The next time you see the likes of Maggie Cheung Man-yuk or Carina Lau Kar-ling dressed to the nines and sitting in the front row at a fashion show for a European luxury brand in Shanghai or attending a glamorous party unveiling a watch or a car in Beijing, do not think that they are merely party animals craving publicity. They are in fact at work. The traditional game of celebrity endorsement has taken a new turn. These photogenic faces do not necessarily need to be so closely tied to a product or a brand that they have to be their official spokesman or spokeswoman. All they need to do nowadays is show up for events thrown by the brands and have fun - or, at least, act as if they are. The arrangement has been something of the norm in Hong Kong for a long time, but as international luxury brands become more eager to do business in the rest of China, more stars are being paid to party and they are earning more than just cash. While it may cost as much as HK$1million to attract an A-list star, celebrities may also receive gifts such as a range of the brand's products. Some events may have dozens of celebrities, from A-list to C-list. Brand consultants say celebrities are like shopping tour guides for mainland consumers, who are affluent but still new to the international world of luxury. To the stars, the brands offer an opportunity to boost their careers. 'Being the talk of the town is more important now,' says Rick Doerr, managing director of advertising and brand consultant firm BBDO Hong Kong. 'Brands now use celebrities in a diverse way, other than being in an ad. [The stars] appear at fashion shows, road shows or even speak at annual dinners. Having them [involved] beyond the ad is worthwhile.' The bigger the brand and the party, the bigger the stars and the greater the number that are needed, says Gao Ming, vice-president of public relations firm Ruder Finn Asia and its Shanghai general manager. Gao, whose firm has handled events for top European brands such as Cartier and Hermes in China, says it is worth paying the stars millions of dollars to just look pretty and party because the publicity and exposure for the brand is priceless. He says that there are two types of events. One is the 'image event', such as a product launch, party or exhibition. 'These events are for image-building,' he says, adding that it can cost from 100,000 yuan [HK$116,250] to bring in one well-known celebrity, while 1 million yuan is not unusual for someone on the A-list. The second type is marketing events at malls or shops. 'They mainly bring customer traffic and drive sales,' Gao says. Mainland consumer awareness of luxury brands is not as high as in Hong Kong or other fashionable cities, Gao says. 'Everything is new to them. But the 'class' of a brand is important to them.' This is where celebrities come in. Gao recalled that a few years ago Montblanc organised a number of events and parties to promote its watches and pens on the mainland. At one event, nearly 20 stars, including Zhang Ziyi, were invited. 'With these celebrities, the brand can inform the consumer that it is not just about writing instruments,' Gao says. This is why the biggest names - such as Cheung, who won a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and Lau, winner of a mainland Golden Rooster Award - are among the most sought after by international fashion and lifestyle brands. The presence and support of top stars for a brand will mean a lot to potential consumers. Event planners say that to have top stars can sometimes cost as much as HK$1 million. 'If you cannot afford to pay them at least HK$500,000, forget it. They won't even think about going to a party or sitting in the front row of a fashion show,' said one fashion public relations veteran. Cheung's manager, Ted Schachter, said the star did not want to discuss the topic with the media. A spokesman for Lau's management, Jet Tone, said that all the fees were negotiable 'depending on the brand and the job nature, but HK$500,000 is not enough for ribbon-cutting ceremonies'. Cash is not the only thing the luxury brands can offer. One almost-A-list man was given nearly HK$1 million for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a top European fashion house store opening in Macau, plus an unspecified amount of designer products from the brand. 'Other than cash and products, packages also include the kind of exposure a star gets from doing this job. They need to keep the momentum in the media,' Gao says. 'But if the brand is bad, stars would rather not do the job. A lot of the time celebrities charge more for attending events of a second or third-tier brand.' Nevertheless, if a brand can offer something extra, everything is negotiable. Celebrity endorsement does not go just one way. 'Celebrities are very choosy about who they work with,' BBDO's Doerr says. And the PR veteran said: 'Stars pick the brand they would like to be associated with. If is it a brand that they like, the fees are always negotiable, and the stars would accept a barter deal such as getting free goodies like bags and clothes in return.' Fashion models can be costly, too, as they are becoming more closely associated with showbiz personalities and receiving more coverage from the local entertainment press. It is understood that Gaile Lai is among the top models who have nearly doubled their fees in the past two years, asking a minimum of HK$50,000 for one job. Joe Chan, Lai's manager, did not confirm the fee, saying all artists' fees are confidential. The fact that Lai married Leon Lai Ming, a singer dubbed one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Canto-pop, may also have a lot to do with the increase. Rising stars associated with a large TV network, such as TVB actor-singer Raymond Lam Fung, also have bargaining power. 'A commercial brand is not just buying Lam's appearance. It is the brand's exposure on TVB that counts. As a contract actor with TVB, the broadcaster's entertainment channel will definitely send reporters to cover his appearance,' an industry insider says. Gao says it is often more a question of peer pressure than choice. 'This is not just a trend in Hong Kong and Greater China, but the whole of Asia. If you don't do it, you are seen as falling behind the trend,' he said. 'But, in terms of the return of investment, you do not need the top stars all the time.' According to Doerr, brands are becoming more selective and cautious when it comes to selecting their spokesmen and women. The general trend appears to be more diversified, as more non-showbiz personalities have become the faces of commercial products. Gao said that non-showbiz personalities, such as athletes or opinion leaders, were becoming more popular with brands, especially for watches and jewellery. 'To consumers, athletes are easier to identify with; whereas opinion leaders are more credible to consumers,' he said. 'And brands strive to build a long-term relationship with these celebrities, instead of having just a one-off deal.'