Snapchat may be struggling in the US market, but AR sticker-focused selfie apps continue to take off in China and brands are taking notice.

The latest platform to see a download frenzy was Tencent-owned selfie app Pitu, known for its vast collection of AR stickers and elaborate filters that can transform users into a Tang Dynasty courtesan or favorite anime character. Earlier this month, the app briefly became the most-downloaded in China thanks to the popularity of a new filter set in the style of 100-year-old photos created to honor the May Fourth Movement.

Currently ranked as the 11th most popular photo app in China, Pitu has attracted a range of consumer brands thanks to its promotional and e-commerce capabilities. Estée Lauder created a series of branded makeup filters for the app, while luxury labels including Gucci, Bulgari, Michael Kors, MCM, and Tom Ford have created AR stickers letting users virtually “try on” the brands’ sunglasses. The special stickers can include links to purchase, driving to either the brand’s mobile site shop or store.

Gucci offers multiple AR stickers featuring the brand’s sunglass styles on the app that link to parent company Kering’s official eyewear store. Meanwhile, Michael Kors launched a cross-platform campaign allowing users to try on the brand’s sunglasses with a branded sticker in the style of a magazine cover. The sticker drives to a link to purchase on the brand’s site e-commerce. The campaign also has omnichannel and WeChat components, offering free ice cream in selected stores to users who sign up for the brand’s loyalty program on WeChat, as well as an in-store digital screen allowing them to take selfies and sign up to win a handbag.

Michael Kors has been an especially enthusiastic early adopter of photo and video apps, also sponsoring campaigns on Douyin and Faceu. Meanwhile, Gucci also sponsored a branded sticker in Meitu for Chinese New Year. Gartner L2’s Digital IQ Index: Beauty China 2018 found that Meitu as well as Meitu-owned apps like Makeup Plus are especially popular with beauty brands like NARS, which featured Makeup Plus on tablets in its new Shanghai store opened in September.

For brands trying to find the most popular selfie app, competition is fierce: Meitu, Faceu, and B612 are among Pitu’s major competitors in the China market and almost identical in format, often switching places on download rankings based on which app has the hottest new sticker or filter of the week. Short video apps like Douyin and Meipai also feature AR components, as well as social sharing and the type of algorithmic feed style that reportedly inspired Evan Spiegel to pursue Snapchat’s controversial redesign after a visit to China last fall. Snapchat’s exact format doesn’t appear to be a hit in Asia, however: one-to-one communication tends to be relegated to messaging apps like WeChat, LINE, and KakaoTalk, while South Korean Snapchat clone Snow recently dropped all of its messaging features to focus exclusively on selfies. 

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