Brands scramble for Winter Olympic athletes as ambassadors
Gu Ailing stands out with more than 20 endorsements
Published: Feb 08, 2022 08:01 PM
A man walks past an advertising poster of Chinese freestyle skier Gu Ailing at the APM shopping mall in Beijing on November 20, 2021. Photo: VCG

A man walks past an advertising poster of Chinese freestyle skier Gu Ailing at the APM shopping mall in Beijing on November 20, 2021. Photo: VCG

"You are the precious of snow and ice. You are our pride," US car brand Cadillac posted a message on its official Weibo account on Tuesday along with a video of Gu Ailing, minutes after the 18-year-old Chinese skier claimed the historic gold medal in the women's freeski big air of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. 

Cadillac is one of a string of domestic and overseas brands that have hired Gu to become a brand spokesperson, as the mixed Chinese and American girl reaches new levels of fame in China with growing popularity of skiing in the country. According to media reports, more than 20 brands, including international behemoths like Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton, have sought out Gu for sponsorship opportunities. She is also a sought-after by a host of domestic brands. Chinese lifestyle social media and e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu, for example, has invited Gu to shoot advertisements for the brand and share her personal life on the platform.

Like Cadillac, many of those brands issued "congratulatory" Weibo posts after Gu won the gold medal. Chinese dairy behemoth Mengniu Dairy topped a Weibo account praising Gu as being "striving for excellence," while Chinese sportswear brand Anta invited netizens in a Weibo account to enjoy sports with Gu. 

Gu is one example of how commercial brands' attention is shifting from entertainment pop stars to sports stars, particularly when it comes to winter sports fever amid Beijing 2022 Games.

The shift came not only as a result of Chinese consumers' rising passion for snow sports, but also as brands grow increasingly concerned about consequences of hiring entertainment stars to be brand advocates after several high-profile celebrities faced personal scandals in 2021. 

A rising trend

Gu Ailing is not alone in being moved to the front of the queue for brands seeking new ambassadors, but she has somewhat stood out from the pool of Winter Olympic athletes who have been picked up by brands to represent their products. 

Last year, KFC hired two Chinese winter sports athletes, Wu Dajing and Su Yiming, to become the face of the restaurant chain. Wu is the company's brand advocate, while Su was appointed as the brand's ice and snow ambassador. 

Gu and Su have also been picked up by Chinese beverage company Genki Forest for a commercial partnership. After Su won a silver medal on Monday in the snowboard slope style final during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the beverage company posted a message on its Weibo account praising the athlete as "not bowing to defeat."

Silver medalist Su Yiming of Team China celebrates on the podium during the men's snowboarding slopestyle medal ceremony at Medal Plaza on February 7, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China Photo: VCG

Silver medalist Su Yiming of Team China celebrates on the podium during the men's snowboarding slopestyle medal ceremony at Medal Plaza on February 7, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China Photo: VCG

Watch brand Omega also announced the recruitment of Fan Kexin, a Chinese short-track speed-skater, to be its brand 'friend' on Saturday after Team China won a gold medal at the 2,000-meter mixed team relay for short track speed skating. 

Although it is not new for brands to choose athletes as spokespeople, as a number of Chinese athletes became commercial brands' darlings around the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when the country was focused on elite athletics, the fever around the 2022 Winter Games has reached a new level altogether. 

According to a report by Chinese financial news outlet, there were 161 endorsement contracts signed by companies with athletes in 2021, the highest number since 2015 and almost the total of athlete endorsement between 2018 and 2020. 

"Athletes in Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games not only enjoy strong international influence, but also become heroes in the hearts of the Chinese people. By choosing these athletes as spokespersons, brands can enjoy both huge international and domestic consumer markets and spread their image and values with the help of these 'heroes,'" He Wenyi, executive director of the China Institute for Sports Value at Peking University, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

He added that compared with athletes, using entertainment stars as marketing figures is risky and often difficult to manage, especially with the recent fall from grace experienced by some top stars, consumers are gradually becoming less enthusiastic about celebrity-endorsed products.

Bai Wenxi, chief economist of IPG China, told the Global Times that compared with the heat of athlete advocates during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, consumers targeted by this round of athlete promotion are becoming more "rational." 

"Therefore, companies will pay more attention to the synergy between their chosen advocates to the brands' orientation, image as well as target market. Brands will be more cautious, and the effect will of course last longer," Bai said.  

Wu Daiqi, CEO of corporate consulting and education firm Keythink also told the Global Times on Tuesday that with the rise of entertainment sports like skiing in recent years, winter sports have expanded their mass foundation, and it's not surprising that Winter Olympic athletes are gaining more attention and financial backing from brands, especially after the approved commercial values of athletes following the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games. 

Some of Gu's brand sponsors


Push from investors

As Beijing 2022 continues, the heat of winter sports athletes will continue to rise, prompting many stock investors to push companies to hire athlete stars like Gu to act on behalf of their brands. 

So far, a number of listed domestic companies including SHUA, Wangfujing and Toread have received signals from investors to hire Gu Ailing as their brand advocates. Some companies replied. SHUA, for example, said that the company will make appropriate promotional plans in line with the company's development needs. 

Apart from companies' positive view toward domestic winter sports athletes, many brands are also picking overseas athletes that are popular in China to become their brand advocates, a move which experts say shows overseas brands' eagerness to cater to the appetite of domestic consumers. 

One example is Japanese skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who enjoys significant popularity in the Chinese market. He has been picked up by Japanese watch brand Citizen to be brand advocate for the Chinese mainland, Macao, and Hong Kong. 

"Champions are heroes and everyone worships those who have the ability. This is the charm of the sports. As foreign brands see the huge consumer market in China, they use the tactic of emotional transfer to make consumers shift from loving the athletes to loving the brands they endorse, thus expanding the influence of the brands," He said. 

According to He, if athletes can maintain their performance and popularity while keeping a positive image, the rush of athlete endorsements will continue to escalate. 

Wu nevertheless noted that since the Winter Olympic Games' influence lags behind that of the Summer Games, with only a limited number of Winter Olympic athletes have found themselves the target of large commercial sponsors.