SHANGHAI, China – When Chanel tapped songbird Coco Lee to be its Asian brand ambassador fifteen years ago, it brought turbulence to the steady old guard of Hong Kong’s socialites and high-flyers. Some of these lifelong loyal matrons were so perturbed by the association with a local pop star that they revolted with their pocketbooks, eschewing Chanel at the shops for a time. The brand’s PR team immediately swooped in to placate them, but this episode remains one of the first ‘crises’ caused by the collaboration of a luxury brand and a Chinese celebrity.
A lot has changed since 2001. Today, being a luxury brand spokesperson is no longer the preserve of a few global Hollywood superstars. The world is more diverse and the centre of China’s luxury market has moved from Hong Kong to the mainland and, as it spread out to the country’s aspirational classes, ceased to be the dominion of the privileged few. In this now vast, complex and often self-contained Chinese market, using the visual language of local stars to convey a marketing message has become ever more important. But in spite of all this, the art of matchmaking luxury brands to local stars has not got any easier.
The reality is that China’s top celebrity resources are pretty scarce. Many young talents have become popular through soap operas and reality shows, therefore lacking the sophistication and individuality that would make a consumer base view them as the embodiment of elegance, glamour or original personal style. The cumulative effect of this talent scarcity is that a battle has been raging over the past few years between brands wanting to sign the same tiny cadre of top Chinese celebrities.
Tim Lim, the fashion director of Modern Media Group, which publishes Modern Weekly magazine, explains it best: "In China, the cooperation between stars and luxury brands is not really a search for the perfect combination, but a search for a reasonable solution.” One problem is that few celebrities in China will take on a collaboration because of personal ties with the designer, as they often do in the West. Another is that few luxury brands understand or consider all of the relevant factors before partnering with a Chinese celebrity.
A battle has been raging over the past few years between brands wanting to sign the same tiny cadre of top Chinese celebrities.
But the blame is not only with the luxury brands and the celebrities, according to Jude Robert, one of the founders of the Chinese luxury consulting and public relations firm RTG. He believes that another issue is that there is a less developed celebrity management industry in China – in particular, a lack of professional celebrity publicists.
"Chinese celebrities are not managed in a thoughtful way. Can you imagine Hollywood not having celebrity publicists? A seasoned celebrity publicist determines the kind of image the celebrity should have, what kind of activities to attend, what kind of collaboration offers to accept and what kind of publicity strategy should be developed,” he says.
“In China, this role is often assumed by brokerage firms, and their attention is often focused on short-term financial return, not the long-term brand value of the celebrity. This market fundamentally lacks the sound rules and setup [needed]. This has to change.”
Playing the Long Game at Chanel
In what is essentially a delicate matchmaking game, collaboration between luxury brands and celebrities in China should be part of a precise, comprehensive, long-term plan, and not just a sparkle that can be quickly extinguished. Despite — or perhaps because of — the reaction to its first foray with Coco Lee 15 years ago, Chanel's strategy of using Chinese celebrities is now considered to be one of the most successful. And much of that success can be attributed to a quality that is rare in the Chinese market — patience.
Never hasty to buy into any kind of partnership, Chanel carefully and steadily cultivates its ambassadors, year after year. Before signing Zhou Xun as the brand's ambassador for China in 2011, Chanel had been collaborating with the actress and singer for five years. Over this extended period of time, the brand was able to determine that Zhou Xun’s qualities and image were indeed consistent with Chanel's. And in order to make sure this would continue, as soon as the deal was sealed, Chanel started to effectively influence all aspects of her professional life, from public appearances to having a hand in choosing her outfits, make-up and hair styles.
Chanel didn't try to make Zhou Xun into a walking billboard for its products. Instead, it chose the singular Chanel style that fit her best. At the same time, Chanel understood how to take advantage of every hot topic that surrounded her, like when, last May, Zhou Xun announced her new love interest — and a wedding date two months later. In this incredibly short period of time, Chanel's PR team in China came up with a plan to take her to Paris to have a wedding dress custom made, and publish the photos on the Vogue China website. The result was reportedly a lift in the number of page views and page shares for the site — not to mention added retail sales for Chanel.
Backfiring at Gucci
Ambassadors and spokespersons bear the responsibility of promoting a brand's image and values. But choosing a top-tier celebrity is not always the best way to achieve that. Sometimes it can even blow up in a brand’s face. In 2012, Gucci signed the acclaimed actress Li Bingbing as spokesperson for Asia, and named her global spokesperson a year later. But this move did not convince many people in China, as Li Bingbing's fresh elegance was drastically different to the luxurious and sensual image of Gucci.
The ensuing video adverts and modelling collaborations did not bring acclaim to Gucci, but, on the contrary, vividly showed the disharmony between Li Bingbing and the brand. When she appeared at the Cannes Festival with the iconic Gucci smoky-eyes, make-up and dark, vampy evening gown, the verdict on Chinese social media was that “she looked like a drunken mess."
Of course, Gucci’s popularity in the Chinese market has been declining due to factors much greater than Li Bingbing’s involvement. But, ultimately, a local spokesperson with Li Bingbing’s fame did not mitigate Gucci’s decline, as the brand had hoped it would. And what came next rubbed salt in the brand’s wounds. Despite her contract with Gucci, Li Bingbing appeared at a Dior fashion show, leading market observers and consumers to question the integrity of her relationship with Gucci — and Gucci’s influence over its spokeswoman.
A Quick Lift at Louis Vuitton
Many luxury brands are already widely known in China and able to stress their core values, culture and image by using other marketing strategies. So the question remains, why do they still need a celebrity to promote their ‘spirit’? Sometimes, a celebrity is the most effective way for a brand to adjust to or show flexibility to a local market like China, at a particular time in its development. Engaging a celebrity to promote a particular category or item in a brand’s collection is one example of how this can work.
In 2012, Fan Bingbing became the spokesperson for Louis Vuitton’s Alma handbag line. The combination of one celebrity with one key product had an instant effect. The sales of the Alma skyrocketed, with Chinese consumers calling it "Bingbing's bag". Having a celebrity association here worked especially well because the Alma bag is a low-key style with an understated logo.
Janie Zhuang, Louis Vuitton’s former public relations manager for China, witnessed the entire process. "At the time, we were sure that the Louis Vuitton monogram was widely recognised in China, but we’d never really had a famous handbag model. Fan Bingbing popularized the Alma bag as her favourite choice," she says.
Since this marketing milestone, more and more brands began to recognise that promoting their brand image and boosting sales of a key product in China cannot always be achieved by the same campaign. Rather, that these aims often need to be viewed as parallel: complementary but different strategies. Another realisation was that choosing who to employ as a celebrity ambassador — and when to employ them — is often a case of weighing up the long-term and short-term priorities of the brand in that particular market.
The overnight effect created by a celebrity may help a luxury brand give birth to a single hot product, but it does not always help with the cultivation of awareness or brand loyalty. On the other hand, in a market as fervent, chaotic and still as unpredictable as China, a brand's judgment and adaptability are tested everywhere — including the realm of celebrity ambassadors. Getting it right means not only striking a balance, but knowing when to move the needle in a different direction.
Tang "TS" Shuang is co-owner of The Backroom concept shops in Beijing and Shanghai and a former editor of the Chinese edition of Numero magazine.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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