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A Word of Caution: Choose Your China Ambassadors Wisely

In this month’s China Edit, how an unsuitable brand ambassador can have serious repercussions, and why China’s mobile payments can no longer be ignored.
Angelababy and Sidney Toledano | Source: Dior
By
  • Kati Chitrakorn

SHANGHAI, China — All eyes were on Dior in May when Maria Grazia Chiuri presented her first cruise collection for the French luxury house. Set in the Santa Monica hills in Los Angeles, guests ranged from Rihanna to Charlize Theron to Chiara Ferragni. But one expected face was notably absent: Angela Yeung Wing, better known as Angelababy.

The China-born, Hong Kong-raised model and actress was appointed as Dior’s first-ever Chinese brand ambassador at the end of April, sparking intense criticism from some of the brand’s followers. “Dior, you are [becoming] more and more cheap, more and more low...” wrote one user on Weibo, where the official announcement was shared. Another alleged: “She is a mistress who relies on plastic surgery and Photoshop. All her fame is hype.”

While other comments were positive, the negative reaction was widespread and especially harsh.  Angelababy’s fanbase is not to be sniffed at, with 81.6 million followers on Weibo, which may explain why Dior was drawn to her in the first place. But the discontent expressed by some of the Chinese online community stems from a view that, as one Weibo user put it, “her temperament does not match the brand.” Others cite her poor acting skills and that her generally poor reputation in mainland China would dilute the Dior brand. Part of the controversy centres around whether she has had plastic surgery (the actress has long been dogged by rumours that she has gone under the knife, although there is no evidence to prove this).

"Chinese consumers don't see Angelababy's public image [as fitting] for Dior's independent feminist spirit. Even though she is certainly very well known in China, especially among youth and teenagers, her influence is not 100 percent positive. In fact, we tend to see her create online buzz that is more negative than positive," Yiling Pan, associate editor at Jing Daily, who first reported on the story, told BoF. Dior could not be reached for comment at the time of publishing.

Dior’s original Weibo post appointing Angelababy generated 55,790 comments and 66,281 likes, and has been reposted more than 761,700 times. Since the initial announcement, there have been no further posts about Angelababy on the brand’s official account, which has since revealed a second Chinese brand ambassador — actor Huang Xuan — who received a warmer response online.

In what is essentially a delicate matchmaking game, collaboration between global brands and celebrities in China must be part of a comprehensive, long-term plan, and not just a spark that can be quickly extinguished. When Chanel tapped singer Coco Lee to be its regional brand ambassador 16 years ago, some loyal customers were so perturbed by the association with a local pop star that they stopped shopping at Chanel, prompting the French house to eventually end the partnership.

This episode was one of the first 'crises' caused by the collaboration of a luxury brand and a Chinese celebrity, but a lot has changed since 2001. Today, the industry is much more diverse and being a luxury brand spokesperson is no longer the preserve of a few global Hollywood stars. Two examples of successful ambassador appointments are Chinese actor and musician Kris Wu at Burberry, and former South Korean boy group EXO member Lu Han at Cartier. "They both are highly popular among Chinese millennials and have a healthy and positive public image," says Jing Daily's Pan.

“Popularity is not the only metric that global brands should rely on when it comes to finding the right ambassador,” warns Pan. Indeed, difficulty arises when it comes to the celebrity’s public image. Jackie Chan, for instance, enjoyed partnerships with a variety of brands, thanks to his cinematic success. But in recent years, the kung fu actor has been blacklisted by several luxury brands for appearing in too many commercials.

As the role of a brand ambassador becomes increasingly important for global brands in establishing trust and perception among Chinese consumers, brands need to “understand the personalities of the celebrities they would like to work with, and do research on how they are generally perceived by the public,” Pan adds.

And it is not just about likability. Chinese model Ming Xi pulled out of a runway performance in Cannes after amfAR published an Instagram post about the Dalai Lama, who is considered persona non grata in China. Politically charged taboos are another big risk with fashion ambassadors in the Chinese market, especially on the mainland.

In Other News…

The key to Chinese consumers is mobile payments. Mobile payment has become too important for fashion brands and retailers vying for Chinese spend to ignore. Buoyed by a boom in online shopping, financial services such as peer-to-peer lending and the relative dearth of alternatives such as credit cards, mobile payments have become a significant part of people's everyday lives.

Mobile payment transactions in China in 2016 hit $5.5 trillion, more than 50 times bigger than that of the US’ $112 billion market, based on Forrester Research figures. Alibaba’s Alipay, China’s top mobile wallet app, hit record highs in 2016 for the amount its 450 million users spent online or in stores.

The app’s biggest group of spenders, the people of Shanghai, spent an average $20,400 last year, spending 1.5 times more than in 2015. Alipay and Tencent's Tenpay together have almost 88 percent of China's mobile payments market, while state-run UnionPay trails with less than 1 percent.

A Chinese billionaire could buy Jimmy Choo. Since Jimmy Choo officially went up for sale in April, there has been speculation over who might pick it up. Guo Guangchang, the billionaire chairman of Chinese conglomerate Fosun International, is reported to be a potential suitor, according to local fashion news channels Jing Daily and Fashion Note.

The luxury footwear and accessories brand, which is valued at around £700 million ($895 million), is said to appeal to American companies like Coach and Michael Kors, but it is also likely to generate interest from private equity buyers or investment firms in Asia and the Middle East, Mario Ortelli, head of the luxury goods sector at Sanford C. Bernstein, told BoF.

Jimmy Choo said the sale process is likely to be completed by the end of summer.

Jack Ma is now the richest man in China. Alibaba founder and executive chairman Jack Ma has surpassed Dalian Wanda Group's Wang Jianlin to once again become China's wealthiest man. As of May 2017, Ma had a net worth of $30.9 billion, compared with $30.7 billion for Wang, according to Forbes. Ma Huateng, chairman of Internet service provider Tencent, is now third at $29.7 billion.

Ma’s fortune has gained from Alibaba’s share price, which has surged by one-third this year alongside growing profits. The news also comes not long after Ma made headlines when he visited president Trump and announced that he would help create a million jobs in the US.

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Alibaba and Tencent Set to Defy China Slowdown
With market values of more than $300 billion each, Alibaba and Tencent are now their nation's biggest companies, underscoring the rise of the digital economy as traditional industry sputters.

JD.com Posts Surprise Profit as Chinese Spending Strengthens
China's second-largest e-commerce company has benefitted from the rise of online shopping and is now investing in technology to ensure longer-term growth.

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Inside the $7 Billion Dior Phenomenon