Unless you were living under a rock in 2015, it’s likely you saw, read about, or at least heard about That Dress, an image of which became one of the most widely circulated pictures of the year—on the Western internet, that is.
But what about That Selfie? Did you hear about that?
What selfie, you say? Well, when Chinese actress Fan Bingbing and her sometime costar, actor Li Chen, confirmed their rumored romantic relationship by posting a portrait captioned, simply, “Us.” It blew up the Chinese internet, generating 920 million views, a response that dwarfed the draw of the digital dress.
But if you’re not a native Chinese or a serious student of the language, chances are you’ve never heard of That Selfie, and that is hardly surprising. The chasm between China’s social media ecosystem—now 650 million online and counting—and the Twitterverse enveloping the rest of the world is not simply cultural. Add the fact that Western social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are banned inside mainland China’s Great Firewall, and the gulf widens further.
For Hollywood executives in talent management, marketing, and publicity—and for the consumer brands that hang on every word of their every campaign—figuring out a way to bridge the social media gap between the West and the East is becoming more important by the day. China is the second largest movie market in the world and ticket sales there are expected to overtake North American sales within a year. What’s more, Chinese consumers bought nearly half the world’s luxury goods in 2015.
And as Hollywood film and global fashion continue to look to China for growth, the need for Western celebrities to build their personal brands in the world’s most populous nation has become ever more pressing. Those who make the leap stand to reap major rewards in the form of celebrity endorsements.
Much in the way that Hollywood stars flogged Western brands in boomtime 1980s Japan, an increasing number of Western celebrities are laser-focused on breaking into China today. When not flying halfway around the globe on surgical-strike press junkets, the best way to get their skin in the game in China is via the country’s two most important social media networks, Weibo and WeChat.
Seizing on the opportunity, former Lehman Brothers banker and private equity investor Adam Roseman started FansTang in 2012 as a digital marketing company to promote Hollywood celebrities and Western athletes in the Chinese market.
Since then, FansTang, the consumer arm of the China Branding Group, of which Roseman is a co-founder and CEO, and its team of over 50 employees in offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Los Angeles, has built up what he calls a Chinese language “content ecosystem” around the company’s roughly 80 star clients.
North American singer-songwriters Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Adam Lambert, and Avril Lavigne are FansTang clients, Roseman said, as are National Basketball Association player Dwyane Wade, Vampire Diaries star Ian Somerhalder, and Chace Crawford of “Gossip Girl,” Roseman told China Film Insider.
From the very beginning, FansTang’s goal was not just to represent individual celebrities but to leverage all its clients’ social media accounts, whose collective followers, across all platforms, currently number 128 million, up from 50 million in 2013.
“The goal was for all of them to play off one another and effectively create this fan base,” Roseman said.
Drawing on a range of analytics, Roseman said that the FansTang ecosystem has drawn a fan base that can be sliced into discrete demographic groups within an overall millennial audience—Chinese born just on either side of the turn of the century who have more money to spend on average than any of their forebears.
FansTang links its talent clients into content deals with brand clients such as Coca Cola, Red Bull, and the Los Angeles Tourism Board, Roseman said.
But bridging the gap between West and East is not as simple as translating a Twitter or Facebook feed. Few Western celebrities have had a runaway viral success on the Chinese internet on the scale of That Selfie posted by Fan Bingbing and Li Chen.
The FansTang team makes content suggestions to the talent based around their personalities and interests and what’s happening in their careers. “Those who put in the time,” Roseman said, “They’re the ones who get the most out of it.”
To avoid predictable content, FansTang’s production team works with Western talent to create unique Chinese-language messages tailored to their new fast-growing fan base.
“Typically, they won’t just send one post—they’ll write a great number of posts; anywhere from a week to a couple of months, that will feed into their social accounts,” Roseman said
When FansTang first started, Weibo—the closest thing China’s got to Twitter—dominated the Chinese social media landscape. But since then, the Chinese digital environment has changed rapidly with the rise of competing social media networks such as instant messaging platform WeChat, and with the proliferation of online video streaming sites—all while having to navigate often-strict government censorship.
“We’re always changing” Roseman said. “To be successful in China, in particular in the Chinese digital ecosystem, you have to be highly dynamic.”
The celebrity accounts controlled by FansTang have never had a run-in with China’s heavy-handed online censors, because, Roseman said, his social media managers are mainland Chinese who know where to draw the line. For instance, nobody at FansTang would ever quip online about Taylor Swift’s latest album, “1989”—named for the year of her birth—coincidentally being the year of a violent government crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
“We’re overly cautious in that regard, as we should be,” Roseman said. “We focus on areas that are supporting and areas that are positive in nature, we try to ensure that everything has a positive bent to it.”
The content FansTang produces has evolved from simple status updates on Weibo, to GIFs and audio updates on WeChat and even to to red-carpet events live-streamed from Hollywood with running commentary in Chinese. Since 2014, FansTang has live-streamed over 25 events to China, including a daily online show, This Week in Hollywood, on Chinese internet giant Tencent’s streaming service. In 2013, the company announced it would produce a Hollywood news show for Dragon TV in Shanghai, employing an approach not too dissimilar from one tried previously with mixed results by other Hollywood boosters at an earlier phase of China’s recent moviemaking boom.
Like practically everybody who arrives in China from Hollywood, FansTang is looking to blend imported content with local flavors.
In 2015, FansTang brought Li Weijia, the popular host of Hunan Satellite Television’s long-running popular celebrity talent show Happy Camp, to the red carpet at the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards.
“So you had one of China’s most famous hosts on the red carpet at these events interviewing the top U.S. celebrities,” Roseman said. “There was a personality they could relate to who was doing the commentary between interviews that was very much China-first.”
In November 2015, FansTang ran a one-month promotion of extreme sports film Point Break, released in China on December 4 by DMG Entertainment, weeks before its U.S. premiere. The film’s star Luke Bracey appeared on FansTang’s This Week in Hollywood online show giving Chinese followers who shared the digital campaign a chance to win a trip to Los Angeles to go skydiving with him.
DMG had a positive experience with FansTang, whose work “definitely helped,” with the Point Break campaign, said one DMG executive who asked not be named.
The promotional material garnered 26 million views, while the social media campaign racked up 35 million social impressions, and the pre-roll ran over 38,000 times in Shanghai, according to a FansTang.
Looking ahead, FansTang hopes to rise with the tide of Chinese demand for direct interaction with a wider constellation of overseas talent as their names become familiar when their older films start streaming with Chinese subtitles because online video distributors iQiyi, Sohu, Youku Tudou, Tencent, and LeTV have snapped up Hollywood film catalogs.
Until then, FansTang is experimenting with social media campaings around an array of rising U.S. television talent whose shows happen to rank highly on Chinese search engine Baidu’s TOP 10 U.S. TV index—stars including Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet, both from “Marvel: Agents of SHIELD,” Matthew Moy of “Two Broke Girls,” and Katie Cassidy of “Arrow.”
In 2015, FansTang teamed up with Coca-Cola and LiquidThread, the branded content division of the Starcom MediaVest Group, to create short videos of U.S. celebrities quoting famous lines from Chinese and Hollywood movies. The quotes were also featured on Coke’s bottles in China as part of its summer marketing campaign.
FansTang then promoted the Coke videos through some of the social media accounts they control. The company declined to say how much the campaign cost. They did say, however, that it achieved over 600 million impressions, 600,000 likes, 250,000 forwards and 87,000 comments on Sina Weibo, and 92,000 messages on WeChat—not quite at the level of That Selfie, but steps in the right direction.
—Additional reporting by Chonghe Zhang.