Out of Their League? Leonardo DiCaprio’s Endorsement of Youxin

Leonardo DiCaprio’s career trajectory has taken a new twist, unexpected to the actor’s fans: he’s the new brand ambassador for the Chinese used car website Youxin. The campaign, featuring a non-speaking role of DiCaprio, rolled out at prime time—during Winter Olympics on China Central Television’s sports and movie channels, and now you see Leo’s face on the elevator ad-screens and billboards. PLTFRM creatives has given a look at this piece of news from a branding perspective.

Celebrity endorsements in China  

Hiring a brand ambassador, who will leverage their status and social media following to the company’s benefit, is one of the powerful branding tools. It is especially favoured in China: the country has the third highest percentage in the world using celebrity endorsements, according to the brand consulting firm Millward Brown’s 2015 report. Basically, every second Chinese ad features one or more celebrities, though feedback varies. For example, it’s confusing to see Angelababy aka ‘China’s Kim Kardashian’ in a cooking oil ad and as a luxury brand Dior spokesperson at the same time.

There’s actually a law amendment, issued in China in 2015, limiting an advertising spokesperson to only recommend a product or service if they have personally used it. Sounds logical, right? A quick look at the countless celebrity endorsed advertisements splashed around Chinese cities suggests the amendment hasn’t had much effect. However, given that celebrity endorsement is a delicate balance of popularity and alignment with brand’s values, attract the wrong celebrity, and it can have a cumulative effect in the long run. 

Youxin and DiCaprio- the most natural match?

Known as ‘Xiao Li’ to his Chinese fans, DiCaprio has a huge following in the country, and Youxin campaign is not his first ad appearance. Back in 2011, he starred in a high-budget Oppo ad and a year ago Academy Award winner was endorsing Chinese electric car manufacturer BYD.

DiCaprio is known as an environmental activist: just remember his namesake environmental organization, established back in 1998, and a media buzz his climate change movie Before the Flood made two years ago. Given the actor’s ‘environment protector’ reputation, it’s easy for the customer to make a connection with an eco-car brand BYD. With Youxin, it’s a different story. Although buying used instead of a new product does have an eco-positive side to it, in China it’s mostly associated with saving money. Used cars are not something people naturally expect a top Hollywood star to represent.
Ad wars at the used car market
Compared to 2016, last year used cars market transactions grew 19.3%, reaching more than 12 million vehicles. China Automobile Dealers Association predicts, that in 2018 that number will reach 15 million. Admittedly, the opportunities for platforms like Youxin, Guazi, and Renren are appealing, but the competition is tightening up too. The companies are spending colossal money on advertising. It is reported, that in 2016 Guazi spent RMB 900 million, Renrenche—RMB 500 million on ads, and only for the 60-sec ad during“The Voice of China”, Youxin spent RMB 30 million.

In addition, the companies are constantly suing each other over misleading advertising language. In November, Didi-backed Renrenche filed a 100 million RMB lawsuit against Guazi on this matter.  Guazi, dubbed by the Chinese media as “the platform that puts out the most ads”, launched a bold ad campaign, claiming to ‘lead by a wide margin’(摇摇领先) and to be a “nationwide leader”(全国领先).

The court reportedly ruled that the ad did, in fact, constitute ‘false advertising statements’. In December, Guazi stroke back with the same lawsuit at Renrenche. Although famous Chinese actor Huang Bo, the brand’s ambassador, didn’t say so in the video ad, Renrenche got into hot waters over claims in other ads, that the buyer has three days after taking possession within which to return the vehicle. 

It’s interesting to watch the heated used cars market, predicting the next step in this advertising war, which all three competitors are determined to win. With Guazi and Renrenche both having Chinese brand ambassadors, Youxin’s move to appoint DiCaprio, although confusing, makes some PR buzz. We’ll have to stay tuned for Youxin’s next-quarter revenue reports, to see if despite confusion, the costly celebrity endorsement was justified by the sales. 



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