When luxury brands choose famous figures for promotion, they usually hire beautiful celebrities to model their goods in glossy ad campaigns. However, in China, another form of high-profile brand ambassador has appeared in several social media marketing campaigns: the “role model”, an often behind-the-scenes figure who is chosen to represent the brand based not on glam factor, but rather on career success.
This week, Mercedes-Benz is hosting a “Dream Makers” campaign on Sina Weibo which eschews movie stars in favor of creative professionals such as suit designer Allen Xie, iLiangcang founder and head of Outlook magazine Jiaojiao Chen, and DJ Ben Huang (shown in the video embedded above). The campaign features Youku videos of each figure discussing how they managed to achieve success in life, as well as their life philosophies. The main themes of the video are not glitz and glamour, but rather the use of hard work and creative vision to accomplish what one truly wants in life. “Often, people make choices based on money and time. It’s not fun to have a world like this,” asserts Chen in the video embedded below.
The campaign aims to position Mercedes-Benz as the car of the creative class by having each of the featured figures design a creative video featuring a Mercedes-Benz model. As with any successful social media outreach, it also asks users to participate by posting their own dreams for the chance to win a Mercedes-Benz.
Mercedes-Benz isn’t the only brand to use motivational role models other than actors and major pop stars. Johnnie Walker recently used an almost identical marketing technique with its “Game Changer” campaign, featuring Septwolves Chairman Zhou Shaoxiang, MAD Architects founder Ma Yansong, and Cannes Best Screenplay winner and director Jia Zhangke. The whiskey brand had previously used an unnerving CGI “back-from-the-dead” Bruce Lee for an earlier “Game Changer” ad, but opted this time around for creative types. The videos are remarkably similar to those of Mercedes-Benz, featuring the figures discussing how they had reached success through thinking outside the box, and their advice for others hoping to do the same.
In addition to creative figures, brands have also used professional athletes for a similar marketing technique. A campaign by luxury duty-free retailer DFS featured Olympic fencing champion Lei Sheng alongside fashion designer Guo Pei, photographer Xiao Quan, and pianist Zhao Yinyin for its “pinnacle moment” ad that it released for its annual luxury timepiece exhibition last year. The role models were asked in the video to describe the “pinnacle moment” of their lives and how they reached it.
The marketing value of these inspirational “role model” campaigns in China can likely be attributed to several factors. First, brands are hoping to distance themselves from perceptions of luxury products as symbols of corruption, which has been exacerbated by the Chinese government’s ongoing anti-graft campaign. In a recent Business of Fashion op-ed, iLook editor Hong Huang stated that in China, “luxury is no longer associated with beauty and exceptional craftsmanship; instead, it is associated with corruption and moral dilapidation.” Brands are using these figures to align themselves with the idea that their goods are purchased by professionals who actually earned their money through hard work and creativity, as opposed to being the brands preferred by corrupt officials or spoiled fuerdai (second-generation rich).
Connected to this idea is also the growing sophistication of Chinese consumers. Those who use Sina Weibo in particular are in general more educated and show disdain for ostentatious displays of wealth associated with China’s nouveau riche. The brands’ “role model” campaigns intend to show off an understated sense of class to make sure that their products don’t become categorized as something China’s “coal bosses” would like.
In addition, these campaigns reveal an attempt to appeal deeply to consumers’ life aspirations as China’s economy grows and middle-class incomes rise. The brand ambassadors’ sincere and heartfelt discussions are intended to inspire viewers to believe that hard work, dedication, and vision can pay off with not only material wealth, but life satisfaction. This strategy utilizes Chinese consumers’ hopes about their own future to position the brand as representative not just of wealth, but also of success and happiness.