Lessons from veteran celebrities

Jack Choo, Zhu Houren at 2010 Star Awards
Veteren artiste Zhu Houren winning the Best Supporting Actor award at Star Awards 2010

I have not kept myself up-to-date on Singapore’s celebrity popular contest since I left the National broadcaster. However, the recent news release on the event caught my attention.

Screen shot of TODAY's article
Screen shot of TODAY's article on Star Awards 2021

The organizers have increased the number of shortlisted artistes from 20 to 30 per gender. In the past, viewers get to vote for the Top 10 Most Popular Male and Female Artistes from a pool of 20 each. Why is there a need to increase the pool to 30? What are the marketing lessons that we can draw from this?

For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick intro as well as some information that are usually not picked up by the public because no one is really interested in “terms and conditions”, right?

Every year, the organizers will conduct a survey based on 1,000 public respondents to rank the popularity of all the Singapore artistes. From there, the top 20 (in the past, or top 30 now) who are eligible based on set criteria are announced for public voting to decide on the final Top 10. The first part (survey) constitutes 50% of the final score whereas the second part takes up the remaining 50%. Public voting allows wider audience participation, for fans to “have a say” and injects excitement into the show through leaderboard updates.

Everything is fine in the beginning, but there is an inherent issue with the mechanics. A survey on popularity is essentially a brand recall study. Just like how established brands who have distinctive brand assets will score higher for such studies, artistes who are more established and distinct (having multiple memorable roles for example) will always score higher for the survey. It does reflect their “popularity” but there is a long term “branding” advantage for them.

When the awards first started in 1994, there were only Top 5 artistes per gender. When the “Top 5” are pretty consistent year after year, there is much lesser excitement. So in 1997, it was changed to “Top 10”. This “solved” the problem for a while but it was only a matter of time for the issue to resurface. 

On its 10th anniversary in 2003, I proposed to have an All-time Favourite Award to be given to those who have won the award 10 times. There are two advantages for doing so. Firstly, the list of winners can be less predictable (solving the issue of consistent winners). Secondly, “retiring” the top artistes from the game spares them from the day they are no longer “popular”.  This award was implement in 2004.

Fast forward to today. While the winners of the Top 10 Most Popular Male and Female artistes are not so predictable, they typically come from a very predictable pool (of 20) because of the very same issue.

Veteran actors like Zhu Houren, Chen Shucheng and Richard Low are always in the list. While they will never be cast in a leading role, they constantly get pretty meaty supporting roles as there are few(er) veteran artistes. Family dramas need to have older characters. Common conflict comes from misunderstanding and relationship issues with the older generation. Many will still remember Zhu’s Best Supporting Actor winning character in 2010; an elderly suffering from dementia with a memorable catchphrase “我是警察” or “I’m the police!”. All of these veteran actors have had very pronounced and distinct roles over the years. Their long term branding advantage is strong. Since they have relatively similar (if not more) cumulative screen time compared to the lead actors/actresses, they also enjoy a big “excess share of voice” (eSoV) compared to the young and new celebrities. So in the first part (survey), they will have the advantage.

Screen shot from TODAY's article on Star Awards 2021

While the award is a nod towards the popularity of an artiste, it is also a tool for the organizers to promote celebrities to brands who are in need of influencers and star power for their branding campaigns. In the “influencer marketing” game, the young good looking celebrities are definitely needed. This is probably the reason why there is a need to increase the nominee list to 30 per gender.

So what can we glean from this?

  1. Branding has long term/lasting benefits
  2. Excess Share of Voice is the best indicator of Fame


As we can see from the Star Awards, the veteran artistes do not need to do anything on social media (compared to the young artistes). Their “brands” established through the years of broadcast TV have created distinct brand assets that are memorable and unique (eg, everyone will associate Richard Low or Liu Qianyi with “Limpeh”). Brands therefore, need to work on both differentiation as well as brand distinctive assets and not just focus only on short term selling messages.

Secondly, excess share of voice, or being heard and seen more than your competitor will definitely make you more likely to be remembered. For veteran artistes, their acting roles have the advantage of leading viewers through a roller coaster of emotions (especially the baddie roles). This makes them connect emotively with the audience more (younger artistes’ roles are unfortunately very forgettable).

Brands must work on their narrative marketing (telling good emotive stories for starters) and ensure that these efforts are broadcast to the widest reach compared to the competition. For this purpose, “traditional” media can still be a very powerful tool when used appropriately for the right audience.