Brands Shy Away From Celebrity Marketing in China

What Happened: China’s “traffic stars” may be fading out of favor. According to a recent report by Shiqu Insight Engine, celebrity marketing events in March 2022 fell by 50.9 percent compared with the same period last year. Conversely, co-branded marketing and new product marketing surged 91.3 percent and 57.6 percent, respectively, while sports marketing jumped 6.6 times.

The Jing Take: “Traffic stars,” a Chinese term for KOLs who drive high digital traffic, have helped brands achieve explosive growth for their new products. Although a decline of celebrity events could be partially attributed to the ongoing pandemic — with Shanghai still in lockdown and Shenzhen just recovering — it points more so to the shifting tides in China’s entertainment industry. From Kris Wu’s sexual assault scandal last year to the more recent tax evasion cases of livestreamer Viya and actor Deng Lun, brands that don’t respond quickly enough to their ambassadors’ bad behavior are finding themselves caught in the crossfire, too.

Fortunately, there are other options. As the Winter Olympics proved, sports stars can be just as effective at marketing. Take Anta and Tiffany & Co., who signed with freestyle skier Eileen Gu early and scored big when she won gold in February; sales of the red Anta ski suit Gu wore during the competition surged 20-fold on while her Tiffany rings and bangles trended on Chinese social media. Similarly, Prada racked up over 46 million views on Douyin for its Spring/Summer 2022 collection after creating a video campaign centered around four Chinese Olympic athletes.

Prada tapped female athletes Yang Shuyu (left) and Gong Lijiao (right) to promote its Spring/Summer 2022 collection. Photo: Prada’s Weibo

Co-branded drops are also a safer alternative, although brands are not exempt from netizen backlash if they commit a faux pas. Ultimately, globally players that want to fuel long-term growth in China rather than one-off sales should look beyond traffic stars — and focus on building their reach instead of just borrowing it. As the saying goes, the brightest stars burn the quickest. And brands don’t want to be around when things go up in flames.

The Jing Take reports on a piece of the leading news and presents our editorial team’s analysis of the key implications for the luxury industry. In the recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debate sprouting on Chinese social media.