BEIJING: Brand owners using celebrities in Chinese marketing campaigns must take a nuanced approach, particularly as local stars boast greater equity than their foreign counterparts.

R3, the consultancy, drew on data from over 10,500 respondents in assessing spontaneous recall, engagement and the qualities well-known figures were thought to embody.

Basketball player Yao Ming, who appears in the NBA for the Houston Rockets, headed the charts after posting an index rating of 105.7 points.

He was praised for regular work in support of good causes, such as teaming up with Shark Savers and asking people to stop eating shark fin soup, thus protecting the endangered animals.

"Yao Ming continues to be the most engaging star because he is widely recognised as the best Chinese sports person, and for his strong moral values, and for participating in many CSR events," said Sunny Chen, a senior researcher at R3.

Kobe Bryant, another basketball player, was the sole overseas member of the top 30, and is allied with operators including Nike and Sprite.

The NBA has placed considerable stress on cracking China, and named David Shoemaker as its new national chief executive last month.

"I have been able to witness first-hand the immense popularity of basketball and the success of the NBA in China," he said.

Athlete Liu Xiang took second in R3's rankings on 105 points, having fought back from an injury which kept him out of the Olympic Games in Beijing to claim a gold medal during the 2010 Asian Games.

"Liu Xiang is viewed as a passionate star, and since his outstanding performance at the Asian Games last year, he now drives strong brand linkage for his sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Nike," said Chen.

Nike consistently emphasised the fact it was standing by Liu Xiang following his injury, and ran ads with the tagline "Let your power do the talking" when he triumphed at the Asian Games.

Completing the top five were actors Jackie Chan and Andy Lau with 73.8 points and 71.5 points in turn, ahead of actress and singer Faye Wong, registering 64.9 points.

Elsewhere, actor Ge You scored 51.5 points, and as a long-time spokesman for China Mobile also helped the wireless giant connect with current and potential customers.

"Since his appearance in three new movies over the New Year, there is increased interest in him," said Chen.

"Consumers now actively link Ge You with China Mobile, and this has definitely contributed to the company's new ranking as most engaging brand this quarter."

Jack Ma, chief executive of ecommerce site Alibaba, was the leading businessman on 48.2 points, and has recently implemented a major in-house shake-up upon learning of fraud among some sales staff.

"This is the trust issue," he said. "We are probably the only company in China that senior management takes responsibility

Li Ning, a former athlete and founder of one of China's premier sports firms, also featured in the top 30, lodging 44.5 points.

When discussing the organisation's full-year results in March, reporting revenue growth of 13% to 9.4bn yuan, Li suggested attitudes and preferences in the country were evolving rapidly.

"The increasingly competitive market, growing sophistication of consumers and rapid urban development in China prompted changes in the sporting goods industry in China," he said.

Data sourced from R3, Added Value, Forbe, China Daily; additional content by Warc staff