Influence and Asian Consumers: Celebrities, Bloggers and Licensed Characters
(Source: Korean Culture and Information Service)
Professor Gemma Calvert and Koh Juan Zhen
There are dozens of factors affecting whether or not a consumer ultimately decides to buy a product or not. These include – but are by no means limited to – the product’s brand, quality, price, advertising and reviews. In an attempt to tip the balance in their favour and make potential customers more likely to buy, companies often engage celebrities to give their products their stamp of approval. Companies do this for several reasons, including convincing potential customers that the product is of good quality as well as improving the company’s overall brand image. Celebrities can interact with consumers in various ways, but the most notable of these is through product endorsements.
By obtaining a celebrity’s stamp of approval for a brand, fans are theoretically more likely to purchase products from that brand. There are several possible explanations for this phenomenon, which will be discussed in more detail later on in this report. In short, this can either be due to a desire to emulate the celebrity or because the fan is influenced into thinking the product is of a higher quality by virtue of the endorsement.
Understanding these interactions as well as the nuances of celebrity culture in markets throughout Asia is important for creating robust marketing strategy within the region. The Institute on Asian Consumer Insight (ACI) therefore sought to investigate the effect that celebrities have on consumption across ten key Asian markets. This research was conducted under the ACI’s Pan Asia Wave flagship research initiative and surveyed 6,783 respondents. We employed a combination of quantitative surveys to gather data and identify trends as well as qualitative interviews in order to interpret and explain these trends. The purpose of this analysis is to take a deep dive into the nuances governing consumer behaviour and conduct an extensive investigation of Asian people’s attitudes towards celebrities.
In this report we share the findings and analysis of the influence of celebrities, bloggers and licensed characters on Asian consumers.
What is a celebrity?
As a man-made construct, there is no objective criteria as to what constitutes a celebrity. Nonetheless, there are four characteristics that most people regarded as celebrities have in common.
The first and most obvious of these is that the person must be well known. That is, the person must have a large following. This is perhaps the defining trait of celebrities. The second quality is that the person must be either previously or currently active. That is, to be a celebrity, a person must be known for something, whether that be acting or singing or some other pursuit. Third, there must be a thirst for their output from the public. For example, a famous country singer must have fans who crave his or her music. The final condition that one must fulfil to be a celebrity is to have ample media coverage.
However, despite these commonalities, the point at which someone becomes, or ceases to be, a celebrity is completely subjective. Therefore, whether someone is a celebrity is governed by the system in which the celebrity and fans exist. These systems can be defined by different characteristics. Traditionally, these included geography or language. For instance, someone may be considered to be a celebrity in Singapore but not in Vietnam. These days, however, there are new systems defined by platform. YouTube is but one example.
In addition, technological innovations and cultural differences are blurring the lines between real life celebrities and fictional characters. An example of this is the virtual band Gorillaz, consisting of four virtual characters. While existing only in the digital realm, these licensed characters can also be considered to be celebrities.
The virtual band Gorillaz, performing on stage at The Burswood Dome in 2010 (Source: Time Inc.)
Bloggers in Asia
With the pervasiveness of the Internet into every aspect of our lives, bloggers and other people who are highly active online can also be considered celebrities. The celebrity system that these people exist in is defined by the medium through which they represent themselves, in this case, the Internet. This means that they are platform-based as opposed to national media-based, and it is therefore not uncommon for them to have global followings. However, the scope of these celebrities’ target audience can still be limited by the language that they communicate in.
This means that celebrities of the Internet can sometimes have comparable followings as traditional celebrities. A prominent example of this is Ann Marie Drummond, award winning American blogger whose blog fetches over 23 million views per month[i]. Drummond represents an example of how an online-based celebrity can make the transition to other celebrity systems. After gaining attention from her writing, she was cast in her own television program called The Pioneer Woman.
In addition, with the meteoric rise in popularity of the photo-sharing platform Instagram, there is also the growing trend of influencers. An influencer is a person or entity with a large number of followers, often ranging from a few thousand up to a few million, who uses his or her account as a platform to advertise products and events or endorse brands. Increasingly, companies are making use of influencers to broaden their reach. There are numerous agencies worldwide that now manage these influencers, officially legitimizing influencer marketing as an industry in and of itself.
Given that 59% of 18- to 29-year-olds use Instagram[ii], influencers are particularly adept at reaching out to people from this younger audience. Additionally, due to the personal nature of Instagram and relatively smaller followings of influencers, product endorsements made by them may seem to be more authentic and sincere than those made by celebrities. Cost is also a factor, as compensation to influencers usually falls far below the costs of television advertising.
Examples of famous influencers in Asia include Naomi Neo (Singaporean; 402.1k followers), Josephine Yap (Malaysian; 266k followers) and Benjamin Toh (Singaporean; 60.9k followers).
Josephine Yap(Source: sevenpie.com)
Benjamin Toh(Source: typicalben.com)
Licensed Characters as Brand Ambassadors
The broad definition of a licensed character includes movie characters, toy characters and even stickers that are seen floating around in messaging apps. In contrast to bloggers and celebrities, licensed characters do not necessarily have to be actual people. Instead, licensed characters are like fictional mascots of a certain brand. Famous examples include Pikachu from the Pokémon franchise or Hello Kitty. Like celebrities, licensed characters can be used by brands to appropriate their brand ethos and influence their audiences.
Licensed characters are safe, long term, lower risk alternatives to mainstream celebrities. Their main benefit is the fact that they are timeless. Fans can invest their love in characters without fear, as the character will always be there and stay consistent, forever remaining true to their brand and their audience.
Hatsune Miku (Source: http://vocaloid.wikia.com)
Depending on cultural differences, licensed characters can also be considered by different audiences to be celebrities. An interesting case study is that of Hatsune Miku, a Japanese virtual celebrity singer who, since her release in 2007, has made over $1B USD[iii] in sales. Looking forward, advancements in artificial intelligence may further blur the line between licensed characters and celebrities.
Cross-Cultural Analysis: Impact of Celebrities on Purchase Decisions in Asia
Over the course of our analysis, we classified our data according to country, age, gender and income to identify trends of the impact of celebrities in different demographics. We combined analysis of qualitative interviews and quantitative data to gain a more comprehensive understanding both of the impact of celebrities, as well as inter-country differences as to who is considered a celebrity.
Our analysis of qualitative interviews as well as quantitative data made it clear that people made their purchasing decisions primarily based on “value versus worth” analysis of the product. That is, they considered whether the price tag of a product corresponded to its perceived value. While this is the case, there are many more factors affecting purchasing decisions, one of them being celebrity endorsements as well as that of internet personalities and licensed characters.
Impact of bloggers
From our interviews, we found that in South Korea, Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, bloggers and online reviewers, while not technically considered celebrities, did have impacts on purchasing decisions, by virtue of their expertise.
LadyIronChef (Source: ladyironchef.com)
An example of this is, better known by his pseudonym LadyIronChef, a Singaporean food and travel blogger whose website gets over 2,000,000 hits per month[iv]. Indeed, one Singaporean male that we interviewed concurred: “To me, I don’t consider famous chefs or bloggers as celebrities. I do still listen to their opinions… After all, it is better to take an ‘expert’s advice’.”
Impact of licensed characters
We also drew some interesting country-specific findings pertaining to licensed characters. For instance, people in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia tended to have a deep connection with characters associated with their childhood, like Mickey Mouse or Pikachu. Different countries were also attracted to different aspects of licensed characters. We found that Malaysians were more attracted to their ‘cuteness’ or the values they stand for. Similarly, licensed characters appealed to Filipinos by virtue of their visual aesthetic and authenticity.
Singapore’s first Pikachu Parade held at Changi Airport in 2016 (Source: channelnewsasia.com)
Perceptions of such figures in India and Thailand were the opposite. In Thailand, while interviewees conceded that licensed characters could be attractive, they did not consider them to be celebrities worth following. In India, there seemed to be a sort of stigma against such characters.
Our qualitative interviews tended to indicate that this stigma was due to the perception of these characters as childish and immature. One Indian male we interviewed said that when he “buys gifts to younger kids, if it’s a boy, it’s either Chhota Bheem or Doraemon; if it’s a girl, it’s Frozen because that’s the latest fashion in the market.”
What motivates consumers to consume products endorsed by celebrities?
When we consider the impact of celebrity endorsement on purchasing decisions, it is important not only to characterise its effect, but also the underlying mechanism. In other words, to determine what motivates consumers to purchase goods endorsed by celebrities. There are several possibilities:
The first possibility is that consumers trust the opinions of celebrities, and therefore believe that the products they endorse are of higher quality.
The need to impress others
The next possibility is that consumers seek to emulate the celebrity by forming a likeness in the brands purchased and used. This second theory is supported by Figure 1 below, which shows a positive correlation between the importance placed on celebrity endorsements and impressing others in purchasing decisions. This may be because people who purchase to impress others are more concerned with public image and are therefore more likely to emulate celebrities, hoping to be conferred the same level of reverence and status.
Figure 1: Importance of celebrity endorsement and impressing others in purchasing decision across countries (on a scale of 1 to 4)
Our data indicate that consumers in India place the highest importance on celebrity endorsement of all the countries we surveyed. India’s fascination with celebrities may be attributed to their thriving film industry, which permeates into so many aspects of Indian life. The Indian film industry is the largest in the world[v] in terms of number of films produced. By 2020, box office earnings are estimated to reach $3.7B USD.
Combined, the ‘Khans of Bollywood’, consisting of Salman Khan, Shar Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, have starred in all ten of the highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time[vi]. Considering the large domestic and international audience of Indian cinema, celebrities like the Khans of Bollywood are extremely highly regarded in Indian society. It is perhaps understandable then why Indian consumers desire fame and to achieve similar levels of status and celebrity.
After India, the country that placed the most importance on celebrity endorsement was China. From our qualitative interviews, we found that this was because celebrity endorsement improved brand image, giving customers a “positive impression”. As one Chinese female participant put it: “The brand has a whole series of advertisements featuring different celebrities. They also have a catchy campaign. Before you know it, you’re picking that brand’s product on the shelf even though you like the competitor’s taste better.”
Chinese consumers also seemed highly attracted to licensed characters, with one participant going so far as to say: “[the licensed character] is so cute that it made me feel good.”
Indonesia represented a rather different picture. Although we found that celebrity endorsement attracts attention to products, it does not appear to impact purchasing decisions to the same extent. Indonesia consumers still relied heavily on product quality. Interviews did show, however, that female Indonesian consumers are more attracted to domestic celebrities than international celebrities, with one female interviewee explaining that ‘Indonesians are more into following their own set of celebrities’. Indonesian males, on the other hand, were more attracted to international celebrities. Interviewees also commented that licensed characters attracted their attention more than human celebrities, especially when the products being advertised were video games or gaming-related accessories.
The importance of celebrity endorsement was lowest in Japan. However, since Japanese defined celebrities as “experts in their respective fields” during the qualitative interviews, drawing conclusions purely from survey data is difficult due to the broadness of their definition.
The Desire to become Famous
Figure 2: Respondents’ desire to become famous across countries (on a scale of 1 to 4)
Figure 2 above further supports the hypothesis that people purchase celebrity endorsed goods out of a desire to achieve celebrity-levels of fame and status as well. This is because Indian consumers, who place the highest importance on celebrity endorsement, also showed the strongest desire to become famous compared to all the other countries we surveyed and by a significant margin.
Celebrity following across age groups
Figure 3: Respondents’ desire to follow celebrities across countries and age groups (on a scale of 1 to 4)
In Figure 3 above, in most countries, excluding India, there is a general negative correlation between celebrity following and age. This suggests that the audience for celebrity endorsements consists largely of youths. Marketers hoping to penetrate this age group through the use of celebrity endorsers may have more success than for older age groups.
The exception to this trend is India, which shows near constant levels of interest in celebrities across age groups. Once again, this may be attributed to the pervasiveness of film in Indian culture, as well as the long-established history of Indian film.
Indian cinema has its roots in the early 20th century. In addition, Bollywood has a long purported history of nepotism[vii], with many famous actors being related to one another. Older audiences may therefore be influenced by celebrities who are the offspring of celebrities from the past.
Gender Differences in Celebrity Following
Figure 4: Gender differences in celebrities following across countries
In all countries, except Japan, celebrity following of females is higher than that of males. This is especially the case in South Korea and Thailand, where the difference is extremely stark. In these countries, female interest in celebrities exceeds male interest by a considerable margin.
In the case of South Korea, this may be due to the popularity of K-pop boy bands outstripping that of girl bands. This is evidenced by the fact that only 5[viii] of the 20 most popular K-pop acts of 2017 were formed of girls.
In both Singapore and in Indonesia, there was a gender difference in the appeal of ‘celebrity’ in the form of licensed characters. Women in both countries were more attracted to licensed characters than were men. Indonesian males showed further disparity in the appreciation of such characters, with unmarried men being influenced by them more than married men.
When interviewed, one Indonesian married man mentioned that ‘human celebrities seem to guarantee product authenticity’. Marketers aiming to penetrate this demographic of the Indonesian market may therefore try to run campaigns featuring celebrities in authentic down-to-earth settings.
In Japan, the reason male following of celebrities exceeds that of females may be due to different cultural opinions on whether licensed characters can be considered celebrities. This is evidenced by the example of Hakune Miku given earlier, who while being a fictional character, has an extremely large following. Given that males make up the majority of fan bases of female anime characters like Hakune Miku, the anomaly in Japan therefore makes sense.
Figure 5: Gender differences across countries on the level of reliance on blogs as a source of information (on a scale of 1 to 4)
Figure 5 shows the different levels of reliance on blogs as a source of information about products between countries. More developed countries including Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore tend rely on online reviewers to a greater extent than those in less developed countries such as India. Based on our qualitative interviews, we found that survey data was insufficient to tell the whole story; there can also be variation within countries of those who rely on the internet for information to make purchasing decisions.
In more developed countries, females have a higher incidence of blog following than their male counterparts, but this is not the case in less developed countries. In Singapore, this was partially explained by the fact that females tended to treat themselves more by going shopping than men did.
In addition, Singaporean women also placed greater importance on information gleaned from blogs rather than from celebrities. One female interviewee shared that she ‘would consider bloggers’ reviews when it comes to restaurants, skincare and books’, while another added that she trusts celebrities only ‘to a certain extent’ and that she ‘trusts more the one who actually uses the product’, such as online bloggers.
In conclusion, there are many subtleties concerning celebrity culture in different countries in Asia. These inter-cultural disparities arise from differences regarding the definition of celebrities, their place in society as well as the culturally specific need to impress others. Additionally, the usefulness of celebrity endorsement varies largely within countries as well. This paper sought to build a more robust model of the impact of celebrities by identifying these intra-country variations and explaining them with regard to differences in values, socio-economic status, gender and age.
In planning marketing strategies involving the use of celebrity endorsement, advertisers should be very aware of these intricacies. This would help them determine if celebrity endorsement will be useful in engaging their target audiences and if so, which celebrities would work best.
[i] Fortini, A. (2017, June 19). O Pioneer Woman! Retrieved March 12, 2018, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/05/09/o-pioneer-woman
[ii] York, A. (2017, July 19). Social Media Demographics to Inform a Better Segmentation Strategy. Retrieved March 14, 2018, from https://sproutsocial.com/insights/new-social-media-demographics/#instagram
[iii] Tsukamoto, M. (2018). Transformation of Tradition and Culture (Vol. 1). Xlibris Corporation.
[iv] Ladyironchef Crossed 2 Million Monthly Pageviews. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://www.ladyironchef.com/2013/05/ladyironchef-crossed-2-million-monthly-pageviews/
[v] Indian film industry’s gross box office earnings may reach $3.7 billion by 2020: Report | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis. (2016, September 26). Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://www.dnaindia.com/entertainment/report-indian-film-industry-s-gross-box-office-earnings-may-reach-37-billion-by-2020-report-2258789
[vi] Top Worldwide Grossers All Time. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.boxofficeindia.com/worldwide-total-gross.php
[vii] Asher, V. (2017, July 22). 39 Bollywood actors who got in through their family. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://gulfnews.com/life-style/celebrity/desi-news/bollywood/39-bollywood-actors-who-got-in-through-their-family-1.2062422
[viii] Tumblr’s Most Popular K-Pop Acts of 2017. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/8054032/tumblr-most-popular-k-pop-acts-of-2017
Authors: Prof Gemma Calvert & Koh Juan Zhen
Date: 22 March 2018
About the Authors
Gemma Calvert is Professor of Marketing at Nanyang Business School, and Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight, NTU Singapore. A pioneer of neuromarketing, she helps companies to break into Asian emerging markets through deeper understanding of Asian consumers.
Koh Juan Zhen is a Research Assistant at ACI. Prior to joining ACI, she was an Assistant Marketing and Business Development Manager in the tourism industry and led various integrated marketing campaigns and partnership initiatives to drive reach and sales. Her research interests lie in the area of consumer behaviour and how emotions and subconscious mental processing influence decision-making.
We would like to acknowledge the contribution of ACI Interns Oliver Cheok and Ayan Baradhwaj.