Shanghai start-up links Hollywood talent to Chinese fans, and brands

As the founder and CEO of FansTang, a Shanghai-based start-up that brokers endorsement deals between Hollywood talent and Chinese brands, Adam Roseman says his team works as 'an educator of China in Hollywood'.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 9:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 10:25am

Adam Roseman, an Investment banker and private equity investor turned entrepreneur, phones between one and three Hollywood celebrities each week. Their conversation never veers away from China - a subject about which most stars, he has observed, have "very little knowledge".

As the founder and CEO of FansTang (which translates as 'hall of fans'), a Shanghai-based start-up that brokers endorsement deals between Hollywood talent and Chinese brands, Roseman said his team has worked as "an educator of China in Hollywood".

"I talk to celebrities about why something is what it is in China, why they need to understand the cultural differences, and why they need to appreciate [them]," he said. "It's a huge part of our business."

FansTang has done much more than just talk. Since its creation less than two years ago, the 50-man team with offices in Los Angeles, Beijing and Shanghai has signed more than 150 Hollywood celebrities and sports stars. The firm helps them engage with fans on Chinese social media and secures endorsement deals for them from brands in the mainland.

Among its clientele are Canadian singer-songwriter Avril Lavigne, stars from the American TV show The Vampire Diaries and The Gossip Girls, Hollywood actor Robert Downey Jr, and American professional basketball player Wayne Wade. All are passionately followed and discussed by their Chinese fans.

The idea for the business started during Roseman's stint as a banker in China a few years ago. The businessman said he had noticed a significant increase in consumption of Hollywood-generated content, especially TV shows, among Chinese due to access to internet. 

He began to observe the growing demand for western programmes in the domestic market as China’s leading video sites - Youku, Sohu, and iQiyi - begun purchasing US and British TV shows. Western programmes were becoming more available for China's young audience.

But with Facebook and Twitter blocked in the mainland, Roseman said he had identified "a void" where Chinese consumers were unable to connect with the western stars of these programmes. Despite popular forums online, interaction between celebrities and their Chinese fans was rare.

Using a "data-driven” approach, FansTang vowed to bridge that gap by bringing celebrities to China, engaging them with their fans, and generating an income stream for them in the mainland.

The firm identified its target consumers as educated urban dwellers in their 20s and 30s, many still studying in college. 

“We look at mentions of celebrities on Weibo by our users, trending topics on social media, the number of views TV shows received on Youku, Sohu, LeTV, and iQiyi," Roseman said.

A team within the firm is devoted to running celebrities' Chinese social media accounts. While many posted on Weibo are translated from celebrities' Twitter or Facebook pages, celebrities are also encouraged by the company to write customised messages for their Chinese fans.

When a flood struck Sichuan province in July leaving 40 dead and 150 more missing, American actor Paul Wesley, The Vampire Diaries star, posted a message of concern on Weibo.

"Thoughts and prayers with everyone in Sichuan. Stay strong Sichuan," reads his message. Brief as it was, many fans said they were touched. "Thank you for thinking about us," they wrote.

Actor Robert Downey Jr is another exception. "Since he owns no Facebook or Twitter account, the only social media account he has in the world is his Chinese Weibo through us," Roseman said. The Iron Man actor is now followed by more than 1.35 million on the social meda site.

When celebrities have travelled to China to meet with fans and potential sponsors, many have said they were surprised by the popularity they enjoy there.

"I didn't know what was expect when I was going here and I was overwhelmed. [The Vampire Diaries]  seems more popular here than the US and anywhere else," said Wesley, who plays Stefan Salvatore in the show, during a trip to Beijing in March. 

While The Vampire Diaries receives 8 million monthly views in the US, it gets 100 million in the mainland, data collected by FansTang showed.

And when Stephen Amell, the American actor known for his role in popular TV show Arrow, visited China he was closely followed by local media and fans. 

"The purpose of the trip is to expand and better understand my fan base," Amell said in an interview at the time, "China is a foreign place to me, I didn't really understand the country. It's helpful to learn that now."

The first season of Arrow has received more than 100 million plays on Youku, statistics on the website showed. Amell admitted that he had met with about 100 Chinese brands during this trip, all interested in building a commercial partnership with the actor.

FansTang has scored highly so far in terms of finding sponsorship deals for western celebrities in China. It announced in July that it brokered over US$20-million worth of endorsement deals over the past year, ranging from US$100,000 for one-month agreements to several million for multi-year arrangements.

Among its most high-profile endorsements, the firm landed Lavigne for an iced tea commercial for the Chinese food conglomerate Uni-President.

In the 40-second commercial shot in downtown Los Angles, a youthful and energetic Lavigne is seen skateboarding with her friends. Frustrated after finding out that her regular skate park has been closed, she takes a sip from a bottle of Uni-President iced tea. Moments later, a recuperated and inspired Lavigne resolves the conundrum by rebuilding the skate park on the rooftop of a high rise building. 

"This brand is more than just a bottle of iced tea ... I think it encourages the youth to pursue dreams and face challenges," Lavigne said later in an interview.

The iced tea commercial has been generally well-received in China. Fans said they were pleasantly surprised.

“At first I thought it was fake ... but then I was impressed Uni-President chose her and managed to get her onboard,” read a comment on Youku.

"I am not going to drink any other brands from now on except the Uni-President iced tea," read another.

Others have, however, found the marriage between the singer and the beverage a mismatch.

"The idea of Lavigne drinking Chinese iced tea is weird," said Michelle Wang, an advertising executive in Chengdu, "It would make more sense if she's drinking an iced coffee or something."

"I guess it won't be long before the Back Street Boys become the new face for some Chinese feminine cleansing product," she added.

Yet Roseman, who defended the iced tea campaign as "authentic" and "consistent with Lavigne's interest in doing more in China," said he would ignore the criticism.

"When something is so broadly distributed, there will be positive and negative responses," he said.