The World: Insider's View - China

The ubiquitousness of some celebrities means advertisers have to work harder to make sure the star's power applies to their brand alone, Nick Barham writes.

You'd be pretty happy if Yao Ming represented your brand, wouldn't you? One of China's most recognised and loved celebrities, and one of the few with global visibility as a basktball player for the Houston Rockets.

So, if you were Gatorade's marketing team and Yao was waving your beverage on posters across China, you deserve a pat on the back, right?

Except Gatorade's not the only brand Yao's fronting. He has also appeared in ads for McDonald's, Reebok, Tag Heuer, Apple, China Unicom (mobile network), Sohu (web portal), Garmin (GPS services) and Upperdeck (trading cards) in the past year. Some are one-offs, others are longer-term, but the overall effect is that when you see Yao in an ad, you think Yao, not the brand he's accompanying. Instead of Yao supporting a brand, brands are just giving him additional media space, and boosting his celeb status.

It is not just Yao's ubiquity that lessens his effectiveness for these brands, it is also his passivity. Few of the brands have brought him to life or suggested what relationship he has with them, lazily relying on his fame to do their work for them.

It is tricky using celebrities. Even when they are not getting busted for drugs, or losing when they should be winning, or carelessly using your competitor's products in front of the paparazzi, it can be tough to get real value from them. Too often, they just appear in the same place as your brand, but stand for nothing.

Coke's use of the Olympic champ Liu Xiang is more thoughtful. Liu has his own basket of brands (Nike, China Mobile), but in a recent Coke ad, his hurdling skills are put to use as he races along the road to rescue his co-star from a runaway truck. The fact his co-star is Ella, a member of the Taiwanese band SHE, helps make the ad memorable.

Coke's current campaign features SHE's three members being chatted up by Liu, Wilber (a Taiwanese singer) and Shawn (a Hong Kong movie star).

Rather than one star, Coke has taken several celebrities and created a dynamic and engaging relationship between them.

On to Jay Chow and M-Zone. Okay, he's not exactly monogamous (he also represents Colgate, Pepsi and Uni-president noodles), but he's not as much of a tart as Yao. And M-Zone has been much more careful to make him the face of its brand. As well as appearing in its ads, he has composed a track for M-Zone that appears in the ads, as a ringtone and on his album Qi Li Xiang. This is like a Bono or a Coldplay writing your brand jingle.

As an exclusive relationship with A-class celebrities becomes more implausible, so it is more important to make sure they do something for you that would be impossible for another brand. Just holding your product isn't enough any more.

- Feature, page 28

- Nick Barham is the planning director of TBWA\China.

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