Net stars "allow advertisers to attach their brands to some star power at a fraction of the price of mainstream celebrities," said Jeremy Goldkorn, co-director of independent ad agency Standards Group, Beijing, and a veteran of China's media industry. "We will see more of this, especially in China, where mainstream media tends to be very boring and not very good at discovering new talent."
Kill two birds with one stone
Brands that associate themselves with distinctive and popular web personalities can kill two birds with one stone, said Shanghai-based Tom Doctoroff, JWT's Northeast Asia area director and CEO, China. "They can project more extreme, Western-style modern individualism while at the same time ensuring peer endorsement."
China has more than 77 million broadband users, and bloggers are not merely posting comments to online bulletin boards; they are uploading video and audio content that can turn them into celebrities overnight.
That's exactly what happened to Huang Yixin and Wei Wei, sculpture students at the Guangzhou College of Fine Arts in southwestern China. They uploaded scratchy home movies of themselves lip-syncing Backstreet Boys songs like "As Long As You Love Me" while a third roommate, whose face is seldom seen, plays the popular game "Counter Strike" on his computer.
The satirical videos of the young men, the "Back Dorm Boys," have attracted a huge following in China and led to sponsorship deals with brands such as Motorola and Pepsi.
Motorola's lip-synced video
Motorola tracked down the pair to help market its MP3-enabled phones and mobile-music platform in China with a lip-synced video that shows them using its phones. The campaign from Ogilvy & Mather, Beijing, invited consumers to submit their own lip-sync efforts to Tom.com, a Hong Kong-owned web portal in mainland China, generating millions of responses.
Pepsi also teamed up with the Back Dorm Boys by hosting the pair's webcam videos on its Chinese website (pepsi.com.cn) and featuring their lip-syncing talents in a Pepsi Max TV spot created by BBDO, Shanghai.
The Back Dorm Boys "spoofed our football campaign theme song 'DaDaDa' [and] acted out some scripts for the Pepsi Creative Challenge," said Chris Pan, Shanghai-based marketing director-interactive and new initiatives at Pepsi's beverages business unit in China.
"Pepsi is always looking for individuals and properties that represent the brand's 'Dare for More' spirit," Mr. Pan said. "If some internet star's talent and image -- cool, hip, entertaining, innovative -- fits our brand, then we may choose to work with them in a way that fits the net star's style and Pepsi's equity."
The Back Dorm Boys' success and the fast growth of China's blogging community have spawned marketers' interest in hiring net stars for a range of brands.
Bridging geographic, cultural differences
In a country with vast geographic and cultural differences, web surfers "believe the internet brings them closer to people who are interested in the same things," said Michael Darragh, digital influence strategist for China at Ogilvy PR, Shanghai. "It echoes the popularity of reality TV. Young Chinese are now accustomed to deciding things; they know what they want and want to choose their own stars. Marketers want to be a part of this environment."
Sony Ericsson, for instance, has signed up Tianxian Meimei, a blogger on Tom.com and Tianya.com who has gained wide appeal as a sweet, rural young woman from the Sichuan province.
Advanced Micro Devices hired movie star Xu Jing Lei to appear in a TV spot, but the ad used blog-specific language that recognized her status as China's most influential blogger rather than her fame as a popular actress.
'Grabbing the sofa'
"The whole premise of the commercial is based on the idea that with the AMD processor, you can post blog comments faster," said Sam Flemming, CEO of Chinese bulletin-board-monitoring service CIC Data, Shanghai. "This is represented by the Chinese social-media term 'grabbing the sofa,' the term used to describe the effort to place the first comment on a blog or BBS post, a point of pride for many."
Adidas Group made a series of online films featuring a duo similar to the Back Dorm Boys performing madcap stunts. They also turned up at games played by the Chinese men's and women's national volleyball teams, which are sponsored by Adidas. Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. enlisted four hip brand ambassadors -- a pair of fashion designers, a comic-book artist and a graffiti expert -- who are well-known in their respective circles to inspire Chinese teens to enter an online fashion-design contest.
"The internet is a thoroughly integrated part of young Chinese life," said P.T. Black, a partner at youth marketing consultancy Jigsaw, Shanghai. "They use it for everything, and it is their preferred destination for everything from entertainment to information and even socializing. So it is a place where kids are accustomed to look for new things."
Mainland China had 123 million internet users at the end of June 2006, up 19.4% from the same period in 2005, according to China Internet Network Information Center; 28 million of them frequently visit blog sites. China has 788,400 websites, including 90,000 added in the first half of 2006.
The really incredible number
But the really incredible number, Mr. Darragh said, is how much time people in China spend online: 2 billion hours each week. About 35% of Chinese with internet access are 18-24, and 19% are between 25 and 30. They tend to be urban, college-educated and relatively affluent, but the exposure of net stars in China far exceeds the web community.
"Net stars are much more mainstream in China than the West," Mr. Flemming said. "Ask the average white-collar worker in the U.S. if they know the [American blogger] Star Wars Kid, they probably won't. Ask a Chinese white-collar worker if they know Back Dorm Boys or [early Chinese net star] Fu Rong Jie Jie, they most likely will." Net stars are also some of the most popular online searches; many "are even more popular than Chairman Mao Zedong."
The popularity of net stars has even influenced mainstream media. The "Garfield 2" film, for example, was panned by mainland critics but became a cult hit through savvy dubbing. Instead of using two actors to voice Garfield and his British sidekick, it used one actor who differentiated the two cats by making one talk in "netspeak" that resonated with Chinese youth.