Brands are Helping Super Fans Support Their Idols

We have all heard how powerful the fan economy is in China, which is why brands pay top dollar to collaborate with popular idols. But brands are getting smart. Instead of paying massive amounts for celebrities to promote their products to their fans, they are instead going straight to the fans, sponsoring them to support their favorite celebrities. And they are reaching the same people, still leveraging the fan economy. They’re just approaching it from the bottom up rather than the top down. 

The Strength of Chinese Fan Groups

It is not hard to notice that there are more and more idols rising in China, and it often feels like they come out of nowhere and become insanely popular overnight. Maybe they star in a TV series and then, all of a sudden, they’re all over Weibo’s hot topic ranking. This “overnight success” is in large part due to China’s massive network of incredibly organized and active fan groups, and their leaders called Zhanjie (站姐).

The term Zhanjie originated from South Korea. It refers to fan group leaders who manage the platforms called 站子, which the fans groups use to organize their efforts to support their idols. The job of a Zhanjie is to know their idols’ schedule as much as possible and arrange group members to show up en masse any time the idol appears in public, such as at the airport, press events, concerts, or any place they are able to find out about. They will take photos of the idols, color correct them to look great, then post them on social media to increase the idol’s exposure. They also organize fans to support idols online, whether that’s liking and reposting a video on social media or voting for their idols to improve their ranking in online leaderboards.

Brand Sponsored Leaderboard Platforms

Accompanied with the rise of Zhanjie, there are some commercial opportunities as well. Zhanjie and their group members want to create more exposure for their idols, but they don’t have the financial resources to make this happen. At the same time, brands want to generate awareness for their products, but they don’t want to pay massive budgets to work directly with celebrities. In this situation, a third party is emerging.

For example, there is a Mini Program called Guojiang Aidou Bang (果酱爱豆榜), which ranks the most popular celebrities. Fans are encouraged to help their idols rank higher by voting, and in order to gain more votes, fans need to finish tasks assigned by the platform, including posting about the celebrity on Weibo, watching videos, participating in challenges on Douyin, and sharing with friends on social media to encourage them to vote.

Fans can vote for their favorite celebrities to win contests on the Guojiang Aidou Bang platform (left). Fans earn points by completing tasks (center) and then can give those points to the celebrity (right).

Fans are driven to help their celebrity win contests because, if they do, the platform will promote the celebrity publicly, paying for the celebrity’s image to appear on large screens in shopping areas around China, as well as running ads featuring the celebrity on various social media platforms.

And it doesn’t stop there. Last year after fans helped him win a major contest, Guojiang Aidou Bang plastered the image of the young crosstalk comedian Zhang Yunlei across multiple screens in New York City’s Times Square for a week, which became a hot topic all over Chinese social media, as netizens marveled at the strength of Zhang’s fans.

Only one of the 3 billboards where Zhang’s image appeared in Times Square. Photo: Courtesy

But fans didn’t pay for the Times Square campaign, and neither did Guojiang Aidou Bang — brands did.

All of the contests on the platform are sponsored by brands, and as a byproduct, generating loyalty among fans who recognize that these brands are helping them to help their favorite idols.

Movie Theaters Courting Fan Groups

Chinese movie theaters have also begun courting fan groups to drive up ticket sales. A couple months ago when the movie Better Days (少年的你) starring the massively popular Jackson Yi, a member of the TFBoys, opened, theaters enticed his fan groups by decorating the theater to be movie-themed and creating popcorn boxes and Coca Cola bottles with Yi’s image on them. One theatre changed all of its room’s names to Qianxi’s song titles and gave fans free posters and souvenir movie tickets. And moves like this work. His fan groups alone sold out 4,563 movie showings, contributing over 10 million RMB (roughly $1.4 million USD) in box-office ticket sales.

While sponsoring contests and creating branded souvenirs may not be appropriate for all brands, it is surely food for thought, particularly since the vast majority of luxury brands partner with Chinese celebrities and are seeking to leverage the fan economy. It is a new approach that is flipping the old model on its head. It’s a smart way for brands to build a rapport with fans and support them to do what they love — instead of simply pushing products on them.