Song Hye-kyo

South Korean actors, pop stars, models and comedians have become some of the most recognizable faces in Asia, endorsing a variety of products and brands in China. But the Chinese government’s apparent ban on South Korean entertainment and celebrity appearances could force some international companies to tweak their promotional strategies in the country.

Gucci, Calvin Klein, Esprit and Hong Kong-based Giordano have all featured South Korean celebrities in recent advertising campaigns and promotional materials. Gucci’s parent company, Kering, as well as Esprit and Calvin Klein declined to talk about their work with South Korean celebrities and China’s ban. Giordano, a mass-market clothing retailer, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Gucci was working with [actress] Jun Ji-hyun, but they replaced her with [Chinese singer] Li Yuchun in June at some point,” said Laurence Lim Dally, managing director of Cherry Blossoms, a Hong Kong-based China brand consultancy firm. “But I think it’s too soon to tell [if this was because of the ban].”

Earlier this month, South Korean fast-fashion brand H:Connect canceled an event at its Shanghai store that would have featured Yoona Im, from K-pop group Girls’ Generation. The brand opted to do an event in Seoul instead, flying in international customers for a meet and greet with Im, according to Brian Lee, manager of Branded Lifestyle, the Hong Kong-based parent company of H:Connect.

“We were planning some big events in China this year,” Lee said. “The [marketing] budget is now going toward other countries, [they will] benefit more because of this.”

Lee said he expects other brands’ activities with South Korean celebrities in China will die down over the next 12 months.

“I think brands use these events to generate a lot of buzz and awareness by having [South Korean celebrities] over in China, and got a lot of press,” he said.

Since last year, Calvin Klein has featured South Korean actor and model Kim Woo Bin in its campaigns for watches and jewelry.

More recently Calvin Klein apparel’s #mycalvins spring 2016 Asia campaign featured top South Korean models like Hyun Ji Shin and Sung Jin Park. But the faces of those celebrities are currently absent from the brand’s China web site and worldwide #mycalvins campaign site.

Meanwhile, images of actress Song Hye-kyo are still live on Esprit’s China website. She stars in the brand’s #Songstyle ads.

The lack of specificity regarding the supposed ban’s conditions — China’s government has yet to admit the ban even exists — has made it hard for brands to make a call on whether to continue working with South Korean celebrities, according to observers here. China is reportedly upset with South Korea’s participation in a missile program.

“Recently, we [have been] working with a global retailer. They had engaged a top actress in South Korea so that she would be the face of their campaigns in China,” said Kim Leitzes, chief executive officer and founder of Parklu, a digital platform that connects international brands with Chinese influencers.

“They’d planned an event in China, but they deemed it quite risky and canceled it because of the creative ban, and because the Chinese government can decide who can get a visa.”

G-Dragon, singer, rapper and leader of boy band Big Bang, has for many years sported Chanel’s latest collections and attended the brand’s shows in Paris. Observers wonder if Korean stars will continue to feature so prominently at such events.

Branded Lifestyle’s Lee predicts that Chinese celebrities will be able to command higher sponsorship fees with the ban forcing Korean celebrities out of the picture.

“In the near year or so, I think if any brand wants to do a launch event with a celeb, you really have no choice. So I actually expect Chinese [celebrity endorsement] prices to go up in the short-term,” he said.

But Leitzes said Chinese Key Opinion Leaders, or KOLs, including popular bloggers and microbloggers could be even more appealing to brands at the moment.

“Celebrity ambassadors are great for awareness but most aren’t influential or educational [about how to use] products. Globally, influencers are growing more in demand, but in China there’s this need for them especially,” she said.

“Fifty percent of online shoppers in China search social media for recommendations before they make a purchase,” Leitzes said.