Tapping “traffic stars”, the Chinese term for hyped celebrities who drive high digital traffic, has made big beauty brands’ ambitious growth in China possible over the past few years. But now, after an explosion of idol industry scandals, brands and marketing agencies alike are rethinking the viability of this strategy . In 2016, Guerlain took the unusual step of appointing Yang Yang, a Chinese actor who rose to fame overnight through the Chinese drama The Lost Tomb (2015), as its brand ambassador, even naming a lipstick “the Yang Yang shade”. The lipstick quickly sold out, and Yang’s massive base of superfans had to shop for the product with retailers abroad. Guerlain’s experiment with Yang Yang, one of the first traffic stars in China’s new digitally-empowered fandom culture, ended the traditional celebrity hierarchy in China’s brand ambassador system. Its success showed that young, media-hot traffic stars are much more effective in triggering consumer purchasing decisions than Oscar-winning artists. Does Gen Z spell the end of luxury or will brands take up the challenge? Since then, traffic stars who rose to fame via popular talent shows and TV dramas have become the go-to media strategy for big-name brands – in beauty but also in luxury, fashion and consumer goods as well. By 2018, over 40 international beauty brands switched their female celebrity ambassadors for male “traffic stars” in their marketing campaigns. These pretty-faced male stars come with a massive young female fan base who are especially attuned to spending money on the brands their idols promote. Because of how fans see themselves as responsible for their idols’ commercial value, these brand appointments have been able to bring about both media buzz and immediate business results. Fast forward to today and beauty brands have only intensified their strategy of fast-tracking these new traffic stars. In March 2021 alone, Armani Beauty, L’Oréal and Elizabeth Arden appointed Chinese rising star Gong Jun (chiefly known for his role in the surprisingly successful Word of Honour, a “boys’ love” genre TV drama) as its new face. Louis Vuitton has also worked with Gong on several PR events. In less than six months, Gong jumped from being a little-known actor to the most coveted poster child for the world’s biggest beauty names. Could LVMH’s Delphine Arnault become the world’s next richest woman? Fan Chengcheng, a singer who rose to fame from C-pop talent shows, is another example of how brands have quickly embraced China’s idol culture to fit their marketing agendas. With more than 25 million fans on Weibo, Fan is now the face of Givenchy, Christian Louboutin Beauty, Fenty Beauty and Shiseido. In many ways, beauty brands’ all-consuming desire for young Chinese idols makes perfect business sense. Inspired by K-pop fandom , modern Chinese fan culture adheres to the idea that fans must help their idol’s career through concrete contributions (aka sales) inspired by their idol’s promotions. Beyond showing appreciation for their idols on social media, fans take even greater pleasure in becoming active participants in their idol’s ascent to greatness. Are influencers over? Virtual KOLs offer brands a safer solution This direct link between star appointment and fan sales makes China’s ambassador programme particularly attractive to beauty brands that traditionally operated with a seasonal/regional business model through their young, female clientele. However, an overreliance on pop celebrities for business growth can also be a honey trap for brands, as the strategy comes with its downsides too. First, the short-lived nature of traffic stars in China’s ever-changing entertainment industry means that brands must keep changing ambassadors to stay up to date with market trends. Young idols tend to have a fan base that intensely engages for a short period yet turns to the next star in short order. For brands that want to cultivate a solid customer relationship management (CRM) strategy in the Chinese market, using idols to recruit fans is only a short-term move. More significantly, a potential government crackdown on China’s current idol system could pose an even greater danger for this strategy, which exclusively relies on hype. Since last year, the country appears to have began a great reckoning with toxic fandom culture. In January 2021, actor Zheng Shuang’s surrogacy scandal forced Prada to cut ties with the star after only seven days of collaboration, propelled by Chinese state broadcasts condemning her potential negative influence on the country’s youth. And in July, Chinese-Canadian idol Kris Wu set off some of the most explosive scandals in the history of China’s entertainment scene. Following several sexual misconduct allegations, Wu lost endorsement deals with more than 10 high-end brands, including Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and Lancôme, in less than a week. Since then, many Chinese state media accounts have issued public pledges to commit to a “media cleaning” project, promising a crackdown on morally tainted stars that supposedly corrupt younger generations. 5 Chinese celebrity ambassadors for Western fashion brands With the number of traffic star scandals rising, China’s official hard-line stance against idols with apparent bad influences implies that brands are likely to face more restrictions in appointing stars for future campaigns. Is Queen Elizabeth the OG influencer? 6 of her exclusive powers Today, brands and agencies must consider whether a star’s character aligns with Beijing’s national objectives to avoid getting caught up in the next ambassador scandal. “The best kind of idols to appoint should be role models,” said Susanna Cheng, an independent KOL consultant based in Shenzhen. “Brands need to make sure that the idol posts patriotic words, shows the right attitude towards social issues and has a morally acceptable personal life.” If China is, in fact, undergoing an idol industry shake-up, it will quickly change the evaluation metrics of the beauty ambassador landscape. Beyond popularity, brands would also have to look at an idol’s moral reputation and make sure it fits the cultural norms Beijing is promoting. Want more stories like this? Sign up here. Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .