There are two types of people in this world — those who would line up for four hours in Chongqing’s 100F+ summer swelter to buy a cup of milk tea, and those who are not fans of Karry Wang.
Ever since July 1, when the parents of the mega-star/TFBoy opened up a small milk tea store called Star Karry in Chongqing, throngs of fans have wrapped around the block of Shidai Road, all queuing with characteristic fangirl ardor for a cup.
There’s no special ingredient, limited-edition flavor, or culinary-marketing genius that makes this drink worthy of a four hour wait. It’s actually something much stronger: the power of 小鲜肉 (xiao xian rou — literally, little fresh meat, a term used to refer to young, fresh-faced pop stars).
Maybe Wang’s parents just wanted to break into the market, maybe they genuinely enjoy brewing milk tea, or maybe they just wanted to make Western China’s oppressive summer heat pass more quickly. But most likely, they were banking on their son’s youth, freshness, and armies of fans to rack up sales.
A testament to pop cultural currents in China today, the popularity and omnipresence of the xiaoxianrou phenomenon has defined advertising, TV, the music industry, and now, the milk tea revenue of Wang’s parents.
Star Karry is a prime example of just how lucrative celebrity branding can be in China. Any fangirl could tell you that block-long lines, hours of mindless waiting, and unbearable weather conditions stand no chance in the face of obsession, devotion, lust, and all the other carnal emotions that characterize stans of celebrity idols. In this economy (that is, the fan economy), the clout surrounding xiao xian rou idols translates directly to sales, brand visibility, and big bucks.
Digital and social media have given rise to new forms of fandom and fan culture, and it’s now easier than ever before for fans to feel very real emotional connections to idols who they’ve never met. Livestreams, vlogs, variety shows, and other forms of digital interaction all serve to help celebrities forge seemingly deep relationships with their admirers and fans, eliminating barriers of space, time and formality. The result is an increasingly interaction-driven, emotionally invested fandom — a fandom that is driven by participatory culture.
The truth is, celebrity cafes have long been unabashedly surviving off of the fandom’s desire to participate. Such is the case across South Korea, where cafes owned by the family members of Korean pop stars regularly sport long lines of dedicated fans, all desperate to make a purchase in the name of their idols.
And in another example of recent xiao xian rou market forces, fellow idol Huang Zitao, or ZTAO, has partnered with popular Chinese IP derivatives brand 52TOYS — the pop star released a limited-edition series of astronaut-themed toy dolls, which fully sold out in just two days.
Marketing veterans will tell you that there’s no hard and fast approach to guarantee sales. But looking at the numbers behind all this little fresh meat, finding a winning strategy might be easier than we’d once thought.