Star power

Alibaba’s Singles’ Day television gala proves to be a stroke of genius


Abracadab-Ma: Alibaba boss conjures up actress Scarlett Johansson

“You are about to witness history in the making” is the popular catchphrase of Liu Qian, a Taiwanese illusionist whose repeat appearances at state television’s Spring Festival Gala have made him China’s most popular magician.

Jack Ma seems to have taken a lesson from Liu’s playbook. At Alibaba’s musical gala to celebrate (read: promote) its Singles’ Day shopping extravaganza last Friday, the company’s founder and chairman was pulling double duty. In addition to schmoozing with his A-list guests, Ma also performed a series of card tricks for the audience. Always the showman, he ended the gala in true David Copperfield-style – making actress Scarlett Johansson suddenly appear out of thin air.

One appearance he couldn’t make happen, however, was that of Katy Perry. The pop diva, who was booked to open the Alibaba show, abruptly cancelled her appearance, citing a “family emergency”. (Some have suggested that Perry – an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter – was too demoralised by Donald Trump’s shock victory to travel to Shenzhen for the concert.)

The no-show from “Fruits Sister”, the netizen name for Perry (referring to her quirky costumes on stage) didn’t hurt Alibaba’s Singles’ Day sales too much. It soon surpassed last year’s record by taking just 52 seconds to break through the Rmb1 billion ($145 million) mark in sales. And by the end of the day, the e-commerce firm was reporting a record haul of Rmb120.7 billion, a 32% rise year-on-year.

“Last year our gross merchandise value [the total transaction value] would have ranked us as the number six province in China [by GDP] and this year we will be the number 20 economy in the world. We are building an economic entity,” Ma said in a celebratory tone.

Building on the success of last year’s gala, Alibaba hired Hollywood producer David Hill, known for his work on the Oscars, the Super Bowl and American Idol, to produce this year’s four-hour entertainment spectacular.

The whole thing took place in a 60,000-seater stadium in Shenzhen and it was part of Alibaba’s ongoing efforts to combine entertainment with e-commerce as it expands its commercial empire. In addition to Johansson, the international celebrities showing up to support the shopping bonanza included basketball star Kobe Bryant, David and Victoria Beckham and Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio. Indeed the star-studded evening was so over-the-top that it drew inevitable comparisons with the state-sponsored Spring Festival Gala, which is televised the night before the Lunar New Year. “It’s like the Spring Festival Gala but without the holiday,” one netizen mused.

Millions tuned in to watch the Singles’ Day show, which was livestreamed on Taobao Live, along with online video site Youku (also owned by Alibaba). There was also a primetime version on Zhejiang Satellite TV.

The viewers seemed to appreciate the efforts to give the commercial extravaganza a bit more showbiz pizzazz. “If it wasn’t for the show, it would just be a random day of big discounts. But by putting the gala and the shopping event together, the day is given a new meaning. It becomes truly an institution: an event that shoppers will structure their day around,” reports Tencent Entertainment (a fairly generous assessment, given the rivalry between Tencent and Alibaba).

Ma’s firm reportedly spent Rmb50 million on last year’s gala, and many predicted a larger budget this time around. “This year with all the super-sized celebrities, the cost is undoubtedly going to be exorbitantly high,” forecast Xinmin Evening News.

Others thought the event itself might turn out to be lucrative. Aside from the the money made from the transaction fees on goods sold on its sales platforms, Alibaba also charged for companies to appear at the televised gala. Industry insiders reckoned that Shanghai Jahwa paid at least Rmb100 million for the title sponsorship of the event and the cosmetics maker’s logo was a regular sight through the evening. It also sent the girl band SHN48, ambassador for its skincare line Gaofu, to perform; the actor Li Xiaopeng, who endorses Jahwa’s baby products line Tommee Tippee, appeared during a segment about fatherhood.

Other advertisers like Whaley Technology, a smart TV maker, and shampoo brand Head & Shoulders paid Alibaba to be featured. The Whaley brand was spotted in virtually every backdrop, while Head & Shoulders got a mention in several skits during the night. Both firms are believed to have splurged tens of millions on sponsorship too.

Separately, Alibaba hosted six separate sweepstakes throughout the evening to engage audiences at home. The prizes, including a smart car sponsored by Mercedes Benz, were a means to lure viewers and yet another opportunity for advertisers to feature their products prominently on primetime television.

In fact, each sweepstake sponsor had to fork out Rmb12 million – or Rmb72 million in total – to be featured.

Moreover, many of the celebrity guests appeared on the show virtually for free. For instance, singers Li Yuchun and Coco Lee both performed, but were there as the brand ambassadors of L’Oreal and Macy’s, respectively. Hong Kong actor Wang Zhulan, who represented the skincare brand Hanhoo, and actress Song Qian, the face for Olay China, were there for the same reason.

“The brand ambassadors that showed up at the Alibaba gala are a win-win for both parties,” surmised Chief Entertainment Officer, a blog. “For the brands, having their ambassadors featured during the show raises enormous publicity for their products on what is the biggest shopping event of the year… Even if viewers don’t make the purchase right then, the brands have made an impression. In future the shoppers might be more inclined to buy the brand.”

Indeed, being a part of this year’s Singles’ Day celebrations seems to have worked out well for some of the companies advertising their goods. For instance, Shanghai Jahwa reported that its six top skincare brands earned Rmb200 million in total on the day in question, up 2,000% from a year ago, says National Business Daily.

Television maker Whaley also sounded pleased, reporting sales of Rmb250 million over the same 24- hour period.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.