A new ambassador arrives

Victoria’s Secret in unlikely choice for its newest China brand endorser

Zhou Dongyu-w

A new secret weapon? Zhou Dongyu now endorses Victoria’s Secret

With China now on a path to recovery from the coronavirus outbreak, consumer brands want to get back to business as usual. A sprinkling of celebrity star power might help, which is why several new brand ambassadors have been introduced by firms betting on a rapid rebound in the consumer market.

First, there was the announcement that BMW had hired Yi Yangqianxi, one of country’s biggest influencers (see our list of Top 30 KOLs on our website) as the carmaker’s first ever China ambassador. At first glance the 19 year-old was a surprising choice, although company executives said that Yi’s youth is part of his appeal. “The [average] age of Chinese luxury car users continues to decline”, explained Yang Meihong, vice president of BMW Brilliance, the local joint venture between BMW and Brilliance Auto. “The average age of BMW owners in China is about 15 to 20 years younger than more mature markets like the US and Germany.”

Meanwhile, luxury e-tailer Wan Li Mu – the brainchild of P2P lending platform Qudian – picked five celebrity ambassadors to drum up interest, hiring actors Huang Xiaoming, Zhao Wei, Zheng Kai, Lei Jiayin and Jia Nailiang as endorsers.

Qudian, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, has seen its share price drop from $29 in 2017 – the year it went public – to just $1.72 this week.

Another endorsement deal grabbed media attention last week, when US lingerie firm Victoria’s Secret said that it had signed actress Zhou Dongyu, 28, as its brand ambassador in China, while starlet Yang Mi, 33, was named as its ambassador for Asia. Not to pivot too far from its roots, it has also hired Chinese supermodel He Sui for an upcoming ad campaign.

The hiring of Yang should hardly come as a surprise as she has a proven reputation in generating sales. She is so popular that fashion brands say that their clothes often sell out almost as soon as she is spotted wearing them on social media. Another of the stars on our Top 30 KOL list, Yang has endorsed Estée Lauder, Stuart Weitzman and Versace (see WiC400).

But the choice of Zhou has stirred more discussion. Best known for her demure, girl-next-door image, Zhou first appeared in Zhang Yimou’s The Love of the Hawthorn Tree in 2010 (see WiC74), and more recently in the anti-bullying drama Better Days (with BMW’s newly appointed endorser Yi; see WiC473).

Part of the strategy behind the new appointments is an effort by Victoria’s Secret to tweak its image. In the past the lingerie brand has contracted models rather than actors, but it has run into flak for objectifying the female body.

The tie-up with Zhou is part of an effort to redefine ‘sexy’, company bosses have indicated. “I’m not ‘sexy’ as conventionally defined — not like this,” Zhou explains in a promotional video, her hand tracing an hourglass figure in the air. “I define sexiness as being comfortable, nonconformist, and expressing [oneself] in a natural state. It should be we who define sexiness, not we who are defined.”

Netizens seemed to miss the point on the repositioning, however, with many expressing their confusion about why Zhou was representing the lingerie brand.

“I don’t mean to body-shame, but in my view her figure has always been like a child’s,” one user commented under a post on review site Douban. “This endorsement is too confusing. Is Victoria’s Secret going to debut a line specifically for girls?”

Other responses were more supportive, saying that Victoria’s Secret is keeping up with societal norms that put greater value on a wide range of body types.

“Her endorsement of the brand offers a new definition of sexiness. Who says that sexiness is about body shapes? It can be an attitude towards life and each girl can have her own unique sexiness. We believe that is why Zhou Douyu was chosen as a spokesperson,” said Tencent Entertainment.

Sohu agreed: “Victoria’s Secret knows that the aura Zhou Dongyu possesses is not the kind people would describe as sexual or what people associate the brand with, so they are promoting a different kind of sexiness. As long as women feel comfortable, they are sexy in their own skin,” the news portal claimed.

Unlike previous Victoria’s Secret campaigns – that seem to fit more into stereotypical male fantasy mode – the two actresses show very little skin in their brand debuts. Racy lingerie is replaced by loungewear and casualwear. “Yang Mi’s promotional photos have surpassed the brand’s limits when it comes to how little they reveal. This set of photos looks like they were from Cosmo Lady [a domestic lingerie brand] or one of the loungewear makers on Taobao. Just not Victoria’s Secret,” one netizen disapproved.

Others appreciated the change in direction. “I like Zhou Dongyu’s interpretation very much. In the past, Victoria’s Secret gave me the feeling of vulgar porn,” one wrote.

The ambassadorial appointments come at a time when Victoria’s Secret is looking for ways to reinvigorate its sales. The lingerie giant cancelled its 2019 fashion show, its main marketing stunt, after declining ratings. More recently, private equity firm Sycamore Partners pulled the plug on a $525 million bid to buy a majority stake. L Brands, the owner of Victoria’s Secret, says it plans to file a lawsuit over the termination of the deal.

Probably more importantly, some shoppers have complained that the quality of Victoria’s Secret merchandise has dropped and a marketing strategy designed to appeal to younger consumers seems to have flopped. “The choice of Zhou Dongyu as spokesperson is to expand the brand’s appeal, hoping to attract more young women. However, in the face of the brand’s weakening performance, just signing two new brand ambassadors is not going to change that. More drastic measures need to be taken,” Tencent Entertainment concluded.

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