By Eva Liang and Chloe Liang
With the domestic China travel market rebounding, how can a brand capture the attention of the domestic tourism market and travellers in China?
As they seek authenticity, localisation and social engagement, businesses can learn from the ‘Zhen Ding effect’.
What is the Ding Zhen effect?
It began with a social media post like any other. This was from Ding Zhen, a 20-year-old man from Sichuan, living in Xizang (AKA Tibet) in China, whose Tibetan name transliterates as Dorji Tashi. With his sun-kissed skin, shy and friendly smile, and accompanying videos of the natural landscape and tourism highlights, his videos are now viewed over 100 million times.
Dorji Tashi — who is also known by his Mandarin Chinese name, Tashi Dingzhen — opened his Douyin (TikTok China) account called Litang Ding Zhen (Litang is his hometown) on November 19 2020 and posted his first video, which now sits at 24.3k likes. Soon, his first live-streaming attracted nearly 4 million viewes. Ding Zhen related videos on Douyin have been viewed over 150 million times and he has accrued over 4 million Douyin followers within 2 weeks of opening the account. He’s now signed as the official tourism ambassador of Litang, by the state owned Litang tourism company, as well as becoming a viral social media sensation in China.
Ding Zhen goes viral
His social media success saw tourism authorities all over China leap on the moment and invite Ding Zhen – via their own WeChat and Weibo accounts – to visit their destinations.
- Tibet Daily’s Weibo account invited him to visit Tibet after Ding Zhen said his top travel destination was Tibet.
- The culture and tourism administration of Qinghai Province invited him to Qinghai on their Weibo official account with the hashtag of #诚邀丁真和全国网友到大美青海# (we welcome Ding Zhen and all netizens to visit our beautiful Qinghai).
- Shanxi chased the theme by saying Din Zhen’s face shared over 85% similarity with the soldiers of thje Terracotta Army, the biggest tourism attraction to Shanxi.
- Chinese travellers commented on the matching colour between Zhen Ding’s skin tone and ‘Hot Dry Noodles’ (热干面), which is a signature food of Hubei Province. The Sichuan cultural and tourism board on Weibo responded to the joke by saying his skin tone is closer to Yibin noddles, a signature food of Yibin in Sichuan.
The virality grew beyond tourism industry to beauty. Weibo beauty KOL Weiwi (Weibo ID: 尤一_weiwi) launched a Tibetan-style make-up video, and #丁真高原藏族妆# (Zhen Ding Plateau Tibetan Make-up) had over 150 million views and 11k discussions on Weibo within one day.
Why Ding Zhen became a hit
Chinese travel preferences are shifting to shorter-distance trips, exploring the beauty of local areas and niche travel destinations.
- Golden Week (October 1-7) travel data reported by RED (Xiaohongshu) showed a 371% increase in the number of relating posts ‘traveling round local areas’ (周边游).
- Since May, all types of domestic travel – including local leisure trips, domestic short haul and long haul, and domestic business travel – have experienced a significant resurgence (McKinsey, 2020).
- According Tour’s data of 2020 Golden Week data, Hainan, Yunnan, and Sichuan have become the most popular destinations.
- Chinese consumers are getting tired of the flashier style of travel that influencers and online celebrities have traditionally shown off. They’re now more attracted by authentic people and scenes, such as Ding Zhen and his hometown’s ecological culture.
Another example of authenticity is Ziqi Li (李子柒), a Chinese food and country-life blogger. She is known for creating food and handicraft videos in her hometown of rural Pingwu, Mianyang, Sichuan, often from basic ingredients and tools using traditional Chinese techniques. She has 13.6 million subscribers on Youku and 7.24 million followers on Bilibili.
What brands can learn from the Ding Zhen effect
Speed: Like anything viral, Ding Zhen will be old news a month later. Brands need to have a local China team in place be able to jump on viral trends that have captured the hearts and minds of Chinese consumers
Cultural awareness: Similarly, the team on the ground in China will have the awareness to communicate appropriately, particularly if from the voice of an international brand.
Influencers: Ding Zhen shot to fame as Chinese consumers fell in love with real authenticity, seeing that he didn’t pose, didn’t show off a lifestyle, or appear at VIP parties and the like. Brands need to seek influencers that are demonstrating their real, natural life.
Personification: While this example is specifically about domestic travel, international brands should realise that local figures make a brand accessible and communicable for their Chinese audience.