Lars Bergkvist, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, details key differences in how fans relate to celebrities and brands on the mainland
Using celebrities to launch new brands or strengthen established brands is a popular marketing tactic in many markets, and one that is particularly popular in China. Celebrities attract attention to brands and it is widely assumed that their popularity spills over to the brands they endorse. What is perhaps less known is that celebrities also endow brands with their personality traits and image associations both good and bad. New research at the University of Nottingham Ningbo suggests that the way Chinese consumers relate to celebrities adds yet another unique layer of potential risk and reward to tying celebrity with brand on the mainland – one that is likely entirely foreign to brand managers with a Western view of celebrities.
Earlier this year I carried out a study together with one of my students with the aim of applying typical Western celebrity research in China. As part of the study we asked participants to rate a Chinese celebrity on a number of character traits which had previously been used to rate American celebrities in a study with American participants. However, applying celebrity personality traits that worked fine in an American setting did not work at all in China: The participants answering the study’s questionnaire often struggled to describe Chinese celebrities using the traits in the study, and none of the effects of celebrity endorsements on the brands found in the American study occurred in China. That begged the question of what differences there are in how Chinese and Western consumers perceive and relate to celebrities, and what the consequences are for celebrity endorsements in China.
To find out more about how Chinese consumers relate to celebrities we analyzed qualitative data from open-ended questions used to pretest celebrities before including them in experimental research. In these questions we asked what character traits young consumers associated with different celebrities. The answers revealed a number of recurring traits, or associations, that diverge quite sharply from how Western consumers would describe their own celebrities. Among the answers were several references to the celebrities’ moral character; some were described as having high moral character and others low, in most cases without reference to a specific situation such as charity work or infidelity. Perhaps less surprisingly one celebrity, rumored to have cheated on his wife, was consistently described as unreliable.
Other celebrities were predominantly described in terms of being rural origin and simple, or speaking poor English, or being cheerful, virtuous or upright. To a Westerner, the most striking characterizations came from a handful of celebrities that were described as hard-working. Some of these stars were also associated with other traits, but one was seen first and foremost as a hard worker to young Chinese consumers: Li Bingbing, recently seen in Transformers: Age of Extinction. This characterization of Li Bingbing as hard working was later confirmed in a quantitative association test. Moreover, an experiment later showed that this trait transferred from her to a fictitious brand she was associated with. This may not have been what the people at Gucci had mind when they signed said beautiful, glamorous and stylish woman to endorse their brand.
The overall impression of the open-ended characterizations is that Chinese consumers look more to the actual person and their life when relating to celebrities than Western consumers. The celebrity’s career, private life, movie roles, financial success, origin and more all blend into characterizations of moral character, work ethic, and social skills. For the manager planning to use celebrity endorsement to promote their brand in China, it is essential to be aware of how Chinese consumers relate to celebrities and make sure that an appropriate celebrity is selected. Selecting the wrong one could have long-term negative effects on the brand. This risk is particularly high for brands that are new on the Chinese market, since those unfamiliar to consumers are much more prone to pick up associations than brands which are already well-established.
Pretesting celebrities to make sure they fit the brand’s intentions can be done in a straightforward two-step process. In the first step, a sample of about 30 people from the target audience are shown one or two pictures of the celebrity, followed by the question “What associations (positive or negative) do you have to this celebrity?” The question, in turn, is followed by instructions to write down the associations that first come to mind when thinking of this celebrity. If necessary, the associations question can be preceded by a recognition question to make sure all participants know who the celebrity being pretested is. The answers to the celebrity associations question are then tabulated and the most frequently occurring characterizations – both positive and negative – can be used as input for the next step.
In step two a sample of 30 to 50 members of the target audience is asked to rate the extent to which celebrities have the frequently mentioned characteristics from step one with the question: “To what degree do you think that the celebrity possesses the following traits?” Each trait is then listed and responses captured on a 7-point response scale with the endpoints “not at all” and “extremely.” The data from step two is then analyzed by tabulating the mean scores and frequencies for each characteristic.
When interpreting the results there may be some additional challenges. In our research we found that some characteristics cannot be taken at face value. In one case many participants indicated that a female celebrity was sexy, but a bit of probing unearthed that she was characterized as sexy because of being part of a sex scandal, not mainly because she was seen as desirable and seductive. Similar insights were uncovered for celebrities that were described as international, which was used to describe celebrities who are seen as having given up their Chinese roots and are trying to act like foreigners. Both of these cases illustrate the importance of interpreting consumer perceptions in the Chinese cultural context rather than from a foreign cultural perspective.
Celebrity endorsements can be a powerful promotional tactic in China, as elsewhere. However, the selection of a celebrity needs to be done with great care and on the basis of appropriate pretests. Moreover, the selection of celebrity needs to take into account other factors in addition to character associations: The celebrity should be well liked in the target audience, not be doing too many endorsements for other brands, and have a natural fit with the product category and brand. To give only one hypothetical: Li Bingbing, however admirably diligent, is probably not the best candidate to endorse Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey in its mainland debut. She might pair well with Robert Mondavi’s wines – but we’d have to run tests to be sure.