Celebrity endorsement is commonplace in China, and on social media the use of star appeal is amplified via the scale of public opinion, mostly in a manner that pleases the brand endorsed.
On 3 April, local actress Fan put out an unkempt photo of herself (right), with copy that roughly translated to: "I look like the White-Haired Demoness after removing my headgear [used for filming in period dramas] every day. Who can save me?"
According to conventions in social-media marketing, this is indeed the first step: creating a 'problem'. After that, have the brand interact as naturally as possible with the influencer to 'solve' the problem.
This routine works wonders when the ambassador is new to the brand. However, Fan Bingbing has been a L'Oréal spokesperson for more than three years. Online commenters immediately started to wonder how Fan's damaged hair could be an issue if she were already using L'Oréal shampoo every day—as many clearly assumed would be the case with a brand ambassador.
Given Fan's popularity, online crowds swarmed to her post. Swoonful praise aside, she received many pointed comments such as "Does the shampoo you're endorsing know about this 'self-smear' campaign?" and "Why are you asking me when you repeat the L'Oreal slogan every day?" The second comment was copy-and-pasted repeatedly in an 'echo effect' by netizens out to make a joke of the event.
To reverse the negative hype, Fan posted another Weibo entry on the same night, saying, "Wow! So many friends are telling me what I am already thinking! Ha how come you're so smart?"
It is not entirely clear whether Fan herself or someone working for the brand made the unwise post, but nonetheless, the social-media 'script' needed to be completed. Sure enough, on 4 April, Fan's account got a new post stating, "No more frizz and grease after washing my hair!" along with a reference to a L'Oreal one-minute conditioner product.
"There can and will be 'bad hair days' with celebrities. It's the risk you always run when you sign them. They are people too, after all," joked Brian Swords, managing director at TBWA Shanghai. However, T.R. Harrington, founder of Darwin Marketing, felt that Fan's follow-up post sounded "very robotic and inauthentic".
Fan and L'Oreal may laugh off the incident in time. However, it brings to mind China's judicial revision that took effect on 15 March, which stipulates that celebrity endorsers are also liable for the products they advertise—and that customers can claim compensation from the producers and sellers.
L'Oréal executives did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication, but Ali Kazmi, head of social at Omnicom Media Group China, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that brands need to stop "over-engineering" the Weibo accounts of their celebrity endorsers.
"Whether this was accidental or an opportunity created by the brand to sell a functional benefit of its product, authenticity is Rule Number-One. Rule Number-Two is to refer back to Rule Number-One," he said.
Social media management for stars may involve the brand's internal departments, as well as different agencies allocated with PR or social duties. Therefore, maintaining consistency, to the extent of developing a unified instruction manual will be necessary, according to Jason Zhan, founder of Vitamine.
Fan opened her own Weibo micro-blog account only three months ago, on Christmas Day of 2013. Her Weishi (Vine equivalent in China) micro-video account was also started recently.
"Brands should be aware that Chinese celebrities are getting more active on social media. Understanding their personal interests and social-sharing tendencies to anticipate and avoid embarrassing occurrences is the homework that brands must always do," Zhan said.
Brands should consider broader definitions of celebrity endorsers, Harrington added. "There is an overuse of TV and movie stars instead of musicians, who generally have much stronger affiliations with consumers."