LONDON — Luxury brands reliant on Chinese celebrities to help drive sales are grappling with a new reality as the government cracks down on high-profile individuals amid its growing belief that toxic celebrity culture is poisoning the minds of the country’s youth.
Italian fashion house Etro recently named Chinese actress Yang Mi as its new global ambassador, and released the brand’s fall 2021 campaign featuring her. In 2019, she famously cut ties with another Italian brand, Versace, over its being “suspected of damaging China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” as the brand mistakenly labeled Macau and Hong Kong as separate entities to China on a style of T-shirt.
As one of the most-followed figures on Weibo with a track record of sending items flying off the store racks, Yang is a desirable choice for luxury brands. But given how many high-profile stars with top-level fashion endorsements have fallen this year, one might beg the question whether now is an appropriate time to make such an announcement.
At the beginning of 2021, Prada was under fire in China as its former China face Zheng Shuang was accused by her ex-boyfriend, producer Zhang Heng, of considering forcing the U.S. surrogate carrying their child to terminate her seven-month pregnancy in 2019 because their relationship came to an end. She was later widely condemned for the negative social impact she caused and fined $46 million for tax evasion. Broadcasters were also ordered to stop showing content that she has appeared in.
Last month, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari’s former global ambassador Kris Wu was arrested on suspicion of rape, and his social media and all published work were wiped clean.
Not long after, Fendi’s not-so-long-ago signed China ambassador, and one of the country’s highest-profile actresses, Zhao Wei, was banned online for reasons unknown.
Her name was removed from all the works she starred in on major Chinese video platforms like Tencent Video, iQiyi and Youku. Some suggested that it might be linked to China’s crackdown on Jack Ma and Alibaba, as Zhao and her husband, the businessman Huang Youlong, were close allies of Ma.
Linda Wang, president of BICG Fashion Group, which helps brands source Chinese ambassadors, said brands now have to be extra cautious when signing new faces, after what happened to Zheng, Wu and Zhao.
“Relatively speaking, female celebrities like Yang are safer choices than male celebrities, especially those with massive online followings. A key indicator to tell whether a celebrity is considered safe or not is to see if they are participating in any government-led projects, such as the upcoming Beijing International Film Festival and the Greater Bay Area Mid-Autumn Music Festival,” she said.
“I have asked many brands whether they want to give up using celebrities in China. A majority of them told me that they fear they will lose to other brands if they don’t use them since many others are using stars and getting good rewards. So overall, the brands’ demand for celebrities has not been affected by the crackdown. They are just getting more careful. Nowadays the first thing that an agent does at a meeting with a brand is to prove that the celebrity is risk free and safe,” she added.
That said, associating with Chinese celebrities can still cause huge damage to brands if they get caught in geopolitical storms since China now constantly clashes with the West on many issues as it is on track to replace the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in the next decade.
For example, the debacle over Xinjiang cotton in March not only cost brands like Nike, Adidas, Burberry and many others to lose their local brand ambassadors overnight but also had serious financial consequences.
H&M’s second-quarter 2021 China sales were down 23 percent in local currencies as it was wiped off Tmall and domestic phone-makers app stores since it expressed concerns about the alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Adidas’ second-quarter 2021 sales fell by more than 16 percent in the region.
The German sportswear brand lost almost a dozen top-level ambassadors for standing by a Better Cotton Initiative report that claimed there is oppression against Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region.
Also for a geopolitical reason, Chinese actor Lu Han recently cut ties with luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet because, during an interview, the brand’s chief executive officer François-Henry Bennahmias referred to Taiwan as a country, which was deemed illegal under China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy.
A key issue is that the Chinese government sees celebrities as not just entertainers, but also as role models for the general public and there is no room for mistakes or for causing any sort of bad influence.
Bohan Qiu, founder of the Shanghai-based creative agency Boh Project, said his clients already have second thoughts about the old way of signing the biggest stars, and he is helping them to navigate the new direction that in fact is more in tune with China’s own social media ecosystem.
“With the rising popularity of Douyin and Xiaohongshu, their algorithms have redefined who is popular for China’s Gen Z. In the post-crackdown world, I think brands won’t tie to a few certain names as they did before. There will be more loosely signed ‘friends of the house,’ which gives the brands more flexibility when bad things happen,” he said.
“At the same time, I believe the era of storytelling based on grassroots celebrity, or you can call it niche influencer, has arrived. Brands shall embrace those who have amassed huge influence on emerging social media platforms, instead of engineered idols. What I mean for grassroots is that they are the ones creating interesting organic content and are able to spark trending topics. You don’t need a big following. As long as what you are posting is very special and meaningful, you will get a lot of engagements,” he added.