Last summer viral marketers at Durex posted this wonderful photoshopped image of China’s glamorous First Lady 彭丽媛 Peng Liyuan and president 习近平 Xi Jinping watching a folk dance presentation near the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in Southern Mexico. It was uploaded to Durex’s official account on Weibo, Chinese biggest microblogging platform, and was almost immediately deleted by the authors themselves, in fear to get the whole account blocked by the censor. Before becoming the target of Durex viral campaign, this photo was already spreading like a wildfire through Chinese web, because it shows the first lady snapping a picture with a white iPhone 5, just months after CCTV and the People’s Daily attacked Apple for allegedly providing Chinese users with an inferior after-sales service. Durex knew they were going to run into the censor, what they did not know is that the above image spur the attention of Chinese soft power think tank that suddenly understood the First Lady can attract a big amount of attention for local brands. Attention that advertising
dollars yuan can never buy. This is how Peng Liyuan decided to ditch her iPhone 5 and started being adept at promoting worldwide homegrown luxury brands.
Peng Liyuan, born in 1962, is also a Chinese contemporary folk singer and performing artist and her fame is older than her husband’s accession to power on 15 November 2012. Until that, she was actually much better known to the public than her husband. Since the 80s, she appeared on China’s state-run television, singing syrupy sweet folk tunes extolling the wonders of China’s rise. Only one year ago searches for Peng’s name on Weibo or Baidu [Chinese Google] were still blocked, in order to stop conversations buzzing over her wardrobe. Online shoppers were dissecting photographs of the first lady accompanying her husband as he was making his first trips abroad as China’s new leader. Peng’s high profile marked a contrast from that of her husband’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s wife. Former First Lady Liu Yongqing often accompanied her husband abroad, but remained a mostly silent supporter of her husband’s career. The wives of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin appeared even less often in public and rarely travelled overseas with their husbands. After almost two years since Xi Jinping rose to power, Peng Liyuan’s behavior radically changed; even leading some critics to claim a Chinese victory over the States in the battle of first ladies. What in the beginning was an unintentional promotion of local as well as foreign goods is now a systematical boost of China’s image in order to strengthen its soft power abroad and to promote the made in China.
On March 2013 a photo of Peng stepping out of a jet on a state visit to Russia, wearing a dark trench coat and toting a leather handbag, went viral on Sina Weibo. Online fashionistas were fast to identify the purse and the coat as Guangzhou’s Exception. An Exception PR rep confirmed everything, immediately setting off a firestorm of interest in the brand. The choice of a low-key brand was certainly connected to her husband’s efforts in the anti-corruption campaign. But the choice of a Chinese high-end brand was almost certainly a deliberate, politically driven decision. In a country that is witnessing the transition from “Made in China” to “Designed in China,” Peng has certainly accomplished something for Chinese creativity.
China Daily reported that Peng Liyuan wore a pair of pearl earrings by the Zhejiang Ruans Pearl Co. during a trip to Russia and Africa. The company also created the pearls for State gifts so she donated a pearl gift box to the Women and Development Foundation in Tanzania.
Pehchaolin is the archetype of long-established Chinese cosmetics brands, when China’s first lady visited three African nations last year, she gave as gifts to local officials Pehchaolin beauty products. The move represented a revival of the classic brand both in supermarkets and online and has boosted sales of other domestic beauty products, including sales of Lanterns’ almond honey face whitening mask and Yongmei. Shanghai Vive, another cosmetics brand of long standing, has repositioned itself as a luxury brand, for personal care products.
Now you may want to know what she ditched her iPhone for. During her visit to Berlin last March she was spotted snapping pictures with her brand new Nubia. Nubia cellphone maker, ZTE Corp. has jumped to the occasion posting a photograph of Peng using its phone and saying: “The Chinese dream begins with using China-made goods.” Some bloggers questioned the appropriateness of the brand name, which sounds very much like “niubi” – a slightly vulgar slang term meaning “badass” or “kickass”. Not quite the dignified and low-key image Peng has been building these years.