China’s Changing Masculinity Propels a Brand New Idol

When key brands like Estée Lauder appoint a new Chinese brand ambassador, it should be monitored closely, as it will likely impact the competitive luxury landscape. But this move looks to be even more pivotal than usual. That’s because, even though Li Xian might look like just the latest “little fresh meat” idol, he’s symbolically much more. Many say he embodies a new take on masculinity, both in terms of aesthetics and rising values, and by understanding this new appeal, brands can better formulate how they want to leverage the power of celebrities in China and get greater engagement with the country’s younger generations.

Who is Li Xian?

Although Li Xian’s fame has recently skyrocketed, the 27-year-old actor, who has collected over 19 million fans on Weibo, isn’t new to the scene. He’s been acting since 2011, but his popularity began to soar when his television series “Go Go Squid!” was broadcast nationally. The show is a typical romantic drama co-starring the popular actress Yang Zi, and it became one of the top-ranking shows in July (and, according to Iqiyi, is the second most successful drama after last year’s mega-hit “Story of Yanxi Palace”).

A classic boyfriend with a twist 

In the drama, Li Xian plays the role of a professional video gamer/cybersecurity specialist as well as the typical masculine romantic lead: domineering and smart (yet introverted) but with a sensitive spot for his love interest. While he embodies all the classical expectations of a Chinese boyfriend (responsible, protective, loyal) his character is also very respectful of his girlfriend’s accomplishments and freedoms (she’s a top-ranking AI student, a top singer on social media, and financially independent, even offering him to support him.) In short, Xian’s character is the perfect balance of traditional and modern masculinity.

The ‘current boyfriend’ that stands out

In September, Li Xian won the GQ Popular Actor of the Year Award and has gained a lot of notoriety ever since. He’s been nicknamed “current boyfriend” by his Chinese fans and is now one of the rare celebrities that almost all luxury brands are dying to work with him. Although he looks like many of the typical “fresh meat” idols, he is different from names like Cai Xu Kun (Prada), Fan Cheng Cheng (Fenty Beauty), Wang Yi Bo (Shu Emura), and Jackson Wang (Armani). Why?
Because his ‘look’ and background don’t come out of Korean entertainment.

First, he’s primarily an actor, not a combination rapper/dancer/model/actor like many of the trained idols from Korea that debut as TV contestants.
Second, his look isn’t built around the usual standards set by Korean entertainment: He doesn’t wear strong makeup (visible lipstick or eye-shadow), earrings, or dyed hair, and he looks more traditionally masculine. As Mingyue, a student, 19, says, “Li Xian is more masculine and will be more easily accepted by the widest number [of people in China].” On social media, fans rave about his good looks but credit him even more for his authenticity and straightforwardness, which is a far cry from the usual well-polished idols. And as a masculine figure in a country that many are saying is undergoing a “masculinity crisis,” Xian could find himself in a position of strength.

He represents new ambitions and values in China: patriotism, health, and discipline

Chinese youth today have a very strong sense of national identity. Pictures embedded with the slogan “I love you China” flourished on social media before and during the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, which was held on October 1. Since 2006 China’s contribution to worldwide growth has been approximately 30 percent — more than most developed countries combined. In this context, it’s no surprise that a majority of youngsters feel pride in their country.  In “Go Go Squid!,” Li Xian is a patriotic entrepreneur whose dream is to lead China to victory on an international stage of professional gaming. When his team takes 1st place in such a competition, he promptly raises the Chinese flag. The success of “Go Go Squid!” is due as much to the Chinese collective feelings for their country as it is to the romantic storyline.

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Be fit and disciplined

Li Xian was an overweight child who became extremely fit, and he’s also an ambassador for Keep, a sports app that’s popular with the young people in China. He’s also one of the coaches on the new TV reality show 哎呀好的身材 (loosely translated to ”omg, what a body”), in which he trains ordinary people to become fit and healthy. Fitness is not only a major trend with young Chinese and their new beauty standards, but it’s even become a national focus now that the government has released detailed guidelines as part of a national program to enroll 40 million Chinese in regular exercise curricula by 2030.

Why brands should care

Many brands such as Dolce & Gabbana or Versace have had their business in China damaged because they didn’t understand current Chinese culture, so appointing the right spokesperson is not simply about picking the hottest ‘fresh meat’ available. It’s about demonstrating that a brand understands the aspirations of the young Chinese consumers they are targeting. They should pick the right ambassador not only for his looks but also for the values he represents. Li Xian’s popularity may fluctuate with time, but the values, beliefs, and aspirations he stands for — an entrepreneurial spirit, consideration for independent women, patriotism, fitness, authenticity, and discipline — will be around for a long time.

Dao Nguyen is the founder of EssenziaByDao. We help beauty and fragrance brands dive deeper into Chinese youngsters’ mindsets, locate growth opportunities, and optimize engagement.

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