“Ask L2” is a weekly series where we answer questions about all things digital.

Question: Can my brand succeed in China without a local celebrity partnership?

A celebrity’s ability to increase brand awareness and cultivate brand preference has lead to rising popularity with brands, as well as a surge in the cost to hire one. While a celebrity post about a brand on their Weibo page can experience engagement levels up to 6,000x that of a brand post and reach a fanbase 1,800x greater than the brand’s, it’s not the only choice.

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A celebrity is not the only type of influencer that can boost a brand’s performance. Brand posts including key opinion leaders (KOLs) were viewed 30% more than brand posts that included celebrities for pure Luxury Fashion brands. Additionally, brands with less budget can turn to “cewebrities”—individuals who have achieved internet fame—to boost awareness. Generally, cewebrities still cannot match the influence of traditional celebrities, but mega-cewebrities can command a significant following—Papi Jiang has nearly 20 million Weibo followers. When Papi Jiang was invited to a livestreaming event by cosmetics brand MG, the event attracted 10.5 million interactions—27x more than the average engagement per livestream for brands who did not feature a celebrity or cewebrity.

Dove was able to achieve viral success using without the use of a celebrity, but instead used local families. For Mother’s Day 2016, the brand launched a series of videos called “Mom, You are Beautiful,” featuring daughters pampering their mothers. The campaign videos on Dove’s Youku garnered more than 66 million views—an average of more than four times the number of views per video as any other account.

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User-generated content (UGC) has also seen success in China. The popular photo-sharing app In collaborated with Michael Kors by launching a series of branded stickers in January 2016. Users were encouraged to tag their stickered photos with the hashtag #MonkeyAround#, boosting brand and campaign awareness among their friends. On In alone, the campaign garnered nearly 17 million views, more than three times the average brand tag views, and produced 293,000 user-generated photos—40x the Index average. The brand also turned to Weibo and WeChat to promote the campaign. If users shared their photos with the #MonkeyAround# hashtag on Weibo, they were entered into a lottery to win brand products, such as limited edition key chains and coin purses. The #MonkeyAround# hashtag amassed 553,000 impressions on Weibo. On WeChat, the campaign was promoted and users were driven to a page on In, in order to generate photos with #MonkeyAround# stickers.

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Beyond social platforms, brands can succeed on retail sites by creating more personalized experiences. In March 2016, Alibaba launched Juxingtai, a big-data platform that helps brands personalize the shopping experience on Tmall and Taobao based on consumer data insights. In May 2016, Pampers segmented its Tmall customers into four groups based on whether they were new moms or had made purchases in the past 90 days. The page for new moms focused on brand reputation and the benefits of joining its loyalty program, while the page for existing customers emphasized discounts and member exclusive deals. During the campaign, the conversion rate exceeded 10% (more than three times the prior average), and the click through rate increased 10% as well.

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Celebrity partnerships also do not guarantee the desired reach and amplification brands hope to attain—OMO’s ambassador Yao Chen has more than 79 million Weibo followers but her Weibo post promoting OMO only generated 6,323 interactions—and can lead to a negative impact if the relationship is misaligned. In June 2016, Lancôme cancelled its sponsorship of a mini-concert featuring Hong Kong artist Denise Ho, a prominent figure in the pro-Democracy Occupy movement, ostensibly to avoid backlash from the Chinese government. The incident created an uproar online including calls for boycotts of products from Lancôme and its sister brands like Maybelline, as well as pushed consumers towards its competitor Estée Lauder, which also saw its searches rise. Global brands need to tread carefully around politically delicate issues and better understand local culture and a celebrity’s background to avoid similar situations that could jeopardize a brand’s reputation and provide opportunities for competitor brands to gain equity.

When seeking to form a partnership, brand should adhere to similar rules, regardless of the type of influencer (e.g. celebrity, cewebrity, KOL). Brands should evaluate the alignment of the influencer with their values and marketing initiatives rather than selecting an influencer simply based on follower size. Additionally, it is important for brands to understand the backgrounds of the influencer they are engaging with to avoid any negative impact on the brand.

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