Staff Writer
Jun 2, 2020

iQIYI: combining AI & creativity to tell stories

Since its founding in 2010, the Chinese video online platform has managed to build and sustain its identity in a highly crowded space. Now it’s helping brands do the same on its hit variety show Youth With You Season 2.

iQIYI: combining AI & creativity to tell stories
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There is no stopping the momentum of Youth With You Season 2, the iQIYI variety show about a group of women overcoming their own challenges to become the next ‘idol’. The show ended with a bang last Saturday, with the announcement of the nine-member idol group THE9, composed of the show’s winners. The group will become an ambassador for show sponsor Mengniu Zhenguoli Huaguoqingru.

THE9, an all-girl idol group composed of the nine winners from Youth With You Season 2

The first season of Youth With You was already a huge success, but that success now pales in comparison to the second season both in terms of views and number of brand sponsorships. Since its release in March 2020, Youth With You Season 2 has become China’s most popular variety show, racking up millions of views on the iQIYI’s YouTube account, and other affiliated sites, and has created campaigns for some 30 sponsors, including Mengniu Zhenguoli Huaguoqingru, DARLIE, Armani Beauty & Kiehl’s. 

The last few years have seen the proliferation of online streaming in China, and more generally, APAC, thanks to rising internet penetration rate and growing smartphone ownership. Amid all the streaming platforms, iQIYI stands out for a few reasons, including presenting original variety shows such as U Can U Bibi, The Rap of China and TV drama The Lost Tomb in the early days, which contributed to its ability to grow its audience very quickly, to the developing of animated shorts, gaming, sports shows, KOL live-streaming and so on. This integration allows iQIYI to more efficiently mobilise its content marketing capabilities - something that Youth With You Season 2 took advantage of.

According to Leon Chen, SVP at iQIYI, there are three key reasons behind Youth With You Season 2’s success.

The first is to align the show’s values with that of its viewers. The second is leveraging technology to personalize communication, so that viewers feel their needs are being taken care of, raising the chances of them becoming advocates of iQIYI itself. The third is the leveraging of iQIYI’s capability not only in reality programming but also in comics, gaming, and long and short-form videos to create creative content for both viewers and brands. 

Chen dives deeper into the first point.

“Today’s youths don’t want to be boxed up. They want to chart their own path to success. Youth With You was created with that in mind. For Youth With You Season 2, we want to take idea that everyone has a myriad of possibilities in front of them with the idea of X, that is, infinity. This is seen in the diverse cast itself,” he notes. “Our viewers don’t keep coming back for the glamour, but because they see themselves in these contestants."

iQIYI is also leveraging technology and creativity in a myriad of ways to ensure that they’re putting the best content in front of viewers, and that its sponsors are getting the best kind of exposure.

Its multi-perspective watching mode is a case in point. 

Whereas previously you might be watching the show with the same view as everyone else, you can now make sure of a tool called ‘multi-perspective’ to split your screen into two - on the left, your view is still like everyone else’s, but on the right, you get a close-up of your favourite contestant, as she sings and dances on stage.

iQIYI's multi-perspective watch mode

iQIYI is also using this amalgamation of AI and creativity to work with sponsors to ensure that each gets its unique positioning on the show.

In the past, a show sponsor might mean a 10-sec ad spot, but Youth With You Season 2 eschews that in favour of co-produced content that are better integrated within the show.

One tactic is to involve the brand in the competition itself.

Millennials and Gen Z fans are used to - and are very adept - at expressing support for celebrities or influencers by doling out virtual ‘hearts’, ‘kisses’ on different social platforms. Why not turn those virtual supportive into ‘Mengniu Zhenguoli Huaguoqingru’, asks Chen and his team when devising content marketing strategy for Mengniu Zhenguoli Huaguoqingru. The result was an engaging campaign where viewers could vote for their favourite contestant, in effect playing a role in deciding a contestant’s ranking, and allowing the brand to act as an ‘ambassador’ for contestants and show producers.

iQIYI brainstormed an interactive campaign for Mengniu Zhenguoli Huaguoqingru

iQIYI’s campaign with Kiehl’s is equally personal: viewers can simply ‘like’ Kiehl’s official social account, reply ‘Youth With You Season 2’ to the welcome message, and be directed to a page that allows them to record an audio message for their favourite contestant.

Rather than simply giving DARLIE a ten-sec ad spot, Youth With You Season 2 had Kiki Xu, a popular contestant, dress up in a ‘DARLIE dress’ to perform in a show segment. 

The Darlie ad

Meanwhile, the campaign for Armani Beauty is an exercise in ‘how to make the best use of a 40-second ad spot’. The ad starred iQIYI contestants in a variety of styles posing and dancing in front of the camera while wearing Armani’s #205 Liquid Lipstick. Featuring an upbeat tune and some snazzy editing, the ad drives home the message that the lipstick shade caters to different types of women. 

Not only do these strategies give these brands a more youthful and positive image, it also helps them become more ‘human’.

“Something you simply cannot achieve with a generic ad”, emphasises Chen.

It wasn’t all smooth-sailing for Chen and his team, who faced resistance from certain brands used to traditional ways of marketing. “Many brands only want to sell products, so a challenge was to make them understand that with content marketing, we can help them better translate their brand ethos, which will in turn drive more sales, and most importantly, sharpen the brand’s image in the minds of consumers in the long-run.”

Even in this digital age, consumers aren’t on their laptops or phones 24/7. Understanding this, Youth With You Season 2’s content marketing strategy has always aspired for “that fluidity between online and offline”, says Chen. Hit up a hip commercial district in Beijing or Shanghai and you might see the face of a contestant blown up on a huge billboard. You might then be tempted to whip out your phone and use AR technologies to scan contestant on the billboard, which will redirect to the contestant’s personal page that will allow you to watch the newest content and award points to your favourite contestant. 

iQIYI's campaigns integrate the on- and off-line 

This ability to integrate online and offline marketing has also served iQIYI well during COVID-19. As larger-scale production comes to a halt, Youth With You Season 2 hosted virtual ‘meets & greets’ to allow contestants to connect with their fans. It was a great way for contestants to want to tell their supporters that they were here for them, notes Chen. 

Also noteworthy is that Youth With You Season 2 isn’t just one show - it has become a powerful IP, of which the variety show is only a part of. Many programs and initiatives have sprouted up around the variety show, including one where contestants shared restaurant tips, and another where contestants share their journey from nobody to reality show stars. Critical is the wealth of content marketing opportunities these satellite shows offer. One instance is where contestants share make-up tips via iQIYI’s own makeup app Zeal Beauty, in turn driving sales for the brands featured.

“In the past, you might watch a reality show and forget about it until the next episode comes along,” observes Chen. “Now, if you like Youth With You Season 2, you’re likely to also buy into the other programming related to it.” 

Youth With You Season 2’s reach isn’t confined to China. Available in eight languages, the show has been broadcasted in Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan and so on. In addition to launching Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, iQIYI is also leveraging its big data capabilities to navigate the fans’ preferences in each region. “For example, we found out that Zhao Xiaotang [a contestant] is particularly popular in Vietnam, and An Qi [a contestant] in Japan, so we invest a bit more on these contestants when doing content marketing in these countries.”

In an age when brands are in a battle for consumers' attention, iQIYI is redefining ways that brands might work with media companies for campaigns that truly speaks to the desires of viewers. Very often, the focus is put on what brands need; iQIYI is telling brands they know what their targeted consumers want. It’s no wonder perhaps, that it snapped up the Digital Media Innovator award at Campaign Asia’s Digital Media Awards in May.

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