Welcome to China Brand Insider, your source for news and insights on the business of brand integration in the world’s most dynamic consumer culture.

This week’s newsletter focuses on branding and product placement on China's "variety shows," a catch-all term covering unscripted programming, with a case study looking at the sponsorship innovations on of one of the hottest programs in recent years, hip-hop competition "Rap of China."

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The celebrity cast of season three of "Chinese Restaurant," a current ratings leader

Variety Shows Are a Hive of Brand Integration Activity

No discussion of the contemporary branding of entertainment is complete without a mention of China’s variety show ecosystem. With a more expansive meaning than its English counterpart, “variety show” in Chinese refers broadly to most reality-based television and video content, encompassing everything from talent competitions to dating programs, travel series, and talk shows. 

Naturally, variety programming in China includes performance-based shows focused on music, dancing, and comedy skits, although these traditional formats are less relevant to today’s audiences (and producers always on the hunt for the next major trend).

Proliferating with the rise of satellite television and later video streaming, variety shows in China offer a diverse platform for brands to target audiences with increasingly specific interests. (See this week’s case study for more.) Audiences are eagerly awaiting the coming season's premieres of competition-style programs centering on basketball, acting, and the workplace, among many others.


Branding Chinese Hip-Hop

An in-depth look at marketing innovation in Chinese entertainment 

2017 was a breakout year for video streaming site iQiyi and hip-hop in China, thanks to iQiyi’s talent competition “Rap of China.” The show was an instant hit following its June 2017 debut, racking up more than 100 million views within four hours (reportedly a record for reality programming), and a staggering 2.68 billion views on iQiyi by the end of its 12-week run. 

Having recently concluded its third season, “Rap of China” offers a model of how brands navigate China’s variety show scene, particularly the hot genre of music talent competitions, and perhaps a best-case scenario for what can happen when content falls afoul of censors in Beijing. 

Premise: “Rap of China” has been credited with bringing hip-hop and rap into the mainstream in China. It is a talent competition, but not necessarily filled with unknowns. At least in its first two seasons, the competition pitted some of the most respected rap and hip-hop artists from underground scenes around the country against one another in one-on-one battles and displays of freestyle skills. Celebrity judges, led by pop star Kris Wu, drove much of the early appeal of the show among its target audience, young Chinese of the “post-95” Gen Z demographic. 

The concept itself was described as “kind of a gamble” by iQiyi’s commercial marketing director, Kevin Cao, with the streaming company reportedly investing more than US$30 million in the show. (Although that sum was recouped through ads and sponsorships, which brought in almost US$46 million.) The title sponsor of the first season, Nongfu Spring Vitamin Water, reportedly paid as much as RMB 150 million (US$21.8 million) to integrate the brand into the series.  


China Unionpay Scores a Historical Hit With Tang Dynasty Money Transfer  

Our weekly highlight from the world of branded film

“The Last Transfer of Western Tang Empire” (大唐漠北的最后一次转账) is an epic sixteen-minute story of war and money set during some dark days of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in the aftermath of the empire’s loss of the Western regions. Following a devastating battle, only two men survive to haul a heavy load of military funds between the two remaining cities under the empire, facing a vast desert, storms, and hostile enemies along the way.

Rappers face off in an interactive native ad for Clear Shampoo on "Rap of China"

News From China

Coming just a few weeks after it released the first interactive native video ad, this week iQiyi published a white paper on the development of the format. According to iQiyi, interactive ads offer clear advantages for viewers as well as brands: they’re less disruptive and more empowering for audiences, offer greater exposure time for brands, and provide valuable feedback on consumer preferences. iQiyi’s interactive video platform lets advertisers develop features such as branching plots, the ability to switch perspectives, and screen exploration. The white paper also offers more info and advice on content design with examples. 

Market uncertainty in 2019 has dampened the confidence of brand sponsors in China, but marketing budgets continue to rise. A few highlights from this Media 360 report:

  • In order of preference, brands seek out 1) popular variety shows, 2) TV dramas, 3) less popular variety shows.
  • 376 brands participated in Chinese variety shows in 2018, and the number is expected to be higher in 2019. Top brand categories for 2018 were internet companies (apps), cosmetics/bath products, and beverages.
  • Costs for variety show sponsorship range from RMB 10 million to 1 billion (US$1.4 million to $140 million), while drama placements top out at around RMB 10 million.
  • Successful TV series placements have shifted along with viewer preferences towards realistic urban dramas, with apartment rental and job search apps seen as the winners in this area.
  • Social marketing budgets are increasing an average of 21 percent year-over-year, according to data from AdMaster, with an emphasis on user-generated content platforms and key opinion leaders (KOLs).

There has been a heavy emphasis on patriotic television programming in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. One brand that has found an opportunity in this space is Jing Liquor, the exclusive title sponsor of iQiyi’s “Me and My Motherland,” a documentary series focused on stories of China told by successful Chinese born after 1980. 

More officially approved entertainment: China’s central bank partnered with Tencent to launch a financial education game on WeChat. Players answer personal finance questions to build their defenses in the game, which is called “Battle to Defend Wallets” in Chinese. 

Video streaming site Youku announced a partnership with Sina Weibo to integrate Weibo’s “SuperTopic” fan community pages into Youku’s video platform and give Weibo users direct access to Youku’s content offerings. The partnership is also aimed at increasing cooperation in the hot area of short video.

News in English

  • Pinduoduo just unseated Baidu to become China's fifth-largest listed internet company by targeting underserved customers in lower-tier cities with its hybrid discount shopping and social media app, and it’s also one of the most active brands on the Chinese entertainment. scene. Here’s a guide to its business. China Skinny
  • While the trade war may prompt more American companies to move production out of China, many brands — from Tiffany’s to Red Lobster — see their futures in the Chinese consumer. NPR, Bloomberg
  • But there are still a number of big-picture issues that foreign brands have to be mindful of when marketing to Chinese consumers. China Business Review
  • Hasbro’s recently announced deal to buy Entertainment One for $4 billion has a major China angle: EOne’s Peppa Pig is hugely popular in the country, and, along with PJ Masks, is expected to give the toymaker an “opportunity for a beachhead that can go in China for many years to come.” The Hollywood Reporter
  • Can a Chinese pop star help Brand USA? Mandopop singer Jane Zhang has been tapped by America’s destination marketing group as the face (and voice) of a Weibo campaign called “Feel the USA.” SCMP
  • Beijing’s recent order to keep mainland Chinese films, their creators and stars out of this year’s Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan has had an impact on the brand sponsors of the event, with Bulgari, Piaget, and Oppo reportedly pulling out. Malay Mail

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