Matthew Keegan
Oct 29, 2018

Can China’s 'little fresh meat' deliver big brand results?

With authorities in China already starting to discourage effeminate behaviour in the media, we analyse whether the country's boy idols can keep delivering visibility and sales for brands.

The actor and singer Lu Han at the launch of the Vivo X23 smartphone in Beijing in September 2018
The actor and singer Lu Han at the launch of the Vivo X23 smartphone in Beijing in September 2018

According to André Hoffmann, president of the APAC division of beauty brand L’Occitane, the company experienced double-digit growth in China in 2017, with an 11% increase in net sales and an impressive 49% increase in sales on China’s popular ecommerce platform, Tmall. This was in large part, he says, “due to a highly effective celebrity campaign with Lu Han.”

The Chinese singer and actor, dubbed the ‘Chinese Justin Bieber’, is one of the foremost poster boys of China’s 'little fresh meat' ('小鲜肉') phenomenon—a term coined several years ago to describe a young generation of Chinese male idols who are known for embodying a softer masculinity, originated by their counterparts in Japan and South Korea and made popular by K-Pop, J-Pop, anime and manga.

Recognisable by their well-groomed, boyish appearance with delicate elfin features, these more effeminate Chinese male heartthrobs boast the largest social-media followings and have won the hearts and spending power of China’s female millennials. They're in demand as brand ambassadors and to front a whole raft of multimillion-dollar campaigns. Luxury brands have wasted no time in capitalising on the trend and using it as one of the most effective strategies for peddling products to young consumers.

Young male celebrities consistently deliver the highest social engagement for brands across categories in China

Joyce Ling, chief strategy officer at McCann Worldgroup China, says that these idols are wildly popular among a range of target audiences. “More mature female consumers see these 'little fresh meats' as the cute little brothers they never had, and the young adore them for their success and fashion sense,” she says.

The impact on brand visibility speaks for itself. “Our data has shown young male celebrities consistently deliver the highest social engagement for brands across categories in China,” says Liz Flora, Asia Pacific editor at research firm L2 Digital. “Out of the top 10 Weibo posts by engagement for watch and jewellery brands in the first half of 2018, seven featured a young male celebrity. Five of these featured Wang Yuan of the young Chinese boyband TFBoys. We’ve seen the same type of phenomenon across the beauty and consumer packaged goods categories as well.”

Flora says that the TFBoys are “hands-down the kings of the moment.” L2’s data reveals that Weibo posts mentioning TFBoys earned 28% of all engagement among luxury brand posts featuring a celebrity. Watchmaker Chopard’s announcement of TFBoy’s band member Wang Yuan as its brand ambassador was the most popular luxury brand Weibo post of the first half of the year, with 10.4 million interactions. The brand was able to crush its competitors on Weibo with 46% of all watch and jewellery brand engagement.

Roy Wang or Wang Yuan, Karry Wang or Wang Junkai, and Jackson Yee or Yi Yangqianxi of Chinese boy group TFBoys at an unveiling ceremony in Shanghai, 2018 [Photo: AFP]

The young men boost sales too. According to L2 Digital, L’Occitane’s 2017 launch of themed gift sets featuring Lu Han contributed to a 250% increase in quarterly online marketplace sales in China, while Chinese cosmetic brand Chando saw a Tmall sales spike from its TFBoys face mask set sold on Singles’ Day last year.

“There’s sort of a symbiotic relationship going on between these celebrities and their millions of fans,” says Flora. “The celebrities depend on their fans to generate sales of the products they’re endorsing, while the fans are spending due to the strong emotional connection they feel to the celebrities.”

Some say the rise in popularity for these young men is directly linked to the role of women within the context of China’s socio-economical shift, so much so that young women are using their power as consumers to change traditional stereotypes of male beauty.

While 'little fresh meats' can drive huge traffic from those fans who are drawn by their idols, it is also risky once they [brands] change their spokesperson, or when these young consumers start liking someone else.

“52% of women in China now think their income is at parity with their partners,” says Philip Hwang, APAC strategy director for marketing agency SGK. “So whereas before, women might have been attracted to male celebrities playing a more traditional gender role, now they are at a point where they have the metaphorical strength and independence to seek someone who doesn’t have to support or protect them, but is conversely harmless and close to what they want—someone attentive, considerate, sensitive.”

However, despite the current cult of and the seemingly unstoppable power of these young men to influence consumer behaviour, Hwang warns that there’s never “a guaranteed way for more visibility and sales” in any industry. Brands, as always, have to consider whether this style of celebrity is appropriate for their market and brand simply because it is a new phenomenon.

Similarly, Hwang says that without a proper marketing strategy, an endorsing celebrity in the end is “just a face”. He cites an example of Chinese cosmetics brand Perfect Diary, which used the young male Chinese singer Zhu Zhenting as a spokesperson to help it sell 24,000 lipsticks in just 60 seconds. “The real success behind the celebrity face is brilliantly executed strategy,” says Hwang. “The Perfect Diary campaign using Zhu Zhenting combined well-timed internet teasers; gamification of exclusive content; even embedding his birthdate digits in online posts, all to drive conversation and make the release almost an Easter-egg hunt for fans.”

Allison Malmsten, marketing manager for China-based market research company Daxue Consulting, believes that while simply having a fresh young face on an ad may increase visibility, it won’t always encourage consumer loyalty. “Deeper collaborations and more personal brand endorsements by celebrities will capture more attention,” she says, citing Chinese singer Kris Wu’s collaboration with Burberry, where he has a collection, including a bag with his lyrics printed on it, or Lu Han’s collaboration with Star Wars, where he expressed his love of the movie series on Weibo and even shot a promo video for the movie. More genuine and deeper collaborations like those examples are going to be the most effective way to promote products in the future.”

Ling points out that the nature of fan worship can also be extremely fickle. “While 'little fresh meats' can drive huge traffic from those fans who are drawn by their idols, it is also risky once they [brands] change their spokesperson, or when these young consumers start liking someone else, they will quickly lose the support. It is a guaranteed short term solution. However, since the brands are not communicating their core value to the consumers, it will be difficult to establish a sustainable influence on these consumers.”

Meanwhile, when considering collaborating with one of these popular gentlemen, Hwang urges brands to be mindful of how fast the social discourse swings in a place like China. “Recently, state media criticised 'little fresh meat' celebrities featured in a CCTV kids show for being too “sissy” and hence weakening the country’s image. CCTV’s subsequent controversial ban on so-called “sissy celebrities” points to an ongoing debate over gender standards, behaviours, and expectations,” says Hwang.

The androgenous female singer Li Yuchun performing at the 2018 Tmall collection show

However, in spite of authorities already starting to discourage effeminate behaviour through the media, Malmsten believes that it's more likely that brands will find a way to comply or compromise with any rules put in place rather than giving up young effeminate male endorsements altogether.

So are China’s effeminate young brand ambassadors a passing fad? “Given China’s macro context, I would say this trend is here to stay,” says Hwang. “But with less emphasis on the very specific phenomenon of 'little fresh meat' and more on 'gender fluidity' in general. One can look to the popularity of androgynous female singer Li Yuchun and the rising, positive discourse on 'nu hanzi' (masculine/strong women) as evidence. Looking forward, marketers can simply look forward to less pre-set gender boundaries to market their brands.”

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