For celebrities from the West looking for endorsement cash without overexposure, Asia has long been an obvious destination. Lost in Translation rang true in part because Japanese commercials have featured everyone from Woody Allen shilling for Seibu to Tommy Lee Jones plugging Boss coffee.
More recently, China has entered the market for American stars. Brad Pitt’s commercial for Cadillac was shown only in China. Chinese companies increasingly have global ambitions, though, and the celebrity sponsorship business is adjusting. Hence the debut on Wednesday (Tuesday in the U.S.) of new spots featuring Ashton Kutcher promoting Chinese computermaker Lenovo (992:HK). The company announced its deal with the star of the Steve Jobs biopic on Oct. 22. The actor will be a “product engineer,” according to Lenovo, which says Kutcher will work with Lenovo engineers on the company’s Yoga line of tablets “by providing input and decision-making into design, specifications, software, and usage scenarios.”
Kutcher is just the latest star to sign up with a Chinese company. Sporting goods company Li Ning (2331:HK) has Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, and Internet giant Tencent Holdings (700:HK) has Lionel Messi, the Argentinian soccer star who plays for FC Barcelona. The three Messi commercials promote mobile voice and messaging app WeChat, a huge success at home that Tencent wants to promote outside China. (One of the Messi videos online comes with helpful, albeit stilted, translations from Spanish to English. “Hello! I’m Leo Messi. Now you are my friend on WeChat. We communicate in WeChat.”)
For some Chinese companies, sponsorships create an opportunity to shift American consumer attention away from controversies in Washington. For instance, Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed worries about the security threat posed by China’s top two makers of telecom equipment, Huawei Technologies (002502:CH) and ZTE (763:HK). The political obstacles have gotten in the way of the Chinese pair’s hopes of expanding in the U.S., but the companies haven’t given up trying to reach hearts and minds. Hence Huawei’s sponsorship of the Jonas Brothers concert tour over the summer and ZTE’s agreement to team up with the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
Lenovo has been particularly busy on the endorsement front. The company, which is the world’s No. 4 maker of smartphones, according to data released today by IDC, has signed up Los Angeles Lakers all-star Kobe Bryant to promote its handsets. Lenovo also is a sponsor of the National Football League.
Lenovo, which bought IBM’s PC division in 2005, is trying hard to shake the stodgy image that came from its association with Big Blue. The goal is to gain a reputation as a company that has “some cool stuff,” Lenovo’s China marketing officer, Arthur Wei, told me last year. In other words, be less like IBM (IBM) and more like Apple (AAPL). Signing up the actor who played Steve Jobs might help.