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Should brands 'abandon' controversial celebrities to secure customer loyalty?

Should brands 'abandon' controversial celebrities to secure customer loyalty?

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Chinese actor Li Yifeng dominated headlines back in September as international brands cut ties with him after he was reportedly accused of soliciting prostitutes. Global brands such as Prada, Honma, Chinese herbal brand King To Nin Jiom and 蒙牛真果粒 have put out statements regarding the termination of their partnerships with Li. Most of the brands did not go into detail on the reasons behind the decision, but the statements came shortly after Beijing police reportedly detained Chinese actor Li Yifeng, as he was accused of visiting prostitutes numerous times.

Li wasn't the only controversial celebrity that was boycotted by brands. In July 2021, several international brands cut ties with Chinese singer Kris Wu following an accusation emerging of Wu date-raping underage girls, despite Wu denying the act.

In fact, what came as a surprise to many in recent times is when brand Hugo Boss stood by in support of Singaporean athlete Joseph Schooling after the swimmer admitted to taking cannabis overseas.

More often than not, brands do immediately tend to distance themselves with their ambassadors or celebrity partners are suddenly caught in scandals and controversies. Likely, it is to remove the brand from coming across as one in support of these negative actions in the eyes of consumers. 

However, not many consumers are hugely affected by controversial celebrities in reality and this doesn't often taint a brand. A study by YouGov revealed that when a celebrity is in the news for controversial reasons, 52% of consumers are neither more nor less likely to consume their work, while only 14% of Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers; and 18% Gen Z said they are less likely to consume celebrity’s work because of controversies. Conversely, 26% of Gen Z seemed to continue their support despite celebrity controversies.

hk consumer reactions to celebrity controversies across generations 1 1

Xen Chia, strategic marketing director of XGATE, pointed out that young Millennials & Gen Z are more reliant on social media as their source for news compared to Gen X & Baby Boomers who trust traditional news for being more neutral in their reporting. “Hence, Millennials & Gen Z are more likely to take either supportive or disproving positions,” he said. XGATE is a digital agency which provides services across the digital spectrum, and it won Silver award and Local Hero for the Influencer Agency of the Year at this year's Agency Of The Year Awards. Xen was also advisory committee member of Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC). He often delivers digital marketing lectures and training for different industries.

The Gen Z population shows the most polarisation in reaction to celebrity controversies because this is a generation raised on social media, according to David Ko, managing director of RFI Asia . “They are more likely to take sides on any controversy and act on it, but they are also the generation that will move on and forget quickly. Sadly, that may come too late for many celebrities already abandoned by brands,” Ko added.

Agreeing with Ko is Terry Tsang, director of Narrow Door, which said: “For Gen Z, they will identify the personality of a celebrity on a more personal level, so it’s not hard to find their brand preference shifted promptly by an inappropriate action caused by the celebrity. Their social circle will intensify this highly polarised ‘love and hate’ mentality.”  

Tsang also believed that the negative impact on the brand associated with the controversial celebrity is limited, “If the brand or product is of superior quality, a misbehaved celebrity would mostly trigger some bad PR for a short period of time. As long as the brand owners take the bold step to cut off the relationship with the celebrity, the negative impact on the brand or purchase intent could be swiftly managed.”

How could celebrities recover from a scandal?

With celebrities and brands so closely tied together, the first thing is to assess when a scandal arises is whether there is a substantial criminal charge, according to Chia. “If you can’t get out of it in the case of Li Yifeng, you can only do damage control measures. First, apologise publicly before the news get out of control. Second, ask for public forgiveness without giving excuses. Many celebrities try to give excuse for their action; that will only make things worse in this modern age of social media where haters will spin off more negative stories to nail the celebrities,” Chia added.  

Meanwhile, Narrow Door's Tsang said that full honesty is the most effective tool to solve the case. “Deny, defense or telling the half-truth are the silliest of responses and most hated tactics in a fact-finding era. Audiences are in general more receptive to an imperfect celebrity than a lying star. An open apology to the brand and its consumers will win back the respect and a second chance,” Tsang added.

On the PR front, RFI Asia's Ko said that there has been a bit of reckoning in influencer marketing, as brands are taking a very stringent approach to measuring success beyond eyeballs and engagement, it’s all about quality of followers, attributable purchase intent and conversion, and most importantly, brand safety.

“Five years ago the answer would be ‘maybe’, but these days of Cancel culture and #MeToo, even in Asian markets such as China, brands move on quickly. There’s no shortage of potential KOLs,” he added.

Desmond Ku, founder and director of The Bridge Agency said it’s better to let the incident die down if the accusations are not substantiated, "If there is enough evidence, there is no way you could get away with it. Otherwise, just do nothing and let the social conversations die down."

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