The good old branding method of banking only on certain proven celebrities is being challenged in digital marketing, and with no guarantee of success, according to market experts.
"Depending on only a few top stars also means it has become difficult for marketers to uniquely build resonance with their brand," said Maneesh Choudhary, deputy managing director of Kantar Millward Brown China, a global research firm.
Choudhary said matching the brand character with the celebrity character is key to unlocking the true potential of synergy. For instance, snack food brand Nestle Milka successfully married its warm soft persona seamlessly with the "innocence" profile of Zhang Yixing, a singer and songwriter, to drive sustained engagement with consumers.
"This matching of personality becomes even more relevant for China's lower tiers (the next frontier of growth) where the personality of the celebrity should be down-to-earth and relatable to the people who are less advertising-literate and looking for rational and simple marketing messages," he said.
Meanwhile, brands are starting to reap more success from working with self-made bloggers, converting their own fan numbers into influence with brands.
For instance, counting on her over 3 million followers on Weibo and 4.5 million fans on WeChat, Fan Yimin, who is better known by her online avatar Becky Li, helped sell 100 Mini Cooper Countryman cars within five minutes via her WeChat post last year.
She is a role model to a generation of digital natives who have established viable careers as social media "influencers", and found fame and fortune solely by posting blogs and sharing their preferences online.
The power of word of mouth is one important reason for blogger success from the cultural perspective, according to Ashley Galina Dudarenok, founder of social media agency Alarice and a veteran social media expert.
"Chinese customers have very deep trust in key opinion leaders (or KOLs) and this psychological bond can be partially explained by the pseudo-intimacy created by social media," she said. "Social media make you feel like influencers are friends as you know who they are in real life, thanks to the details of their daily lives shared through Weibo, WeChat and live streaming apps."
Agreed Choudhary. He referred to the case of Zhang Dayi, one of China's best-known KOL, who reportedly earns around 300 million yuan ($43.2 million) annually, which is higher than what some of the celebrity film actors and actresses earn.
"Brands can leverage the might of this huge traffic to garner short-term gains and if matched well with brand's personality can also result in effective brand building," he said.
Major principles for the choice of KOLs include exposure, engagement and relevance, and negative check-list involves potential risk, competitor conflict and cooperation feasibility, said Leon Zhang, general manager of social media at MediaCom China, an agency engaged in media operations and content creativity.
"Usually clients with sufficient budgets are willing to pay for premium and quality KOLs for peak influence and quality content co-creation, while at the same time applying part of the budget for other lower-profile KOLs and social ads to amplify the influence," he said.