November 29, 2023

After a more than two-year hiatus, Chinese celebrities and influencers made their return to the major global fashion weeks. For the first season since the loosening of Covid-19 travel restrictions, Chinese VIPs like actor-singer Xiao Zhan and musician Cai Xukun made for social media gold at luxury brand events.

Xiao, an official face for Tod’s, and Cai, who serves as ambassador for Prada, generated the equivalent of $19.8 million and $12.7 million respectively in media exposure, according to influencer marketing agency Launchmetrics. Meanwhile, Dior drew singer Liu Yuxin and actress Zhang Ziyi, Miu Miu gained clout with new it-girl and rapper Lexie Liu and, at Loewe, film star Sun Qian’s all-red flower dress got nods of approval.

But it isn’t quite business as usual for China’s celebrity marketing machine. In fact, things may never return to the pre-pandemic golden era when famous faces were a relatively easy — albeit expensive — route to mass exposure.

A growing number of local stars have been ensnared in scandals or accused of having “incorrect” politics and morals by the Chinese authorities. On the back of ambiguous government guidelines for celebrity-related content, there are signs that some brands are increasingly cautious when casting for partnerships and appearances.

Actress Fan Bingbing was seated prominently at this season’s shows, for example beside Anna Wintour and François-Henri Pinault at Giambattista Valli. But because Fan’s image is still not completely rehabilitated after her 2018 tax scandal where she was fined a staggering $138 million by the government, she was mostly a fixture for smaller labels like Schiaparelli and Yohji Yamamoto, instead of acting as a clotheshorse for the megabrands.

A few particularly salacious controversies have made celebrity marketing in China even more of a minefield than it already was.

In 2021, Prada announced what would turn out to be its most short-lived brand ambassador, Zheng Shuang. The actress lasted less than a week with the brand after a scandal surrounding her secret surrogacy broke out. Following this, Prada has not officially named another celebrity face, save for the deal with Cai Xukun which had already been negotiated when Zheng’s scandal broke but not yet announced. Last year the brand had to cut ties with Li Yifeng when the actor was detained on charges of soliciting prostitutes.

Louis Vuitton also was forced to move quickly in 2021 to drop Kris Wu, the biggest male idol in China at the time and its brand ambassador, when he was accused of raping multiple women. Late last year, he was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Other global brands have had to navigate high-profile scandals with local celebrity partners too.

“It’s been dialled down the past few years because of all these celebrity issues,” said Yichi Zhang, founder of Shanghai-based ASP Consulting, pointing to the rise of a category of new celebrities that some brands see as a relatively safer bet than film, music and TV stars thanks to their inherent discipline and seemingly healthy lifestyles.

Star athletes like freestyle skier Eileen Gu appeared at the most recent Louis Vuitton show in Paris and table tennis champion Ma Long has become a popular local fashion fixture and magazine cover face while swimmer Ning Zetao has appeared at events for Bottega Veneta. They have gained a bigger fanbase thanks to the heavy promotion of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. But these athletes also align closely with the ideals of the Chinese government which has condemned effeminate men and pop culture’s toxic fandom as society ills.

“[Athletes] are less likely to have drug issues and they’re wanted for diversity because [they won’t just appeal to] people who follow entertainment. It’s more national and everyone knows them. That’s a new strategy, they’re not replacing entertainers but it’s a trend they’re using more,” said Zhang.

Apart from cases as serious as Wu’s, brands often see geopolitical-related issues to be more of a risk than personal bad behaviour from celebrities.

South Korean celebrities in China have been impacted by regional geopolitics and Sino-American tensions are running increasingly high, while pro-democracy leaning Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars raise complications too. Even unintentional gaffes such as referring to Hong Kong as a country rather than a special administrative region of China, has seen some stars and brands promptly shut out of the market.

Relationships can sour for other reasons too. Over 50 Chinese celebrities quit the brands they represented in 2021 after Burberry, H&M, Nike and others took a stand against allegations of forced labour in cotton produced in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The business case for local celebrity ambassadors will nevertheless endure for as long as the rewards outweigh the risks associated with them — and for as long as there is a strong preference among mainland Chinese audiences to look up to their own role models.

When asked which celebrities resonated with them most in a survey last year allowing more than one response from Ruder Finn, 70 percent of mainlanders said they liked and followed mainland Chinese celebrities. That compares with just 42 percent who selected Hong Kong and Taiwan, 20 percent US and Europe, and 19 percent South Korean and Japanese.

So although the power of Korean celebrities like members of Blackpink, BTS and newer acts like New Jeans, Gemini and Mirani can still be a very effective way to excite the Chinese market, it’s paramount for brands to invest in a roster of homegrown Chinese faces.

Given these dynamics, it’s no surprise that some of the most recent examples of brands tapping celebrities for the China market are people with strong connections to the mainland. Only last month Dior appointed mainland actress Dilraba Dilmurat and, in January, Louis Vuitton tapped Jackson Wang, who was born in Hong Kong but is well-known for his staunchly patriotic pro-Beijing stance, which he recently reiterated at a gig in the UK, where he criticised the coverage of China in Western media.

Back at the latest fashion shows in Europe and the US, where China’s A-list entertainers were in relative short supply compared to pre-pandemic seasons, brands hosted other famous faces. Big-name influencers like Fil Xiaobai may have also been absent (she only made one appearance for Versace’s Los Angeles show) but established key opinion leaders (‘KOLs’ as they are known locally) like Gogoboi, Anny Fan, and Tao Liang (aka Mr. Bags), were out and about posting to their large online followings.

The collective buzz they generated was a valuable reminder that the much-hyped virtual influencers in China don’t come close to their real-world counterparts. Meanwhile, another group of KOLs was busy proving their worth at in-person events during fashion week.

A wave of Chinese influencers based outside of China first inserted themselves into brands’ marketing plans during the period when China’s borders were closed due to the pandemic, said Bohan Qiu, founder of PR agency Boh Project. Brands discovered a valuable gateway in these types who oftentimes started their TikTok and Instagram followings before Xiaohongshu. Examples include Sabrina Lan, who grew up in Spain, Kicki Zhang based in Berlin, or Guo Xiayan in Paris.

“These people connect the two worlds and they are a lot more Gen-Z and more individualistic. Their styles are more specific, gender fluid, and their attitude is a little bit more funny and edgy,” Qiu said. “The big influencers, they’re still big and all the luxury brands are still tapping them but edgier brands like Mugler and Courreges invited this new generation. It’s cool, it’s a shakeup.”

Other brands have been experimenting with more unconventional influencers based in the mainland in recent years. This broadening range of faces aligns with what PR agency Ruder Finn has been advising clients to do.

“Although there are still several [of the same] top KOLs, there are more and more [KOLs to choose from now],” said Gao Ming, who manages the agency’s China luxury division. “You have several mainstream ones… but you need to have a matrix of KOLs to reach different kinds of target audiences. This is very important [so] we in the past several years have broadened the KOLs we are leveraging.”

At a time when entertainers are seen as increasingly risky, supermodels have started to double as powerful celebrities in their own right. Liu Wen and Fei Fei Sun’s return to the runways were talking points this past month. Liu, in particular, who has broken through to become a household name, closed out Prada and Bottega Veneta and walked for several other houses. She also made waves as a show guest when she sat side-by-side with her rumoured actor boyfriend Jing Boran at Chanel.

The value of having a Chinese supermodel in the front row and in the finale of big luxury brands didn’t go unnoticed by fans – or the marketing experts monitoring them.

“Whatever show [Liu] walked, it automatically trended on the internet. Starting from Prada, the looks were much discussed and [there was] organic spill-over on Xiaohongshu,” said Qiu. “Her comeback to the runway was even big news for a Western audience.”




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