Why China Is Fixated on Singer Lu Han (And Brands Are, Too)

How Advertisers Can Get the Most Out of Celebrity Endorsements in China

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Lu Han helped make the latest 'Star Wars' installment relevant to Chinese millennials.
Lu Han helped make the latest 'Star Wars' installment relevant to Chinese millennials. Credit: Star Wars Weibo
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Walking the streets of China's major cities, it's hard to miss the face of Lu Han. The 26-year-old singer has become the go-to brand ambassador for the younger generation, plugging international brands as diverse as "Star Wars," KFC, Lancome, L'Oreal Paris, Gap, Puma, Crest and Volkswagen, not to mention local ones like Oppo mobile phones, Baidu interactive maps and Yili milk.

Mr. Lu has become a symbol and spokesman for what is known locally as the "post-90s generation" -- those born after 1990. For the inaugural issue of "Vogue Me" last month, a special edition of the magazine focused on the post-90s generation, Mr. Lu's interview was the key draw. He talked about how for his generation, "pursuing your dreams is what makes you cool."

Lu's rise to fame came from his membership as a Chinese member of a Korean boy-band, EXO. The pop genre is huge among Chinese millennials, and Mr. Lu made a seamless transition to a solo career and individual idol status. His boyish looks help his status as a brand ambassador, since he's relatable to 20-somethings but also to young teenagers, the next generation of consumers in a country of 1.4 billion.

For KFC, China's biggest fast-food brand, Lu was paired with the brand's new service robot, Dumi, to see if the heartthrob could distract the voice-recognition automaton away from the task of serving customers at a new concept store in Shanghai. (The diligent robot refused to be distracted.) His face is also on stickers on KFC diners' tables, reminding them to dispose of their waste -- suggesting his appeal as a role model as well.

In a market where the "Star Wars" franchise is less well known, Lu was key to getting local fans excited about "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Leveraging his more than 18 million official followers on Weibo (a local microblog service similar to Twitter), Lu created his own "Star Wars"song and shared his personal fascination with the story behind the light saber.

Using celebs wisely

Lu Han is not alone in terms of his heavy schedule of brand endorsements. Liu Wen, a former Victoria's Secret catwalk model, has emerged as everyone's favorite "girl next door," since fans have connected with her humor and approachability in her recent role as a TV host. As a result, she has racked up a similar range of representations, including Louis Vuitton, Coach, Tory Burch, Oreo, H&M, Tiffany & Co. and Estee Lauder.

Compared to mature markets, Chinese media culture is still developing, meaning there are less bona fide celebrities. In this void, the power of celebrities is more concentrated, and their success encapsulates ordinary people's wider lifestyle aspirations and dreams. In this context, Mr. Lu has become far more than a "Chinese Justin Bieber" -- he symbolizes the dream of becoming a modern, international individual, and even breaking from Chinese tradition.

Still, brands need to think carefully about how to unlock the potential of China's mega-celebrities. While they will create a short-term hit in terms of followers, their heavy use means genuine engagement can be more elusive. Some brands still think of an endorser as someone to hold up a product and smile for the cameras; instead, they should look at how "Star Wars" collaborated with Mr. Lu.

For "Star Wars," he was not used as a spokesperson but as a passionate advocate of the franchise. He sang, played out characters, hugged R2D2 and wrote about his enjoyment of the films. Fans saw an unknown side of his personality, creating the desire to join in on the international buzz around "Star Wars." The numbers told the story, with Mr. Lu's Weibo posts on "Star Wars" receiving half a million hits.

That's something for advertisers to remember: While Chinese consumers show less sensitivity about stars having many endorsement deals, that does not equate to a lower level of expectation on content. Brands that connect their own stories with the unique attributes of China's mega-celebrities will ensure they get the most out of their investment.