The right ambassador can bridge the trust deficit that Chinese consumers have with brands as the result of decades of scandals. Familiar faces also help brands stand out from the bombardment of advertising and promotions that Chinese consumers receive daily. As a result, brands in China engage brand ambassadors at a much higher rate than in the West.
Traditionally, most ambassadors have been screen and music stars, but a string of exposés has tarnished the image of many in entertainment. Shifting consumer sentiment driven by changing social views and the Common Prosperity mandate is also redefining what is considered aspirational by many consumers in China. Increasing participation and interest in sports is seeing consumers connect more with their sporting heroes. With these stars often focused on performing in their sports and a little less on rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles, they can be a less risky bet as brand ambassadors. As a result, last year brands signed almost as many athletes as ambassadors as the three years prior, combined.
One of the challenges has been the limited supply of athletes succeeding on a global scale in China. Back in 2011 when Li Na won a single grand slam tennis title, she became the world’s second highest paid female athlete virtually overnight. Swimmer Fu Yuanhui who won bronze in Rio, became one of China’s most popular sports stars ever, largely on the back of her cheerful, somewhat goofy and honest presence, sharing almost everything from losing her smartphone to having her period. But last week at the Winter Games, we saw a much slicker, media-polished, commercially-minded star who is arguably as close to the perfect brand ambassador as it gets – the 18-year old ‘snow princess’ Eileen Gu.
Gu was born in the US to a Chinese mum and American dad, and raised by her mum and Chinese grandma in San Francisco. In 2019, after competing in just two major events representing the United States, at 15-years of age, she switched allegiances to compete for China. The shift increased her allure for both Chinese and Western brands, of which she has worked with over 30. She has worked with some of China’s biggest brands including Mengniu, Anta, Midea, Luckin Coffee and Bank of China. You’ll also see her face all over Western brands such as Red Bull, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co, Victoria’s Secret, Cadillac and Swiss watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen. Last year, she earned at least ¥200 million ($31.4m) in brand ambassadorships alone.
Her performance in the Games last week, has seen her pulling power soar further into the stratosphere. Last Tuesday, trailing in third place on her last jump of the women’s big air freestyle skiing final, she pulled off a double cork 1620. It saw her become just the second woman to ever land the jump, a move she said she had never tried before. Gu also became China’s first female gold medalist at a Winter Olympics.
China’s Internet went crazy, crashing Weibo for the second time in its history, the first being when popstar Lu Han announced his new girlfriend in 2017. Billions viewed hashtags covering everything from her gold medal, to what ski gear she has, to 520 drones clustered to form her portrait in the sky above Sanya. Gu followed up the gold with a silver medal yesterday [and three days later, another gold in the freeski halfpipe, becoming the first freeskier to win three medals in the same Olympics].
Gu’s appeal spans everyone from Tiger Moms to aspiring teenagers. On top of being a gold medalist, she aced her SATs scoring 1,580 out of a possible 1,600, plays the piano, and is very instagrammable, modelling for IMG with some of the world’s biggest fashion brands.
But what makes Eileen Gu particularly resonant to Chinese consumers is that she has effectively chosen to represent China over the US. At a prickly time in the relationship few things could make a proud Chinese consumer happier. Commercially, that is the equivalent of landing a double cork 1620. She speaks Chinese with a Beijing accent and has an authentic backstory, having spent months in the Chinese capital each year as a girl. She even noted that a tower she could see from one of the ski courses, could also be seen from her house in Beijing.
In the current environment, what is also vitally important is that Gu seems to be squeaky clean. Her bicultural and bilingual authenticity is backed up by confident, polished and very curated talks with media. Her dialogue embodies the Olympic slogan “Together for a Shared Future,” with quotes such as “bridging the gap and having sports be something that is something to unite, and make people from all different countries understand each other as a form of communication, as a form of friendship.” Her free flowing answers in the post-gold press conference sounded like someone who has tirelessly studied People’s Daily editorials and effortlessly merged them with messaging from successful Nike ads in China.
Expect to see a lot of Eileen Gu in China over the years ahead. She’s earned it. Let’s hope she can help bridge the gap too.
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