advertising China

One Star Fits All

China First Capital blog post

Imagine a world of where every product had a single celebrity endorser. The same star would advertise on behalf of car companies, detergent, liquor, travel. Sound implausible? Welcome to the world of Chinese celebrity product endorsement, where kungfu star Jackie Chan is such a fixture of product advertising, both commercials and billboards, that no one knows for certain how many different brands he advertises.

With the help of a friend, I recently compiled a list of 16 companies Jackie Chan now shills for. There are certainly others. The list includes some brands familiar to Western audiences, like Mitsubishi Motors and Canon EOS cameras. But, most of the products are ones targeting China’s domestic market. These include a dumpling company, an air-conditioner manufacturer, an anti-baldness shampoo, green tea bags, and a laundry detergent. During the broadcast of the 2012 London Olympics, Jackie Chan-fronted commercials got far more tv time in China than Michael Phelps or any Chinese medal winner .

In the US and Europe, the generally held view is that a celebrity should endorse only one product.  Endorsement contracts usually specify this. Once a brand pays out a lot of money to get a celebrity, they don’t want that investment squandered, in part, by the same celebrity pitching for another product, even an unrelated one.

So, Robert DeNiro has appeared in American Express advertising, and nowhere else. Jennifer Aniston pitches L’Oreal shampoo, and that’s it. For awhile, golfer Tiger Woods was the one notable exception to this rule of promotional monogamy, promoting several different products at once. His marital philandering brought an end to his endorsement philandering. Every big brand but Nike has dropped him.

But, Jackie Chan in China is an advertising law unto himself. He is, without question, the most visible man in China, a wall-to-wall presence in people’s lives. The only face Chinese seen more often is Mao Zedong, whose portrait is on every banknote circulated in the country.

Simply understood, in today’s consumer market in China, paper with Mao’s face buys products with Jacky Chan’s on it.

Unlike Mao, Jacky Chan’s popularity and ubiquity in China are both a little beyond the scope of my comprehension. Start with the fact Jacky Chan is from Hong Kong, not the Chinese mainland, and his clunky Mandarin betrays that fact. Kungfu movies aren’t particularly popular in today’s China. At 58, he’s hardly a matinee idol. Most of his film work these days is in English, like the recent remake of “The Karate Kid” and “Kungfu Panda”.

China has plenty of home-grown stars. Two of them, the actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, also do a lot of product endorsements. These two share a key attribute that makes Jackie Chan valuable as a pitchman: they’ve achieved fame outside China.

These three are in a class by themselves among celebrity endorsers in China, precisely because they are the only three with real name recognition outside the country. If you want to be a truly big star in China, become even a minor one in the US.

Most of the products endorsed by Jackie Chan are sold only in China. Some, like Cree air-conditioners, among the leading brands. Others, like Fenhuang Cola, are also-rans. Nothing, though, seems to dent his value as a pitcher of products to China’s masses.

All celebrity endorsements are a paid attempt at rub-off glamour. With Jackie Chan, no matter how often that glamour gets rubbed, it never seems to dull.


Oppo’s Titanic Achievement

Leonardo DiCaprio does something in China that he dare not do in the US: peddle product. He is appearing now, unnamed but clearly recognizable, in ads for a Chinese domestic mobile phone brand called Oppo. His face is currently plastered all over my local subway station in Shenzhen.

It’s a bold move by a little-known Chinese mobile phone company to storm into the big time, and grab market share from Nokia, Samsung, LG and Apple. None of these global brands uses a big name to front its ads in China. Oppo is determined to compete as equals with these larger companies. It’s still learning the rules of building a successful brand. Its tactics and ad strategy are a little off-beat. But, Oppo has the resources and distribution in China to challenge the large global mobile phone brands, and so cause them headaches in the world’s largest mobile phone market.

The ads are a bit of a head-scratcher. They are framed to look like a strip of celluloid and feature, in the background, a European cobblestone street, a moped making a fast getaway while someone, maybe Leo, gives chase. The only text are the words “Find Me”, in English. In other words, it doesn’t have anything to do with mobile phones, not even subliminally. It looks like a movie poster. Still, seeing an A-List Hollywood star in a Chinese ad for a Chinese brand is no workaday occurrence.

Leo is hugely popular in China, especially among women under 40.  “Titanic” may well be the most-watched American movie of all time in China. No one knows for sure, since the movie came out in 1997, and circulated in China mainly through pirated video and DVDs.

Getting Leo to appear in the ads is quite a coup for Oppo. The Chinese company reportedly paid Dicaprio $5 million. A steep price, but the company is betting that Leo can pry open wallets in a way no other celebrity endorser can. The reason: Oppo is the only “girls only” major mobile phone brand in the world. The company’s phones are all aimed at, and advertised to, females.

Oppo’s phones are all  pretty standard, with no unique technology under-the-hood. But, they come in bright colors and feature girly do-dads like crystal keys. Oppo’s marketing, with the exception of the new DiCaprio ad, features Chinese women traveling in exotic locations, or chatting with friends.

Oppo is trying to pull off a challenging feat:  to catapult above the hundreds of no-name mobile phone manufacturers and brands, and establish itself as a premium brand in China. The other Chinese mobile phone brands do little to no advertising, and instead compete mainly on price. With its big ad budget and quirky strategy of targeting women from 18-40, Oppo aims to compete head-to-head with Samsung, Nokia and Apple.

Will it work? My guess is that Oppo will get a decent return for the $5 million spent on DiCaprio. The Chinese market is ready for a splashy self-confident Chinese domestic phone brand with some star power.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”