How Celebrity Endorsement Can Kill Your Brand In China

Success Takes More Than Picking a Hot Celebrity, Says Scott Sykes

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BEIJING ( -- Celebrity endorsements have been successful in China for years. Due to increasing consumerism, it is considered a status symbol to purchase an endorsed brand.

But promoting a brand isn't as simple as picking a hot celebrity. In fact, celebrity endorsements are becoming a risky bet for advertisers in China, where consumer activism is rising fast. Chinese aren't shy about expressing opinions about brands and issues they care about, particularly on the internet.
Scott Sykes
Scott Sykes
In the midst of a global economic recession, careful selection of A-list celebrities is more important than ever.

The wrong choice can cost you more than money. It can hurt a brand's reputation in China, a large and critical emerging market, for years to come, and the choice isn't just about choosing a celebrity. It's also about how marketers and stars handle mistakes.

China's ad landscape is littered with examples of reputation-damaging scandals related to celebrity endorsers over the past year.

Phelps apologized to Chinese
The most recent example, of course is Michael Phelps. The Olympic athlete posted a video apology to the Chinese people on online video sharing sites such as His act of redemption was necessary after photos of him smoking from a marijuana bong spread across the internet.

Why did the American swimmer specifically apologize to Chinese? A Mazda endorsement deal.

Mr. Phelps' reputation and endorsability were hurt when the photos surfaced. But the Japanese company signed a multi-million dollar agreement with Mr. Phelps just last month to help the company sell cars in China. The deal is believed to be the most lucrative ever offered to a foreigner in China.

Despite the scandal, public opinion seems to be largely in favor of Mr. Phelps, because of how he handled the aftermath. While Mazda sat quietly on the sidelines, Mr. Phelps acknowledged he made a regrettable mistake, and has been forthright and sincere in publicly apologizing for his behavior, minimizing the impact of his actions on the reputation of his sponsors.

Mazda isn't alone. Several of Mr. Phelps' other sponsors, including Omega, Speedo, Subway and Visa, have decided to stick with him. In what could be a costly knee-jerk reaction, Kellogg chose not to renew its endorsement deal with Mr. Phelps.

Zhang Ziyi and her sponsors survive topless photos
Another example is Zhang Ziyi, who was embarrassed by scantily clad photos taken of the Chinese actress on a Caribbean beach with her fiance Vivi Nevo last month.

Unlike Mr. Phelps, she wasn't strictly at fault. Ms. Zhang was sunbathing on a private beach and caught on camera by paparazzi, so her endorsement deals with top brands like Louis Vuitton, Maybelline, Mercedes and Omega appear to be unaffected so far.

Nonetheless, the public reaction over the photos had the potential to hurt her reputation and endorsability. (Ironically, both Mr. Phelps and Ms. Zhang are part of a major Omega ad campaign recently launched in China, designed in part to help Omega grow its brand reputation in China.)

Other celebrities, such as Edison Chen, have not been so lucky. A scandal involving thousands of photos featuring Mr. Chen, a Hong actor/singer, and various Chinese starlets such as Gillian Chung, Bobo Chan, and Cecilia Cheung in extremely compromising situations surfaced last year. Despite Mr. Chen's public apology, the scandal put an end to the pop icon's lucrative endorsement agreements with brands like Levi's, Pepsi and Samsung.

Miley Cyrus, a rising star in America's film and music industries, won't join Mr. Phelps on Chinese billboards any time soon. Several weeks ago, she posed for a photo with friends in which she pulled her eyelids back to look like Asian, even though one Asian-American male is part of the group around her.

The photo was perceived as racist towards Asians and quickly spread through China's digital media world. To make matters worse, instead of immediately and sincerely apologizing, Ms. Cyrus appears to be fanning the flames by fighting back. Previously, she was portrayed globally as a teen role model.

Actor Sharon Stone's comments about the Sichuan earthquake last year at the Cannes Film Festival caused a huge backlash among Chinese consumers. When asked about the earthquake that has devastated Sichuan Province, she wondered if the tragedy was caused by bad karma caused by the Chinese government's actions in Tibet. As a result, Christian Dior fired her, and her movies were banned from all Chinese cinemas.

Torch relay backfired on French brands
While China represents one of the largest emerging business opportunities for brands in the modern era, Chinese consumers are engaging in activism and have more power than ever before. Consider the protest incident involving the Olympic torch relay in Paris last spring. Pro-Tibet protesters interrupted the relay, attempting to capture or extinguish the torch and remove it from the hands of torchbearers, including a Chinese athlete in a wheelchair.

After the incident, Chinese citizens banded together online to express their outrage, and subsequently targeted top French brands in China, primarily the luxury brand Louis Vuitton and retailer Carrefour. Certainly these brands took a reputation hit in China, if not a serious hit in sales.

Despite the numerous scandals that hit China over the past year, there are at least as many celebrity endorsement success stories in China. Given the economic situation, marketers should reexamine how their marketing investments stack up, in terms of key performance indicators, cost and risk, to make sure they achieve a success story.

Scott Sykes is a public relations and digital strategy consultant based in Beijing.

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