Chinese model-turned-actress Angelababy is about to get her big Hollywood break, playing a fighter pilot in summer 2016's "Independence Day: Resurgence." That's a smart way to make sure the movie connects with audiences in China, the world's No. 2 box office, where the 26-year-old has quickly risen to the top tier of stardom.
In January 2015, Angelababy had around 46 million followers on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. About a year later, it's shot up to over 68 million, "a gain of over 47%, which is absolutely insane … nobody else gained 22 million followers," said Jerome Mazet, founder and managing director of Mandaray, which connects brand sponsors to celebrities and sports teams.
So what happened? And why should marketers pay attention?
Angelababy appeared on TV hit "Running Man," a reality show starring celebs. She had endorsement deals from Mars' Dove, the No. 1 chocolate brand in China, to Chinese search giant Baidu and its Siri-like personal assistant.
Her otherworldly beauty is part of the appeal; local smartphone brand Meitu has an app that alters selfies so ordinary women can get Angelababy's look: "shiny hair, white teeth," and a narrow jawline, as the app says in its promotions. Past endorsement deals have included Coach, Coca-Cola, Gap and Samsonite.
Headlines sometimes liken Angelababy to Kim Kardashian. Her May wedding to fellow actor Huang Xiaoming reportedly cost $31 million, almost as much as Prince William and Kate Middleton's $34 million nuptials, as Forbes pointed out. The event was live-streamed online. She wore Dior; on Instagram she posted a selfie of herself wearing a 6-carat Chaumet diamond ring.
There was also an odd episode in which Angelababy sought to prove (for a lawsuit) that her looks weren't from plastic surgery. Much-discussed photos on social media showed doctors poking and probing at her face. Their verdict: Her appearance is natural.
Despite the Kardashian comparisons, Mr. Mazet says she reminds him more of Angelina Jolie, "in being very precise in how to manage her career, hitting all the milestones how she wants to." She is also a businesswoman, making investments in e-commerce platform Ymatou and home rental startup Zhubaijia, among others.
Celebrity endorsements are not going away
Some marketers and ad execs grumble about the ubiquity of celebs in advertising in China. But in a market flooded with brands, it's still a shortcut for connecting with consumers. Kantar Media CIC counted 24 endorsement deals for Angelababy before 2015, and 7 during this year.
BBDO polled consumers this year and found that 92% of people say a celebrity endorses the brand they use most everyday. Compared to Chinese stars, Western celebs are still niche; 76% of respondents said they prefer local celebs, 5% want Western ones and 5% favor Japanese or Koreans.
Also of note: A new advertising law in China puts new limits on celebrity endorsements -- for example, they can be held liable for promoting products that make false advertising claims. But several executives said the law hasn't put much of a damper on endorsements so far.
Fans know when celebs spread themselves too thin
Angelababy is not the most overexposed. (That honor may go to Korean heartthrob Kim Soo-hyun of hit show "My Love From the Star," who reportedly had upwards of 30 endorsement deals in China last year.)
As Angelababy's familiarity has been growing, more people have positive impressions of her, said Shuman Ma, innovation director for Millward Brown ACSR. However more people also think she has too many endorsement deals – 16% in January 2015, rising to 55% in October.
Brands often stick with big stars in China, a huge, high-stakes market, but they need to be careful about using overexposed stars, "because consumers feel bored and can't link the face with the brand well," Ms. Ma said.
One agency's perspective
When BBDO helped pick Angelababy to endorse Mars' Dove chocolate this year, the brand was looking for a pitchwoman to convey the Dove spirit of "someone who knows what she wants and goes after life's little pleasures," said Sherie Chua, group account director of BBDO Beijing.
"She was so flawless, she gets these little nuances, how she would look to the side, how her eyes would light up, how her smile would break," Ms. Chua said.
Angelababy "has a lot of endorsements, she is very popular, and we were very aware of that," Ms. Chua said. In the end, "it doesn't really matter if all these brands are using her already, as long as we can make our campaign be the one consumers will really remember."