In March, Olay announced local male heartthrob Li Yifeng (李易峰) as the brand's ambassador in China. After first gaining attention in a reality singing show, Li rose to fame through his popular roles in TV soaps, including a campus drama where he was called 'Mr. Attractive'. The majority of his 29 million Weibo fans are adoring females.
For Olay, looking to reach increasingly younger female consumers in China, the logic seems sound. Li provides the halo of a perfectly good-looking and considerate boyfriend to the skincare brand, underscoring good skin as an aspirational anchor for young women.
Boyband bundle: Why are guys fronting female brands?
Alongside Olay's choice of Li, P&G has also included Taiwanese actor Darren Wang (王大陸) and Hong Kong TV host Wong Cho Lam (王祖藍) as the faces of SK-II cosmetics and Tide laundry powder, respectively. As part of a collaboration with B2C site JD.com, the above three male celebrities formed a 'boy band of six' with other pop-idols Lu Han (鹿晗) for Clear toothpaste, Eddie Pang (彭懷安) for Head and Shoulders, and Ning Zetao (宁泽涛) for Gillette.
Aimed at JD.com's female shoppers, the P&G e-store encourages them to "send their 'male gods' [男神; Chinese slang for divinely handsome men] to Times Square"—a reference to P&G's pledge to put these male ambassadors on a big screen in NYC if sales of their products reach 10 million by 22 March.
Adding to the craze are the choices by Estee Lauder, L'Oreal and Maybelline to also use male idols to front their product brands in China.
Globally, other female-focused brands have used male celebrities, most notably, Brad Pitt for Chanel No. 5 and South Korean actor Lee Minho for Italian shoe brand Suphier.
However in China, the recent spate of males representing female brands appears more than just a response to fandom. After all, take a look at India and Brazil; although Bollywood and telenovela stars are worshipped, brand ambassadors do not cross gender lines.
Male brand ambassadors are a backward step for China's female consumers
Unfortunately, China's preference for male ambassadors appears to be based on a rather negative perception of modern Chinese women: that they can be baited and placated with male eye-candy.
The use of male brand ambassadors for female-focused categories goes directly against a more independent form of femininity in China.
Nowhere is this contradiction more striking than the recent communications of SK-II. Last week, the brand caught attention with its bold and emotive campaign highlighting the pressure faced by China's 'left-over women'.
Chinese Women: 1, Chauvinist Tradition: 0.
However in the same breath, as mentioned earlier, SK-II uses Darren Wang as a brand ambassador, so...
Chinese Women: 0, Chauvinist Tradition 1.
These two actions, at a brand level, are inconsistent.
Some may argue that a male ambassador is simply a suggestion that Chinese women have the 'right' to gaze at men on their own terms, as they please.
However at the end of the day, the self-worth of a woman is ultimately being defined by a man, albeit a highly-romanticised, if not unrealistic, concept of one.
The current 'guy ambassador for a girl's brand' phenomena may create some level of buzz and engagement due to the stardom effect, but over the longer term, it may create brand liability.
Almost like your first cassette or DVD, or your first high school crush, the brand could ultimately end up an embarrassment to current devotees.
The 'P&G boyband bundle of brands' didn't make it to Times Square in the end, thus proving my point.
There is such a thing as consumers growing out of a brand, and in the atmosphere of increasingly strong female identities in China, that process may be a little too quick for brands to keep up with.
|Jerry Clode is head of digital and social insight at Resonance China.