Chinese teens were more familiar with a multitude of foreign talent than they were with any homegrown stars. Names like David Beckham, Michael Owen and Michael Jordan rolled off their tongues far more easily than any local celebrity could.
Back then I remember working with a client to identify appropriate local icons to be used on packaging to reinforce the empathy and relevance of the brand. Not surprisingly, it was a real struggle, which just proved too hard. In the end, our client decided to use key Chinese festivals to help them achieve their goals.
Like nearly everything else in China, this phenomenon has undergone a substantial transformation in recent years. To help understand why, it pays to look at the context and the environment, and examine what has happened since those barren, desert-like days when Chinese heroes were so hard to find.
Two recent Olympics left us with world-class talent across several sporting genres. Liu Xiang now rivals Yao Ming as China’s true sporting icon (and challenges the best hurdling prowess the world has ever produced). All this was achieved without regular games to maintain a media spotlight or the NBA sports promotion behemoth that Yao can call upon to drive his popularity.
Another true star to emerge is Guo Jing Jing, the diving sweetheart whose natural beauty and endearing smile have helped springboard her into a (surprisingly small) number of sponsorship deals.
We have homegrown talent gracing the fields of the U.K.’s football leagues: Sun Ji Hei, Sun Xiang, and Du Wei. In international football circles, when you talk about Manchester, it is generally safe to assume everyone is talking “United.” In China, more often than not, they are referring to “City,” the team for whom Sun Ji Hei plies his trade.
And we have enjoyed two manned space flights that have made instant heroes of Yang Li Wei, Fei Jun Long, and Nie Hai Sheng, which should do wonders for China’s image as a producer of quality, high-tech products.
Against these changes and achievements, a groundswell of change can be understood.
This groundswell will soon take on epic proportions, where true homegrown talent will dominate product endorsements, not the ethnic Chinese celebrity that presently hogs the endorsement spotlight.
In Synovate’s recent ‘Star Trakking’ study that measures celebrity impact on branding in China, hardly a mention of a western personality can be seen.
Yes, David Beckham lurks around a couple of categories, and Michael Shumaker makes a ‘special cameo appearance’ as a suitable endorser for car brands. But he is behind Cecelia Cheung (a Hong Kong starlet who has featured in car racing movies) and Nicholas Tse (a famous Canto-pop singer who appeared in the Hong Kong courts for crashing his Ferrari in one of Hong Kong’s main streets).
When consumers are asked to name the celebrities they think are suitable to endorse or represent certain categories, overseas Chinese talent presides.
At present, these Chinese celebrities living overseas are popular because of several factors that have more to do with PR than personality:
--The infrastructure, or PR machine, that celebrities rely upon is considerably more sophisticated outside of China than within
--Opportunities for media exposure are more prevalent overseas than on the mainland
--Some decision-makers responsible for the tie-up of brands and celebrity endorsers remain ignorant of the power of the homegrown star.
But not for long.
As part of the same study, Synovate asked Chinese consumers to name their ‘celebrities on the rise’ – and eight of the top 10 answers are true, local Chinese talent. Marketers, ad agencies and PR professionals should ignore this at their peril, because homegrown heroes are clearly back in fashion, and pulling on Chinese consumers’ purse strings.
Darryl Andrew is the Shanghai-based managing director of Synovate, an Aegis-owned market research company based in Hong Kong.