When Dior tapped actress Zhao Liying as its brand ambassador in China, it was not expecting the backlash that followed. Fans of the brand were furious, claiming that Zhao lacked the style and aura to represent it. One commentator wrote below an online photo of Zhao wearing a Dior gown: “She looks like the girl next door. How is she the epitome of high fashion and luxury?”
Early last month, Zhao, 30, found herself at the centre of another media storm after Dior released a promotional clip that saw the actress delivering the slogan “And you, what would you do for love?” in heavily accented English. The actress soon became a target of mockery with some netizens chiding that her English is worse than a primary school student. Dior had to delete the clip from its official Sina Weibo account, in a bid to defuse the criticism.
“The China market has become the biggest battlefield for luxury brands, especially when it comes to the great number of millennial shoppers. So it is inevitable that Dior would succumb to the pressure (and delete Zhao’s video). Rumour has it that even the Paris headquarter was alerted about the debacle,” a public relations insider told Qianjiang Evening News. “After all, it takes years to build the image of a brand but the destruction of that image can happen in an instant.”
KFC also knows a thing or two about being associated with the wrong celebrity. Back in September, its brand ambassador Xue Qiqian grabbed headlines when model Li Yutong accused the singer-comedian of forcing her to have a late-term abortion. Li alleged that Xue knocked her up when he was filing for divorce from his wife. However, he wanted to end their affair when the two reconciled. KFC has since dropped promotional material featuring Xue and there are media reports that the fast food giant is demanding the actor refund part of his endorsement fee.
For consumer brands, celebrity endorsements are important but costly. “These days, this is how much it is going to cost to hire a celebrity to endorse the brand: first, you spend over Rmb20 million ($3 million) to hire a star. Then you will need to pay Rmb200 million to tell the world that the star represents your brand. And finally, you have to spend an additional Rmb10 million [on press conferences and events] to explain why you have chosen him or her to endorse the brand,” a marketing manager at a handset maker complained to Entertainment Capital, an industry blog.
Prada has chosen a slightly different tactic for connecting with Chinese shoppers. In a recent interview with CBN, Patrizio Bertelli, the chief executive of the luxury brand (and husband of its founder, Miuccia Prada), said the Italian firm is relying more on internet influencers to promote its products. An example is Liang Tao, who is better known in China as Mr Bag. Prada flew the fashion blogger out to Milan to attend its 2018 Spring/Summer fashion show where he was prominently seated in the front-row. Earlier this year, it also paid Liang to host an event in Beijing to promote its latest ‘it’ bag – the Cahier. Customers who bought one could enjoy a dinner with the internet celebrity at a five-star hotel.
Liang, 25, started blogging four years ago when he was a student at Columbia University. Since then, he has amassed over 3 million followers on Sina Weibo and another 600,000 on WeChat, the mobile messaging app owned by Tencent.
The blogger uses his encyclopaedic knowledge of the handbag industry to keep his followers updated about the latest trends. “My followers have amazing purchasing power – they buy a lot of luxury goods and the brands want to sell luxury goods. They need a bridge,” he boasted to the Financial Times.
Prada has been scrambling to find new ways to connect with luxury shoppers in China, who account for about a third of the world’s high-end purchases (more than any other nationality). Luxury buyers also tend to be younger compared with the rest of the world, and online influencers like Liang can be especially persuasive for this kind of demographic.
A similar strategy has paid off for Gucci. The fashion label, which is owned by Kering, now derives more than 55% of its sales from millennial consumers after boosting its presence in digital media.
“The key opinion leaders (KOLs) in China are very powerful. They can promote a product to an extent that none of their counterparts in Europe can match,” Chinese fashion blogger Yang Dong told Reuters. “When other brands roll out new products, they first come to China weeks in advance and get internet celebrities and KOLs to lead the trend. If Prada doesn’t put its marketing focus on China, it will lose more ground.”
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