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 reexamine 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 jewelry 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.