China’s idol economy

China’s idol economy: how the Chinese fan culture is shaping entertainment and marketing

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Celebrity worship has become an ever-growing aspect of modern Chinese society. Growing up in a connected environment, Chinese gen-zers are constantly engaging with online content and are particularly receptive to what their idols have to say. Naturally, these trends have propped up the rise of China’s idol economy with the launch of countless TV shows, brand endorsement deals and the soaring KOL market in China. In this article we will go in depth what is China’s idol economy and how it influences Chinese consumers.

The fan economy and Idol economy in China are inter-related

The Fan economy in China: Making the most of a growing community

What is the fan economy (粉丝经济) in China? According to China Daily “The fan economy refers to a new business operation model that seeks to profit from fans’ devotion to celebrities.” However, China’s idol economy includes much more than just a business relationship between artists and their fans. It is a culture where we can identify beliefs, customs, attitudes, and behaviors.

We can divide fans into three categories : “casual”, “regular” and “super”.

  • “Casual” fans or social fans are described as low on emotion, low on financial commitment and low on involvement. They are interested at first by the appearance of the idol or artist; they also spend little time getting involved in the artist activities.
  • “Regular” fans or focused fans can be characterized as an appreciation of the artist’s performance and personality. They spend more time and money purchasing the artist/idol products. Focused fans are active on social media and are aware of the big events such as concerts.
  • “Super” fans or vested fans are willing to pay substantial amounts of money to support their artist or idol. They are the most loyal fans. Vested fans would defend their celebrity idol as if they were a member of their own family.

As stated by Li Kanghua (2016), author of “Fans Consumption and the Construction of Fans Economy” the fan economy in China could be divided into two main parts: fan consumers and consumer fans. Fan consumers prefer consumer behavior itself, whereas consumer fans focus more on the enthusiasm shown from the consumer behavior.

The Chinese fan economy relies on “emotional capital”, which is composed of external emotional capital and internal emotional capital. Companies stimulate consumers’ strong emotional reactions by making good use of fans’ emotional capital, as consumer fans would have the desire and motivation to consume, and then turn their ideas into practice in order to satisfy their emotional needs. A good example of using emotional capital would be limited products launched under the name of an idol. Fans would be “pushed” emotionally to purchase those products.

The booming idol economy in China

According to the “White paper on idol industry and fan economy in 2019” by Owhat, a comprehensive e-commerce platform connected to fans, China’s idol market was expected to reach 100 billion Yuan by 2020 with a year-on-year growth of around 60%.

Idols and the entertainment industry have an enormous influence on young people’s thinking, values, and lifestyle. One example of it is the boycott of a few western textile companies such as Nike, Adidas and H&M which took a stance again supposed forced labor happening in the Xinjiang region. Over 50 celebrities and idols cancelled their endorsements with the brands and publicly condemned the brands stance. Fans were quick to followside their idols position, favoring national brands over western brands.

For the last 5 years, there has been a surge of idol reality shows where boy groups or girl groups are created after a survival competition. “Trainees”, young teenagers from entertainment companies (Yuehua Entertainment, Wajiji etc.) are trained in dancing, singing, and acting. The audience is able to vote for their favorite trainee through on-line votes. and trainees who have the most votes get to integrate the final line-up of the boy group or girl group. These idol shows are live streamed on the biggest Chinese platform such as iQiyi and Tencent Videos. They attract millions of audiences and reactions on social media.

China's Top idol shows China’s idol economy
Source: overseasidol.com, China’s Top idol shows

Produce 101 China in 2018 attracted more than 4.3 billion views on Tencent Video. Fans generated over 20 and 40 million RMB, for “Idol producer” (iQiyi) and “Produce 101 China”, respectively, for each show, proving their economic influence. Entertainment and media companies are able to make huge profits through VIP memberships, event tickets and endorsements among others.

An issue has risen with endorsement and sponsorships causing ultimately the cancellation of Youth With You 3. Fans were allowed to have additional votes by buying the official and sponsored drink. However, after getting the code from the bottle, it was impossible to preserve the drink. Ultimately, thousands of bottles were wasted and thrown away causing an outrage online. The show and the brand endorsed were promoting food wasting and irrational spending to their viewers. Youth with You 3 final show was at long last cancelled and fined by the Beijing Municipal Radio and Television Bureau.

Youth With You was halted due to aunties pouring milk China’s idol economy
Source: WeiwuShijie, Youth With You was halted due to aunties pouring milk

What does Chinese Gen Z think about China’s idol economy?

We asked a few questions to Chinese Gen-Zers about China’s idol economy.

What defines an idol for you ?

“I think the word ‘idol’ in China is different from celebrities. Nowadays when people mention the word idol, they usually refer to 流量明星or “traffic celebrities”. Thus, idols in China are usually at a young age, from 18-30, with an attractive appearance.  If we talk about gender, male idols usually have a little longer career period (18-30) than female idols (18-25/26). In China ’idol’ sometimes has a negative meaning, its characters are of young age, beautiful or handsome, with a huge number of fans but without representative works.” – 21 year old female from Shijiazhuang

How do you follow idols other than watching them on TV? What social media platforms?

“Usually Weibo, where idols also share photos or videos. Weibo is the main application for fans to follow their idols, Weibo also invents some functions for fans, like 超话 (Hot topics), where fans post or communicate with each other.

Others like Zhihu, Bilibili, 绿洲, Xiaohongshu, since idols also have accounts on these social media platforms.” – 20 year old Female from Shanghai

Have you ever purchased a product because of an idol? Why it why not? What product(s) was it?

“Yes, in 2020. I bought a lip glaze because this brand invited my idol to be its brand ambassador. I bought it partly because I wanted it to sell better, after all, it was a product endorsed by my idol, and partly because I rarely used these beauty products myself and wanted to try one out.” – 21 year old female from Shijiazhuang

The influence of idols on purchasing decisions in China

Yan Aimin (2009), author of  A Research on the Influence of Celebrity Advertisements on Fans’ Consumption Attitude states “celebrity advertising influences fans’ consumption attitude.” She also concluded that fans’ consumption attitude is highly associated with celebrity attraction, celebrity-fan consistency and advertising creativity. The degree of emotions is the most significant variable that influences fans’ consumer behavior. Even though fans have an “emotional” attachment to the idols, they are still considered as consumers. They have their own criteria when it comes to buying products.

What kind of marketing incentives can be used in China’s idol economy?

Product focused incentives

Idol-related products are very diverse; they go from official products such as concert tickets, souvenirs (CDs, DVDs, prints etc) to products that the idol endorses through sponsorships or collaborations. What is important for the fans is the correlation between the product and the idol. Although the price might have an effect on the purchasing decision it may pass on a second plan when it comes to making a decision on whether or not to buy the product. If the product is inexpensive, it is an incentive for fans to buy more. A good example is digital music, the price of a single is really low (around 10 to 20 yuan for a digital album).

Nine percent (Idol producer 2018 boygroup) last concert before disbanding China’s idol economy
Source: Global Times,  Nine percent (Idol producer 2018 boygroup) last concert before disbanding

Attitude focused incentives

Here attitude means how entertainment and business companies take into account fans purchasing power and consumptions habit in their marketing strategies. They have to look into what fans are looking for and which specific fan groups would be most relevant for the products they are selling. Social media, particularly Weibo, are a great source of information. It is also where fans are most active. Making sure fans are satisfied with the product (quality, price and emotional involvement) is fundamental to achieve high profits. Either way, fans could boycott a brand or a company if they deem that they are not treated fairly and sincerely (overusing fan’s affection to achieve monetary benefits for example).

How individual characteristics play a role in consumers’ habits

Idol influence does not alone shape purchasing decisions; it works in tandem with a number of individual factors that influence consumers’ habits of fans.

  • Financial stability: Fans are usually women, the age range is quite wide, some fans are very young (teenagers) whereas some other fans are older (35 and up). Their consumptions habits also differ: older fans tend to spend more money as their income is higher. Factor of income is definitely a precondition to purchasing decisions.
  • Emotional connection: This individual characteristic refers to the emotional connection between fans and idols. The stronger the connection, the higher the engagement whether it is money engagement or time engagement.
  • Influence of fan groups: Fan groups have a strong impact on purchasing decisions. They are usually very organized and active on social media to promote and support their idols. Fan groups relay information on products the idol is selling or endorsing which can push fans to purchase the product.
  • Fan culture: Fans are influenced by group values which could be identified as fandom culture. Depending on the idol and the fandom, fans may have different values. Some idols consider that fans buying endorsed products are not “beneficial” for them and push to mass consumption.

Bring China to the world – Cultural confidence

In 2016, President Xi has taken cultural confidence as a national objective. As Li Cunnan states in a CCTV article “Cultural confidence is new keywords for China’s cultural development that generate strategic importance to Chinese and global development.” In other words, bring China and the Chinese culture to the world.

LAY, known as Zhang Yixing, is a Chinese idol who is recognized as one of the “Original idols”, idols that were trained and that debuted in South Korea prior to coming back to China. In a Forbes interview, LAY told the magazine, that he wants to bring M-Pop, short for Mandarin Pop, to the world “ a genre he’s spearheading with the aim of bringing Chinese culture to global – primarily western – music listeners.”

The Chinese soft power is considered very minimal and sometimes more negative than positive in western countries. Few people know about the Chinese culture and its history. There is also, almost no representation of Chinese artists and idols in the West (compared to k-pop idols who have seen an impressive growth the last few years). Nonetheless, television series such as The Untamed or idol shows (Youth with You or Chuang) have helped gain the attention of the western world through the development of digital technology. Chinese culture is, however, still not well known to the public.

In 2021, Tencent’s show Produce 101 (also known as Chuang 2021) made an effort to recruit international contestants to form a global boy band. As a result, 7 out of the 11 winning contestants were not Chinese.

While many Chinese netizens were critical of Tencent’s choice to recruit so many foreign contestants, the goal of the show producers was not necessarily to only please Chinese viewers, but to begin a wave of Chinese culture consumption abroad. Based on this goal, the show was a success. There was already some interest in the show from viewers in other Asian countries such as Thailand and Japan. Based on Google search data of the term “Chuang 2021”, Thailand and Singapore have the highest search frequency, but there was also significant search traffic in Russia, western Europe and North America. Compared to search data for “Chuang 2020”, last year’s show, there has been an increased interest in the show from non-Asian countries this season. In other words, China’s idol economy is showing an upward trend in its influence abroad, effectively raising China’s soft power.

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