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“Belly Button Challenge”: The new buzz exciting the Chinese web

Nombril ChallengeSince the second week of June, a new challenge, spontaneously generated by Internet users, has sprung up on the Chinese web: the “Belly Button Challenge”, an exercise involving wrapping one arm around your back and trying to touch your belly button.

« This is a typical case of viral communication on the Chinese Web. », comments JunqiangYU, consultant specialized in Chinese Web at Reputation Squad.

“According to a recent US study, the ability to touch the belly button by reaching around your back is the new mark of thinness,” declared a Sina Weibo user on 8th June. And it is this declaration which lies at the source of this new phenomenon and all its surrounding buzz.

Spreading rapidly, reposted by mainstream media and influential personalities, this statement and its challenge piqued the curiosity of Chinese Internet users – men and women alike -, who rushed to flaunt their slim figures by posting photos of themselves touching their belly button with their arm behind their back.

This iconoclastic challenge quickly became viral on the Chinese web. From the day following that first post, the phrase, literally translated as “reaching your belly button from behind to show your good figure”, has attracted 40,000 mentions per day, hitting a high of nearly 180,000 mentions on one single day, 11th June. A genuine buzz, the peak is already over, and the intensity has largely settled.

Weibo Index EN

Volume of mentions (Source: Sina Weibo)


Surfing on the buzz: an opportunity to win visibility and to get people talking about your brand

While internet users are able to seize such a phenomenon on social networks and create a buzz in just a few days, how can brands then use such opportunities in their own communication? On this occasion several major brands took advantage of the opportunity by posting photos on their official accounts showing their participation in the challenge. In doing so, these brands were able to cleverly place their own products at the centre of the buzz, making them must-have objects in the “Belly Button Challenge”.


Source: Official Sina Weibo account of Coca-cola


Source: Official Sina Weibo account of Durex

China Mobile

Source: Official Sina Weibo account of China Mobile

Why did it go so viral?

A playful dimension associated with ease of participation

It is relatively easy to take part in this type of playful challenge. It targets and engages all sectors of the population (male, female, adult, or child). A simple mobile phone equipped with a camera and internet connection is all that’s needed, something which is easily accessible to a great number of people. And Internet users can participate no matter what they are doing or where they are. The figures reinforce the fact: on 11th June, 150,000 mentions came from a mobile or smartphone versus 25,000 from a PC or desktop computer.

A counterintuitive selfie that piques the curiosity of web users

The ultra-viral nature of this challenge is also linked to the phenomenon of the selfie, something which is especially present in modern Chinese culture and of which Chinese Internet users are particularly fond. And if the idea of touching ones belly button with an arm wrapped around the back seems a little counterintuitive at first, it is that same character which grabs the interest of Internet users and ignites a desire to put themselves to the test.

A significant reach

Since the appearance of that first post citing the, still unknown, US study on thinness and its associated challenge, it has been shared by several influential Sina Weibo users, including both major media and celebrities.

A subject that creates debate and generates new conversation

A few days after the challenge emerged on the Chinese web, other voices also started to make themselves heard on the subject: “I have the figure and yet I can’t do it”, “Touching the belly button with an arm wrapped around the back is actually deforming the body”, and so on. Indeed, without directly criticising the creator of the challenge, Chinese Internet users jumped on the buzz to express their own personalities and assert their own opinions. These debates and new conversations spawned from the original challenge in turn generate yet more shares on the subject, increasing the viral power.

How do you take advantage of these opportunities to increase brand influence and awareness?

Establish continuous monitoring around topics which buzz on the Chinese web

User generated content (UGC) is a particularly important and valuable resource for brands on the Chinese web. To improve the impact of their communication brands must get to know the cultural codes of Chinese Internet users by conducting continuous monitoring of the main flows of conversation on the web. This will then let them identify the best opportunities for “free” communication right at the onset of a new buzz.

Find a link between the event that is making the buzz and your brand image

The first step is to create a plan which belongs to and fits appropriately with your brand. In the case of the “Belly Button Challenge” for example, several major themes or routes of communication can be identified: health, persistence, connection, and so on. Once placed in the right context, the “Belly Button Challenge” then becomes a new communication tool which relevant brands like Coca-Cola, Durex, or China Mobile can use to transmit their own key brand messages.

Assess risk before following the trend

Obviously, the earlier a brand surfs on a buzz and gets in on a trend, the more that brand will gain in visibility. But brands should not jump in on a buzz at any cost. As with all communication actions and campaigns, it is necessary to evaluate and predict the varied opportunities and outcomes of each case. In some cases, depending on the identity of the specific brand, the buzz can be a trap which could give rise to unexpected criticism or a negative misappropriation of the campaign. It is always necessary to first assess risk. The best way to foresee and prevent negative results is to test the effects of the communication on a mini-community of web users, or consult experts in the field.

Put an action-reaction safety device in place on the Chinese web

While needing a long term monitoring strategy and forward planning, surfing trends on the web also requires fast reactions. So how can these two requirements be reconciled? The ideal is to work with a specialist agency with experts on the codes of Chinese social networks and the Chinese web. On your behalf, these experts will monitor and detect, assess risk and opportunity, and create the necessary content for your communication campaign – and all of that will be done within a tight deadline meaning your brand can surf right at the peak of the buzz.