Have the “traffic stars” in China become toxic to beauty brands?

Key points to remember:

  • In China’s unique and intense fandom culture, beauty brands are especially sensitive to the accelerated rising stars of TV shows such as “Youth With You” and “Produce Camp 2021,” quickly appointing them brand ambassadors.

  • Called “traffic stars”, Chinese idols with fresh faces have become attractive to beauty brands who covet their huge female fans.

  • Due to recent celebrity scandals in China, brands need to ensure that their future idol nominations are morally aligned with Beijing’s cultural goals.

Harnessing “traffic stars,” the Chinese term for hyped celebrities who generate high digital traffic, has made possible the ambitious growth of major beauty brands in China in recent years. But now, after an explosion of scandals in the idol industry, brands and marketing agencies are rethinking the viability of this strategy.

In 2016, Guerlain took the unusual decision to name Yang Yang, a Chinese actor who rose to fame overnight thanks to the Chinese drama “The Lost Tomb”, as brand ambassador, even naming a lipstick “the shade Yang Yang “. The lipstick quickly sold out, and Yang’s massive superfan base had to purchase the product from overseas retailers.

Guerlain’s KissKiss # 344 lipstick sold out so quickly that it was dubbed “the shade of Yang Yang”. Photo: Weibo from Guerlain

Guerlain’s experience with Yang Yang, one of the first “traffic stars” of China’s new digital fandom culture, ended the traditional celebrity hierarchy in China’s brand ambassador system. Its success has shown that young media “traffic stars” are much more effective at triggering consumer buying decisions than Oscar-winning artists.

Since then, traffic stars who made their mark on talent shows and popular TV series have become the media strategy of choice for big brands – in beauty but also in luxury, fashion and luxury goods. Big consumption. In 2018, more than 40 international beauty brands replaced their female celebrity ambassadors with male “traffic stars” in their marketing campaigns.

Also known as ‘Little Fresh Meats’, these pretty-faced male stars are accompanied by a vast base of young female fans who are particularly willing to spend the money on brands promoted by their idols. Because of the way fans see themselves as responsible for the business value of their idols, these brand nominations were able to generate both media buzz and immediate business results.

Fast forward to today, and beauty brands have only stepped up their strategies to accelerate these new traffic stars. In March 2021 alone, Armani Beauty, L’Oréal and Elizabeth Arden named rising Chinese star Gong Jun (known for her role in a genre TV series “Boys Love”) as their new face. In fact, Louis Vuitton has also worked with Gong on several public relations events. And in less than six months, Gong has gone from being a little-known actor to being the most coveted poster of the biggest names in beauty in the world.

Fan Chengcheng, a singer who rose to fame thanks to C-pop talent shows, is another example of how brands have quickly embraced China’s idol culture for their marketing programs. With over 25 million fans on Weibo, Fan is now the face of Givenchy, Christian Louboutin Beauty, Fenty Beauty and Shiseido.

Fan Chengcheng promoted Fenty Beauty’s blush during the 520 holiday last year. Photo: Weibo by Fenty Beauty

In many ways, the all-consuming desire for beauty brands for young Chinese idols makes perfect business sense. Inspired by K-pop, modern Chinese fandom culture adheres to a pragmatic philosophy that fans should help their idol’s career through concrete contributions (i.e. sales) to their idol’s promotions. Therefore, beyond showing their appreciation for their idols on social media, fans take even more pleasure in becoming active participants in their idol’s rise to greatness.

This direct link between star nomination and fan sales makes the China Ambassador program unique and particularly appealing to beauty brands that have traditionally operated with a seasonal / regional business model through their young female clientele. However, over-reliance on pop celebrities for business growth can be a honey trap for brands.

First, the fleeting nature of the “traffic stars” in China’s ever-changing entertainment industry means that brands must keep changing ambassadors to keep abreast of market trends. Young idols tend to have a fan base that engages intensely for a short time, but quickly turns to the next star. For brands that want to cultivate a strong CRM strategy in the Chinese market, using idols to recruit their fans is only a short-term move.

More importantly, a potential government crackdown on China’s current idol system could pose an even greater danger to this strategy, which relies exclusively on hype. Since last year, the country appears to be embarking on a big toll for toxic fandom cultivation. In January 2021, actor Zheng Shuang’s surrogacy scandal forced Prada to sever ties with the star after just seven days of collaboration, propelled by Chinese state broadcasts condemning his negative influence on the youth of the world. country.

And in July, Chinese-Canadian idol Kris Wu sparked some of the most explosive scandals in Chinese entertainment history. Following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, Wu lost sponsorship deals with more than ten high-end brands, including Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and Lancôme, in less than a week. And since then, many Chinese state media accounts have publicly pledged to embark on a “media cleanup” project, promising a crackdown on morally tainted stars who corrupt the younger generations.

With the number of ‘traffic star’ scandals on the rise, China’s official firm stance against ‘bad influence’ idols implies that brands are likely to face more marketing restrictions in nominating stars for them. future campaigns.

Today, brands and agencies must consider whether a star’s character fits Beijing’s national goals to avoid getting drawn into the next ambassador scandal. “The best type of idols to name should be role models,” said Susanna Cheng, independent KOL consultant based in Shenzhen. “Brands must ensure that the idol posts patriotic words, shows the right attitude towards social issues, and has a morally acceptable personal life.”

If China is in fact undergoing an upheaval in the idol industry, it will quickly change the valuation parameters of the beauty ambassador landscape. Beyond popularity, brands should also examine an idol’s moral reputation and make sure it matches the cultural standards promoted by Beijing.

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