June 2011

New influencers

By John Solomon and Simon Cochrane

Advertising endorsements must grow up to keep the attention of Chinese youth

Would Michael Jackson have chronicled his sleepless nights on Twitter? Would Elvis have given fans a sneak peek at his latest karate moves on Ustream? Would doing so have increased or decreased the popularity and marketability of these two kings of the entertainment world?

These are admittedly extreme examples, but they do highlight the fact that today's digital and online culture has changed the nature of celebrity, both in China and around the world.

 Stars today are not only expected to make their every thought and move accessible to fans via a vast network of social media platforms and microblogging sites; they also increasingly find themselves in competition with those who have traditionally been perceived as audience members. This challenge to the status quo comes mainly from a growing number of everyday, web-savvy self-promoters – some of whom have become so adept at manipulating the world of online culture that they often (for better and for worse) emerge as celebrities in their own right. 

And while sharing some of the spotlight is now seen as a sign of the times, perhaps the more interesting question is how prepared are advertisers and endorsers when it comes to taking advantage of the growing pool of new celebrity talent? What new tools are needed to catch the ever-evolving eye of the youth market?

Chinese idols

In China, most youth-associated endorsements have traditionally been handled by  young pop and film "idols."  Asia's pop culture and entertainment industry has followed this endorsement model almost religiously, largely because the image of these stars is closely controlled on all fronts.

But the rise of Web 2.0 – specifically the need for these idols to now engage their fans on a more personal level through social media – means that advertisers have less control of the reigns when it comes to managing an idol's public face.

What we're seeing on the ground is that the tastes of young people in China are outpacing what the entertainment industries can provide. As they interact with a greater number of channels of online information, they are being exposed to types of media which are opening their eyes to different genres of film, music, TV and literature. New and often non-traditional icons are literally exploding out of cyberspace almost as fast as people can refresh their internet browsers. The result is a new, far less predictable playing field when it comes to identifying those that can best endorse a brand's products.

For example, 20-something Pixie Tea shot to fame with a music video she produced for her song "ABCD Said" using nothing but her iPhone. Her video went viral and even earned her a Tudou Award. She has since been approached by Levi's, Adidas, Starbucks and Sony and asked to endorse their products. Following a similar path, Mercedes-Benz recently used a song by Youku.com sensation-turned-pop star Wang Ting as the theme for their B-Class advertising campaign.

It's not just musicians who are getting into the endorsement game. Chinese clothing company Metersbonwe chose to feature Cherrygun, a stylist and fashion blogger, in their recent "I Am the New National Product" campaign.

In an attempt to bring some order to the chaotic ranks of emerging online stars, social business consultancy CIC broke down endorsers into the following two categories: those who are already established celebrities, and those who are "weblerities," or people who were unknown to the general public before a rise to fame online.

But a more stringent classification system might still be needed. This is because many individuals who gain celebrity status online often do it purely by mistake or as a result of outrageous behavior.

Online order

Examples of this phenomenon can be seen with people like Brother Sharp, known as China's most famous vagrant, and Sister Feng, an internet celebrity known for her high boyfriend demands despite her own lower-than-average looks. Their fame is directly linked to outrageousness – not a trait most brands have traditionally wanted to be associated with. More notorious than famous, these weblerities often suffer from drawbacks such as a short shelf-life, a lack of real status or talent, and simply being too difficult to classify.  Such qualities don't lend themselves to good endorsements.

This doesn't mean that the role of idols as endorsers has run its course. But their relationship with youth is shifting and brands that want to stay current need to adapt with these trends. It also means that today's idols can come in more shapes and forms than ever before.

Companies like Vancl, an online clothing firm, have demonstrated an understanding of these new trends. Its "Vanclize" ad campaign became a viral hit by letting (intentionally or not, we still do not know) their celebrity-led advertisements be spoofed online by photo manipulators. The genius of this campaign was that they were able to both play with the idea of a brand name while simultaneously increasing its equity.

More recently, Vancl's "Streetstars" campaign allowed participants to upload pictures of themselves in different outfits, which were then rated and ranked by other viewers. The campaign allowed the company to tie their brand to unique and popular web influencers while showcasing their products.

Other innovative agencies are taking the online branding concept one step further. They are working with clients to create fictional characters to endorse their products from the ground-up and across multiple channels. These "endorsers" come complete with detailed profiles, blogs and photo accounts across a variety of social media platforms. This helps engage young consumers with the characters and, in doing so, keeps them engaged with the brand. It also gives brands more control over their characters and budgets as they don't need the likes of Hong Kong star Edison Chen anymore.

Perpetuating this connection is extremely important for those who want to keep young consumers' attention in today's ever-changing landscape. Those who boldly tap into the increasing pool of endorsers will quickly find that, while today's youth no longer wants to engage in complete idol worship, they still want someone to look up to and guide them.

John Solomon is managing director of enovate, a Chinese youth marketing consultancy based in Shanghai. Simon Cochrane is a research analyst at enovate. For more information visit www.enovatechina.com.