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China's Favorite Foreign Celebs: From Audrey Hepburn to Nicolas Cage

List Offers Clues for Marketers Considering Star-Studded Endorsements

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It's probably not a huge surprise to learn that Kobe Bryant is a top foreign celebrity among consumers in basketball-crazy China.

But what about Audrey Hepburn and Michael Jackson? Or Nicolas Cage and Arnold Schwarzenegger? According to a study by Beijing-based consulting firm R3, they also rank as among the top 20 most engaging foreign celebrities in China.

"You shouldn't underestimate ... the power of DVDs and movies in this country. Cinemas and Hollywood movies keep growing, there's tremendous interest in Western movies in China," said Greg Paull, principal at R3. He points out that American TV shows are also often carried on Chinese TV, making stars out of Western actors. "You've got 3,000 TV stations in China broadcasting 24 hours a day, that's 72,000 hours of content per day that needs to be filled."

The list offers clues to marketers who are considering celebrity endorsements, a popular marketing strategy in China and much of Asia.

China's 20 Most Engaging Foreign Celebrities:

1. Kobe Bryant (USA)
2. David Beckham (UK.)
3. Angelina Jolie (USA)
4. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
5. Lee Min-ho (South Korea)
6. Hyun Bin (South Korea)
7. Audrey Hepburn (USA)
8. Sola Aoi (Japan)
9. Tom Cruise (USA)
10. Tie:
Johnny Depp (USA)
Kim Hee-sun (South Korea)
Anne Hathaway (USA)
13. Tie:
Michael Jordan (USA)
Taylor Swift (USA)
Nicolas Cage (USA)
16. Song Hye-kyo (South Korea)
17. Sophie Marceau (France)
18. Arnold Schwarzenegger (USA)
18. Jason Statham (U.K.)
20. Michael Jackson (USA)

Mr. Paull said he was a bit surprised there weren't more athletes on the list, though it may be because of the study's timing, conducted in the last quarter of 2012. Had it been closer to a major sports event like the Olympics, athletes like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt would probably have made the list, he said.

Thanks to Breakfast at Tiffany's, Audrey Hepburn is associated with a brand that has been aggressive in China.
Thanks to Breakfast at Tiffany's, Audrey Hepburn is associated with a brand that has been aggressive in China.

As for Audrey Hepburn, still influencing Chinese consumers 20 years after her death: "She has a massive iconic appeal for elegance and sophistication," Mr. Paull said. "She's well associated with brands like Tiffany that have been quite aggressive in China. She just has a very unique positioning."

R3's results were based on interviews with more than 30,000 Chinese consumers. It used three factors to measure a celebrity's engagement: preference (unpromoted mentions as a "favorite" star), engagement (the depth of commitment that consumers mention) and values (strength of association with authentic, genuine, trustworthy and others).

If you're looking to use a celebrity endorser for your product in China, here's R3's advice:

  • Choose stars that are relevant in China, not because they're popular in other markets. They might not yet be on Chinese consumers' radar.
  • Choose an engaging celebrity. Endorsements by ones who are simply well-known may not necessarily spur consumers to make purchases.
  • Don't forget local celebrities. Brands like L'Oreal have struck a careful mix of local and global ambassdors. Andy Lau and Li Bingbing might not be household names in the West, but they are superstars in China.
  • While Western celebrities have a powerful draw, don't underestimate stars from other Asian countries. Korean celebs in particular have passionate fan followings in China, thanks to Korean soap operas and pop music. Actors Lee Min-ho and Hyun Bin and actress Kim Hee-sun all rank in the top 10.
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