CBI Case Study: Male Celebrities Give Beauty Marketing a Makeover

Li Xian, Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan representing major beauty brands

The summer of 2019 saw a huge surge in popularity for three male celebrities thanks to their roles on two of the most-watched dramas of the season: Li Xian, the male lead in contemporary romantic TV series “Go, Go Squid!” (亲爱的,热爱的) and Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, stars of Tencent Video’s martial arts/ fantasy series “The Untamed” (陈情令). While both Xiao and Wang already had established followings thanks to their previous participation in top boy bands, Li Xian’s performance as a brooding esports champion on “Go Go Squid!” marked a breakthrough for the actor.

Their rise in popularity quickly brought brands knocking at their doors,, and now all three are promoting international beauty labels in the world’s second-largest beauty market and beyond. 

Xiao was tapped by Olay even before the “Untamed” began airing, while Wang Yibo, already a global brand ambassador for Shu Uemura, added Origins to his slate of endorsements. Li Xian, meanwhile, became Estee Lauder’s cosmetics and skincare spokesperson for the Asia-Pacific region. 

Not long ago, these roles would have been filled by female stars, but nowadays, male stars are playing an increasingly important part in the marketing of beauty products in China. According to a report by Yingxiao Huabao,  23 (mostly foreign) beauty brands have signed 25 male celebrities this year, with the majority born after the mid-1990s. And the endorsements keep coming, with Kris Wu recently named as the first Asia-wide brand ambassador for Lancome. 

Eight Global Beauty Brands and Their Chinese Faces

The trend comes even as female endorsers are still reported as the top sales drivers for beauty brands. So why are beauty brands favoring male celebrities? 

In China, the existence of a sizable market for men’s beauty products, along with the presence of male influencers in the women’s beauty industry, means that consumers are already used to seeing male involvement in the marketing of cosmetics.  

But the trend of using “little fresh meat,” as China’s young male stars are known, also helps to connect beauty brands directly with the ideals of youthfulness that both brand and celebrity stand for. More than 80% of male celebrities’ fans are female, with most in the 18-34 age group. 

Male celebrities dominate China’s social media rankings, and spur greater engagement and adoration from female fans than female celebrities do. This is accompanied by a strong willingness on the part of female fans to spend money to support their favorite male stars. In fact, many see it as their duty to help the careers of their favorite idols by ensuring that their endorsements are successful. 

In rankings of top celebrities by fan activity from January 2018 to the present, male stars commanded 36 of the top 50 spots, according to Yingxiao Huabao. And as of late September, the top ten list included only one female celebrity. 

Working with trending male stars can give brands an immediate boost. Estee Lauder’s official Weibo post announcing its collaboration with Li Xian was shared more than 430,000 times and drew more than 30,000 comments, including numerous calls from fans to “buy, buy, buy!” 

Li Xian’s collaboration with Estee Lauder draws high levels of engagement on Weibo

Beauty brands can spur quick sales with male celebrities by creating special limited edition collaborations on products or gift boxes. In July, Olay announced a 24-hour sale of a Wang Zhan celebrity gift box for the Qixi festival (aka Chinese Valentine’s Day), which sold out in minutes. 

A planned 24-hour sale of Qixi gift boxes wrapped up in minutes with promotion from Wang Zhan

However, marketing women’s beauty products through male celebrities is not without risks. There can be high turnover in endorsements and stars rarely sign exclusive agreements, which can dilute brand associations with their ambassadors and reduce the brand’s opportunity to establish longer-term relationships with fan-consumers. 

Male brand ambassadors are also less likely to be directly engaged with the products that they promote. (Though in some cases, they will appear in ads and other marketing campaigns wearing products such as lipstick.)  As a result, brands are likely to continue to rely on female endorsements — perhaps at lower tiers of sponsorship such as KOLs and KOCs — to provide more in-depth product information.