s “Luxury China: Influencers” report, released in August, showed a trend for luxury brands to “draft” on the popularity of Weibo celebrities, by posting images of TFBoys members wearing their brand, without an official alliance or ambassadorship in play.

In fact, 41 percent of luxury brands tracked in the report mention at least one of the TFBoys in their Weibo posts, accounting for 28 percent of all engagement generated by posts that mention a celebrity.


TFBoys’ Wang Junkai in Dior Homme


Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Givenchy have posted images on Weibo of TFBoys wearing their product, generating what the report calls “outsized engagement”, despite the fact none of these brands are officially affiliated with the young celebs. It’s unclear what, if any, monetary inducement is on (or under) the table as part of this relationship, but the affiliation is seen as a positive for both sides.

“For brands and celebrities alike, non-ambassador partnerships can serve as a happy medium,” the report reads in part. “Luxury brands looking for a quick lift on social and celebrities at the start of their careers might both consider this method before committing to one another.”

For brands and celebrities alike, non-ambassador partnerships can serve as a happy medium.


TFBoy Wang Yuan, for example, saw an unofficial partnership with Chopard morph into a formal brand ambassadorship in May.

According to Jonathan Schenker, increasing caution will be a marker of future partnerships between Chinese celebrities and luxury brands. It’s likely in a post-Fan Bing Bing tax scandal world, the professionalism of celebrity talent managers in China will also come under scrutiny, with more targeted deals and ROI metrics the norm.

“As the number of luxury brands continues to grow and customer attention becomes harder to capture, companies are likely to use big data, tailored research and other tools to determine match-ability between a potential spokesperson and their brands,” he says.

In a relatively new luxury market, just turning up and winning the most eyeballs may have been enough, but as China matures and its consumers become increasingly discerning, credibility and relevance to a more targeted audience will be the markers of a successful celebrity partnership.



Topshop store | Source: Shutterstock


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Collage by Jan-Nico Meyer for BoF


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Donald Trump and Xi Jinping


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