Avery Booker
Sep 22, 2021

Why China’s war on celebrities could actually benefit brands

Beijing's ongoing crackdown on celebrity and fan culture has seen brands searching for ambassadors who are less likely to attract controversy, such as subject matter experts, athletes, and mature influencers.

Estée Lauder-owned Kilian chose 49-year-old Ning Jing as its first brand ambassador last year.
Estée Lauder-owned Kilian chose 49-year-old Ning Jing as its first brand ambassador last year.

Beijing’s wide-ranging crackdown on tech platforms, celebrity culture, gaming, and more shows no sign of ending anytime soon, and pressure is poised to increase in the final months of 2021. As President Xi Jinping pushes the concept of “common prosperity,” state-run media outlets have been publishing an increasing number of commentaries railing against the country’s intense “fan culture” and celebrity worship.  

Yet with the massive influence commanded by today’s stars, op-eds in official media alone are unlikely to calm the frenzy of fan culture, and authorities have started to take firmer action. Earlier this month, China’s broadcast regulator, the National Radio and Television Administration, directed television companies and online platforms to blacklist celebrities with “incorrect politics,” curb “idol worship,” and cap their pay. 

Meanwhile, three years after Fan Bingbing—then one of China’s top A-listers—was embroiled in a high-profile tax scandal, celebrities now find themselves under the microscope of broadcasting as well as tax authorities, with actress Zheng Shuang recently hit by a $46 million fine for tax evasion. China recently announced plans to conduct “regular tax investigations into top entertainers,” including online influencers and livestreamers, with “serious punishment for offenders,” the SCMP reported. 

The new challenges faced by China’s high-profile celebrities and influencers means it is also becoming more difficult for luxury brands to choose a representative for the market. Young idols have long been favored, as their massive fan followings have shown a willingness to buy from the brands they endorse as a show of support for the stars, fueling their continued success in commercial terms. But with the ever-present possibility of a star being cancelled for transgressions such as sex scandals (Kris WuLucas Huang), hot-button political controversies (Zhang Zhehan), or tax improprieties (Zheng Shuang), the pressure is on to find relatively vanilla brand ambassadors who can still drive sales.

However, the ongoing crackdown might ultimately be a good thing for luxury brands in China, forcing them to think more creatively about who they want to represent them, rather than simply looking for the hottest new celebrity or jumping on the latest trends.

Already, a significant amount of marketing innovation has been coming from streetwear and sneaker culture, where subject matter experts and enthusiasts are establishing themselves as influential trendsetters who can also move products. As Jing Daily noted in its recent report Chinese Cultural Consumers: The Future of Luxury, a growing number of deeply knowledgeable Chinese consumers have successfully leveraged their expertise by launching their own online stores to resell sought-after sneakers, accompanied by chat pages that invite customers and other sneakerheads to share comments and ideas. 

The community is not limited to online, as resellers also host in-person gatherings that attract prominent influencers from the sneaker world. In 2020, Jing Daily noted how “user-friendly sneaker apps and payment systems, Key Opinion Customer (KOC) culture, livestreaming, and a growing luxury brand presence in China have only made [Gen Z sneaker culture] stronger.” As previously obscure sneakerheads become key influencers, luxury brands could turn to this community to promote new sneaker lines or streetwear-influenced collections.

Gen Z tennis champion Emma Raducanu is set to become one of the world’s most marketable sports stars and is already courting luxury houses and labels.

Sports stars are another influential group that more luxury brands may turn to amid the celebrity crackdown. With outdoor and winter sports lines and brand collaborations becoming a goldmine for luxury brands in China, brands may look more to high-profile athletes, particularly in the run-up to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. And with little indication that the central government is as concerned about foreign athletes as it is about foreign celebrities, luxury brands may enlist the likes of tennis phenom Emma Raducanu for upcoming campaigns in China.

The year ahead may also see more luxury brands enlisting older celebrities and influencers for campaigns, going against the trend of working with Gen Z, “flavor of the month” Douyin (or TikTok) stars. As noted in the recent report Transcendent Retail: APAC by Jing Daily and Wunderman ThompsonChina’s baby boomers are starting to make their mark on online commerce, showing impressive social media prowess. 

Boasting millions of fans, “The Fashion Grandmas,” a collective of around two dozen members ranging in age from late 50s to mid 70s, use Beijing’s streets as their runway in videos sprinkled with nuggets of wisdom on life and love, serving up pop-up ads and livestreamed product sales along the way. And the Fashion Grandmas are far from alone, with “Grandma Wang Who Only Wears High Heels” boasting 16 million Douyin followers, while others such as @IAmGrandmaTian and @Woshiniwanglaoye attract fanbases that transcend age alone through their down-to-earth humor.

According to Wunderman Thompson research, 81% of Chinese aged over 55 say they are more comfortable using digital technology post-Covid, more than any other age group. “China’s mobile internet industry has earned money from every group: men, women, youngsters, parents, but not the elderly,” Bian Changyong, chief executive of Beijing Dama Technology Company, which handles the Fashion Grandmas’ social media, told AFP. “This could be the last structural opportunity of the industry.”

The reality show “Call Me By Fire” (披荆斩棘的哥哥) proved a hit this summer among nostalgia-minded millennials and Gen Zers.

Some brands have moved more quickly than others in tapping older influencers. Last year, the Estée Lauder-owned niche fragrance brand Kilian enlisted 49-year-old actress Ning Jing, the winning contestant in the hit idol competition show “Sisters Who Make Waves” (乘风破浪的姐姐) as the brand’s first brand ambassador ahead of its mainland China debut. More recently, the reality show “Call Me By Fire” (披荆斩棘的哥哥), featuring male starts in their thirties, forties, and even fifties, became one of China’s most popular reality shows in the wake of the aforementioned celebrity scandals and fan culture crackdown. 

What brands may find is that working with more established celebrities in China offers more peace of mind, given the lower likelihood that they will rock the boat and put their cushy lifestyles at risk. As Jing Daily noted, “although their social followings are smaller than today’s A-list young idols, mature celebrities have proven reputations through a long-term dedication to their craft. Also, their fans are more loyal, rational, and critical than the fickle fans of younger talents.”

Whatever route they take on their choice of brand spokesperson or collaborator, luxury brands forced to rethink their China marketing strategies out of necessity could see the most sustainable success in the market. Rather than focusing on short-term success from season to season and signing on the latest star to emerge from idol shows or hit dramas, brands that build stronger relationships with the subject matter experts, athletes, or established celebrities their target audience cares about could avoid being caught up in embarrassing scandals or crackdowns they could do without.


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