He jumps out of helicopters and abseils down cliffs, but Bear Grylls, the former Special Forces soldier and host of the survival series Running Wild, admits that he “went easy” on Barack Obama when the former US president appeared on the show to push his climate change agenda in 2015.
Still, Obama chewed on salmon previously chomped by a bear, and defied his secret service team by descending a hill deemed too dangerous.
Also ignoring his cautious side, Robin Li, chairman of Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, has just appeared in an episode of Absolute Wild, the Chinese version of Grylls’ long-running format.
Previously the series had featured celebrity guests like actress Han Xue, who was forced to choose between munching bull testicles and earthworms for her calorific boost (she picked the former).
Back in August, Grylls posted an invitation on his weibo account for Baidu’s 48 year-old boss to appear on the show too. “I understand that you always look positively at all challenges, which you take as motivations for all of life’s progressions. But the wilderness is something that I love and would like to help you explore,” the host fished.
“I assure you that this will be the most difficult and most unforgettable journey you have ever had in your life.”
Grylls lived up to his promise in last week’s episode. After dropping Li off on a Tibetan plateau, the tycoon had to pick up animal dung, crawl shirtless through a swamp, skin a yak and eat its heart.
The episode revealed a softer side of Li, who comes close to choking up while watching a video of his daughter wishing him good luck. And in another scene, he admits to the insecurity he feels as head of the country’s largest search engine. “There are crises every day,” he acknowledges. “Even though the outside world thinks that the company has reached a great size, the truth is, we encounter difficult problems every day. Sometimes the challenges are so tough I feel like there is no way we could get over them and the company is going to collapse.”
Commentators say it is no coincidence that Li makes his guest appearance at a time when Baidu’s public image has been at a lowpoint. It struggled with an enormous backlash after a high-profile scandal in which a young man died after pursuing an experimental cancer treatment that was advertised on its search engine (see WiC324).
And it has been losing ground to Tencent and Alibaba, the other members of the much-vaunted BAT trio (its market value is now far lower). Its rivals have been more successful in generating revenue from their mobile apps and online marketplaces. In fact, Alibaba surpassed Baidu in the fourth quarter of last year as China’s largest digital advertising platform.
Hence Li’s charm offensive to win over viewers. “To show the world that Baidu has changed, Li Yanhong went on the reality show putting his own image aside. It was clear that he wanted to express to the public his determination to reform the company he founded,” claims Techsir, an industry blog.
In an era when corporate brands can be inextricably linked with their founders’ personalities – think Steve Jobs and Apple, or Lei Jun and Xiaomi – businessmen in China are now working much harder to cultivate their own brand images, says National Business Daily.
But the same publication is not convinced that Li’s walk in the wilds will be enough to rekindle Baidu’s mojo: “Whether it is Li or Baidu, bringing about changes [in public perception] requires more than showing up in a survivalist television show, and an increase in public exposure. For them to succeed, only time will tell.”
And time hasn’t been telling a very positive tale. Last Friday Baidu reported a second consecutive quarter of declining sales and there was more bad news on Monday when part of its search engine broke down for 18 minutes.
Two hours after service resumed Baidu apologised on its official weibo account. “We missed more than hundreds of millions of search requests because our mobile search service broke down tonight, and we’re very sorry,” the post read.
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