China's love for variety shows means a marketing race for brands

Speakers at a recent GroupM media investment summit uncovered the pop culture trends in the Chinese entertainment scene.

Keep Running is currently the top rated variety show among Chinese audience.
Keep Running is currently the top rated variety show among Chinese audience.

From the wildly popular Keep Running to Sing! China, a great number of Chinese reality shows are spinoffs of popular overseas programmes. What the shows lack in originality is made up for by their high ratings, both on TV and online.

The Chinese audience has a huge appetite for variety shows, interchangeably referred to as reality shows, that feature slapstick humour and celebrities engaging in games. Keep Running, the Chinese version of the South Korean-originated Running Man airing on Zhejiang Satellite TV, is currently the top rated show in the mainland. It attracts advertisers such as Oppo and the Yili-owned Ambrosial yoghurt.

GroupM’s This Year, Next Year: China Media Industry Forecast, released last month, mentioned that cosmetics, food and beverage brands were the top three buyer groups of product placement advertising in variety shows last year, both in terms of frequency and time length. The report quoted data from Jirang Technology which showed that the number of brands putting product placement in variety shows had increased by 21.6 percent in 2016 compared to a year before.

“From an awareness point of view, it is attractive for brands to be on the shows, but we all know about the inflation that comes with these shows,” Rupert McPetrie, CEO, MediaCom China told Campaign Asia-Pacific on the sidelines of the 'Blazing New Path to a Content Ecosystem' summit held in Shanghai last month.

Premium pricing

Panelists of the variety show session at the summit agreed with McPetrie, citing celebrity appearance as a factor which bumps up the price of the shows. Top-notch stars such as Huang Xiaoming and Jay Chow, who is a judge on Sing! China, commands at least  HK$11.6 million in fees for appearing in a single season of these shows. Linda Lin, COO of Mindshare China, pointed out that the astronomical prices inevitably become an entry barrier for brands to participate in the variety shows. Yet, with the increasing number of brands jostling for space on the popular shows, it's not unreasonable to question their worth for brands.

Tian Ming, CEO of Star China Media, the company that produces Sing! China, said it is a win-win situation, both for the brands and the shows. Among the media circle in China, it is widely agreed that a show has only made it once Oppo comes onboard as a sponsor. The smartphone brand is estimated to have spent money in close to half of all variety shows in China including Keep Running and Sing! China.

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What makes Chinese audiences tick?

As it seems that more Chinese viewers are staying back at home to watch their favourite variety shows, less are flocking to the theatres. China’s box office sales only increased 3 percent year-on-year in 2016 compared to 49 percent a year earlier, although the number of movie screens increased by 9,552 last year. Experts cited a number of factors for the decline, including a stronger dollar as well as low-quality releases which bombed at the box office.

Rupert McPetrie, CEO, MediaCom China, said the Chinese market remains attractive to Hollywood, judging from the number of joint ventures formed with local productions albeit with restrictions such as censorship, blackout dates and the annual quota of 34 foreign films remain. “One of the challenges for studios is not having a long lead time for the release date due to uncertainties in when the film will be approved. Because of this, they cannot use some of the traditional ways to market a release,” said McPetrie.

In terms of genres, the taste of Chinese audience is more predictable with a predilection for animation, fantasy, action and sci-fi. “The success of A Dog’s Purpose (released earlier this year) was a surprise, it appears that love for pets is a cross-cultural theme. So studios need to find a cross-cultural theme that travels from Los Angeles to China,” said McPetrie. He pointed out that studios have moved on from casting Chinese superstars and “shooting a couple of scenes in Shanghai” to cater to the Chinese audience.

The sophistication is apparent when studios market the movies, starting from the release of the trailer. “When the studios put out a trailer, they start to do a lot of consumer listening, looking for feedback and later react to that,” said McPetrie. “They also create more presence on the ground by bringing the cast to China and leverage on that to build more relevance with the Chinese audience,” said McPetrie.

“When Sing! China was first rebranded from The Voice of China, we lost our title sponsor and many advertisers in the first season of the new programme,” Tian recounted. The tide turned for the second season of the show, which is set to air this summer, when it signed on Oppo as its title sponsor for a record RMB 5 billion. Contestants in the singing contest will use Oppo smartphones to record their demo and training sessions as part of brand insertion in the show.

“Prices will always fluctuate with the popularity and ratings of the show, but the brands will get what they pay for," Tian said. "As producers, we are hoping to have a long-term partnerhips with the brands, not just for one or two seasons. Both parties need to attain a close understanding of each other to achieve the desired results in content marketing.”

However, since many reality shows are unscripted, brand placement in such programmes is often rudimentary at best. It is not uncommon in Chinese variety shows to have the host reading out the names of the brands during the programme, while viewers can usually find brand logos flashing at the corner of the screen.

“Some of the brands we are supporting are still working on awareness," said McPetrie. But for the more visible brands, it is a different role for content over the long term." He explained that a more sophisticated approach calls for building relevance between the content IP and the brand to create more emotional and long-term reaction from consumers. “Sometimes it could be a mix," he said. "From a system point of view, you could end up with different roles across different platforms.”

Stressing that there is no one-size-fits-all method in building relevance and engagmenet, McPetrie said brands should take a step back in the initial planning stage and not rush to be on every hot show.

“Increasingly, more clients are willing to take a long-term view in understanding content in the overall marketing plan, (being) partly driven by inflation in some of the hot shows, but there is also a push for more accountability and measurement,” said McPetrie. “Through data, we are able to identify where the performance comes from, whether it is from content IP, and model the effect from one point of contact to another.”

Rupert McPetrie, CEO, MediaCom China

By bringing more science to what is considered to be an art, McPetrie said, a sophisticated modelling will show the role of media and how it contributes to overall outcome in terms of sales, awareness and brand preference.

Chinese otakus

While the Chinese audience is blowing hot-and-cold toward film, anime is emerging as the new hot favourite, especially among the younger generation. China's anime market is expected to surpass that of Japan to reach RMB 150 billion this year, and it helps that the mainly Japanese-imported anime shows are not subjected to the quota imposed on foreign films.

Shelley Wong, general manager, Bilibili, the anime video-sharing site popularly referred to as Platform-B, said the user demographic of anime is equally split between male and female, and they are young and well educated, an important target audience for brands.

The bio of Luo Tian Yi, a popular anime character who will be holding her first concert this month. 

"In the Maslow's hierarchy of needs, food and rest are the basid needs for most people," Wong said. "But for many of the Platform-B users, they would rather forgo sleep and food to spend a minimum of 95 minutes a day on the platform, with the average user watching 16 videos a day."

Although Bilibili competes with established platforms such as Youku Tudou for viewers, it currently has over 1 billion active users and will hold its first anime idol concert this month. The platfrom which famously eschews ads, has also recently launched a special channel for brands to run commercial videos.


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