China's WeChat Makes Global Push with Soccer Superstar Lionel Messi

Tencent Uses Fatherhood-Themed Ads to Promote Messaging App in 15 Markets, from Argentina to Thailand

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China's wildly popular messaging app WeChat is stepping up its courtship of users outside its home market, kicking off an international ad campaign featuring soccer superstar Lionel Messi.

WeChat already has more than 300 million registered user accounts, including 70 million outside China, mostly in Asian markets.

It started as a messaging app similar to WhatsApp, but the addition of video calls, photo sharing, location-based services and other social features also make it similar to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.

Tencent, the internet giant that developed WeChat, has previously promoted the app in markets such as Thailand, India and Mexico using local celebrities, but the Messi campaign is the first time Tencent's using a single ad to target multiple markets, company spokeswoman Katie Lee said.

"He's well known in a lot of markets globally. He is a WeChat user and he's used the product for a while," she said of Mr. Messi, an Argentinian who plays for FC Barcelona. "He's always away, playing football everywhere. The commercial highlights (how) he can be connected with family and friends no matter where he is."

Both spots have a fatherhood theme. In the first, Messi is shown trading voice messages (in Spanish) with Grandma, who is trying to soothe his crying infant son. He gets the baby to laugh by -- surprise! -- performing soccer juggling tricks shown to the baby via WeChat's video chat function. The video posted on YouTube by WeChat India netted more than 1.6 million views after just one week.

In the second, friends from around the world send messages wishing Messi good luck...before he heads out the door pushing a baby stroller.

The campaign targets 15 markets, including Argentina and Spain where Mr. Messi is a superstar. The others are: Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey.

In addition to being posted on YouTube, the two spots will air on television in the 15 markets. There will be accompanying print and outdoor advertising in at least some markets.

No advertising agency was involved with the ad, which was made by U.S. production company Stardust.

"Our goal was to show Messi in relatable, down-to-earth scenarios so our audience could easily identify with him and his use of the product versus building the more common, larger-than-life concept around him that only puts distance between him, the product and the consumer base," Stardust owner and managing director Dexton Deboree said in a statement provided by Tencent.

WeChat's popularity outside of China has soared recently, growing by 20 million registered user accounts to reach 70 million in only six weeks. Ms. Lee attributed the growth to promotional campaigns, special WeChat deals provided through some Asian telco operators and the increasing number of smartphone users in target markets.

WeChat has not officially launched in the U.S., though Tencent has an American office doing groundwork and studying the market.

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