SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- Ugly Betty has a new rival in China.
Sony Pictures Television International (SPTI) has won over millions of fans with the Chinese version of another series based on a young western woman, "Sofia's Diary."
"Sufei's Diary" is produced by SPTI's joint venture with China Film Group, Huaso Film/Television Digital Production Co. The digital interactive drama documents Sufei's adjustment to life in Shanghai with her father and stepmother after moving to the rough-and-tumble coastal city from Beijing.
"Sofia's Diary," which is also produced by SPTI, originated as an online drama in Portugal. It has become a global phenomenon with local adaptations in the U.S., Germany, Turkey, Brazil, Chile, Vietnam and the U.K., where the first digital episode drew more than one million visits within 24 hours last year.
"Sufei's Diary," like the hugely popular Chinese version of Ugly Betty, demonstrates the appeal of branded content in China. Ugly Betty became a marketer's dream last year for Unilever and Bausch & Lomb.
Sony demonstrates a digital life
The Chinese version is backed by Sony Electronics, Estee Lauder's Clinique brand and the online job search web site, www.51job.com. All three collaborated with Huaso to incorporate their products into the show.
Sufei uses a pink Sony Vaio computer to surf the internet and chat with her friends. She also owns a Sony Cyber-shot camera and a Sony Walkman, and uses all three in concert to stay connected with her friends in person and through social-networking sites that are popular among young Chinese.
Those three products are very "network" integrated, said Synthia Lau, Shanghai-based assistant general manager of Sony's consumer sales and marketing division in China. "Digital media is a growing trend and 'Sufei's Diary' demonstrates a real digital life in a way that is targeted to reach our customers."
For instance, when Sufei develops a bad case of acne, her friend suggests she visit a Clinique counter at a Shanghai department store to get a skin test. During a job training competition offered by www.51job.com at her university, Sufei is able to get back at a mean-spirited rival at school by leading her team to win the competition.
"Sufei's Diary" marks the first time Estee Lauder has used branded content in China to promote Clinique, said Mark Heap in Shanghai, the managing director, China of PHD, which handles media for Estee Lauder brands in China. "We kept expectations low and purposely tried not to run the brand down anyone's throats through the show. But the results are very positive on sales."
"Sufei's Diary" only online
There are major differences between the two adapted series, however. Unlike Ugly Betty, a hit on terrestrial TV in China, "Sufei's Diary" is only running in digital media.
The 40-episode first season of the multiplatform series can be viewed online at www.sufei.tv and other web sites. It is also running on LCD screens placed in airports, on public buses and in subway stations. A three-minute episode is introduced each weekday.
(Earlier versions of "Sofia's Diary" were also dependent on digital media, but in the U.K., it became the first internet-based series to make the transition to terrestrial TV, following its acquisition by Channel Five in April 2008.)
Like Sofia in western markets, Sufei has gained a following among internet-obsessed teens and young adults. The Chinese adaptation went on air late last year and generated over 15.3 million online interactions during its first seven weeks.
It has received 1.2 million hits on the internet video and blog pages of Sina.com, one of China's top portals; 7.3 million hits on the online video-sharing site Youku.com; and 6.8 million hits on the show's home page and on the internet video section of China's nationwide university broadband network, Cernet.com.
Viewers help determine story line
Viewers are encouraged to vote in weekly online polls to help guide Sufei in some of the difficult decisions she has to make. Their choices impact the next episode's story line.
Besides the weekly online voting, viewers can also interact with the series and its main characters through online comments, blogs and updates to mobile phones.
"Our experimentation with multiple platforms has proven to be an effective way to target the tech-savvy youth market," said Hong Kong-based Mary Chan, VP-production at SPTI, the division of Sony Pictures Entertainment responsible for all television business outside of the U.S.
Estee Lauder is also enthusiastic about the show's profile, interactivity and digital platform, Mr. Heap said. The profile of many viewers is younger than typical Clinique users, so "it's more of a branding and product awareness exercise among people who aren't reading Elle and Vogue."
The company is "keen to explore new avenues beyond print, its traditional media route in China, to reach new consumers. Clinique is an entry-level luxury brand, so it's expensive for many Chinese women. That's why they made Sufei slightly older. We wanted her to be a good brand fit, so we worked with SPTI to define who this girl should be."
Chinese version less edgy
The story line and characters of the original series were altered for the Chinese production. For instance, Sofia, 17, is a high school student, while 18-year-old Sufei attends university. SPTI also scaled back the edgy references to drinking, drugs, sex and boyfriend troubles common in "Sofia's Diary."
"Those are all typical things facing teenage girls in the U.K. but not in China. It wouldn't be appropriate for Clinique and it also wouldn't be relevant to viewers here," Mr. Heap said.
Although "Sofia's Diary" appeals mostly to female viewers in the West, nearly half of the viewers of the Chinese adaptation are men. For Clinique, "this is actually great as the men's cosmetics sector is a fast growing one for Clinique," Mr. Heap added. "This is actually a good opportunity to raise awareness of Clinique against a young male audience which will hopefully drive some business for the Clinique men's range."
SPTI is preparing a second season of the series in China, possibly with additional sponsors. The company also plans to distribute the first season of the Chinese version overseas but with less interactivity, as it will probably run as a two-hour program rather than in daily installments.
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