Like Christmas, Chinese New Year (CNY) is a time of family gatherings … and special ads. Whilst some are horribly cheesy, if you can get it right there are definite benefits of Chinese New Year Marketing. Let’s look at some strategies for successful CNY ad campaigns. It might be too late for this year, but this article should let you take a look at the ads which various brands are running during Spring Festival and judge for yourself whether they tick all the necessary boxes.
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Traditional Chinese culture is full of symbolism and this is possibly most obvious during the New Year celebrations. The combination of abundance themes, health, longevity and family gatherings lends itself to iconic advertising. When you also consider the fact that the cliche of love being expressed through food in most Asian cultures is actually pretty close to the mark, there are a myriad opportunities for food and beverage companies to leverage this time to their benefit.
2024 is the Year of the Wood Dragon
On 10th February 2024 the Year of the Wood Dragon begins. The dragon is is one of the most auspicious characters in the Chinese zodiac, and those born in dragon years are thought to be proud and self confident.
The Wood Dragon is seen as powerful and wise so themes such as strength, leadership and prosperity may play a role this year in the strategies for successful CNY ad campaigns. Unlike Christmas which is basically the same every year, the Chinese zodiac with 12 animals and 4 elements means that marketers are able to adapt their messaging to fit the appropriate character.
This has to be done well though as you don’t only need to be creative and show respect for the Chinese culture, but also be sensitive to the cultural nuances involved.
Every year there are some truly iconic ads and also some absolutely dreadful mistakes. These are a few fairly recent ones.
The Apple CNY ads are known for their storytelling in their Spring Festival campaigns – the ads are usually filmed on their flagship phone camera with a famous director giving the whole ad a slightly different look and feel. In recent years there’s been clever use of Douyin to drive views and also sales, however the family nature of the event is more in the foreground than the sales aspect.
I personally enjoyed this one from January 2020 – more of a short documentary about the meaning of family than an ad.
In 2023 (for the year of the Rabbit) Ferragamo succeeded in blending traditional aesthetics with their own kind of chic – demonstrating their deep understanding of the Chinese culture.
Of course, not every campaign is a success and Gucci shot themselves in the foot in 2022 when they combined “cuddly bunnies” with bags made from real fur. Is this a celebration of the culture or simply being seriously insensitive?
I personally think that what Gucci should have remembered is that it’s ok for any nation to do such things about their own culture (the Chinese are not usually so sentimental about rabbits and they frequently appear on menus), but it’s not the same when a foreign company does it.
Burberry is another brand that seems to get CNY wrong sometimes (It took me ages to even find their 2023 ad on YouTube – it crashed & burned for being too dark and not festive enough & the version below is not published on their official channel).
They have regularly produced ads which didn’t capture the festive spirit and sometimes their Chinese audience found frankly speaking quite creepy.
Strategies for Successful CNY Ad Campaigns
Whilst it may feel like a minefield, there are a number of elements that you should consider when planning your Spring Festival marketing.
Make sure you leverage the Zodiac
As I mentioned above, the Chinese zodiac story gives you the option to leverage a different motif each year (if you don’t know the story of Chinese zodiac creatures, you can read about it here). Each of the animals is associated with specific characteristics as well as many legends, and this allows you to incorporate emotional storytelling into your campaigns.
eg. the dragon is often associated with success so this allows you to develop a narrative around innovation and transformation. Making good use of this symbolism can be an extremely powerful storytelling tool!
However, you really have to be extremely careful to balance your creativity with cultural respect for impactful storytelling. As long as you are within the cultural context, your ideal clients will understand the significance of what you’re telling them.
In concrete terms for 2024 that might mean that brands will produce limited edition items (this is kind of the “classic” CNY product – either a unique flavour or package) or enter into collaborations with local artists or KOLs (influencers). I expect that there will also be plenty of augmented reality interactive ads & some companies may run with events on leadership themes as this is a “typical dragon” characteristic.
Don’t make it over the top though
You can overdo the reliance on the zodiac creature and this will then just look as if you don’t REALLY know what you’re talking about. This year’s ad by Louis Vuitton is like that – the over reliance on the dragon symbol appears simplistic & boastful rather than being subtly sophisticated. Loewe is more sophisticated though in their approach:
Get the right blend of culture and commerce
What I’m saying here is that for such a family event as the Lunar New Year, you have to be more focused on the culture than the advert. It’s not enough to just take an existing ad idea and add a dragon and a few red elements on it – you’ve got to be more subtle than that. If you don’t understand Chinese New Year traditions then this is slippery ground and you would be better just leaving it be.
As a brand, this is your opportunity to show your consumers that you genuinely care about them. It’s easier said than done to demonstrate a deep understanding of the cultural significance of the festival and the relevant zodiac animal, whilst at the same time weaving in your brand values in an appropriate way. If it’s not something that you’ve done before, it’s definitely worth working with an expert to avoid “shooting yourself in the knee”.
Never forget that CNY is a time of family reunions, celebration and renewal, so you really need to make sure that your content reflects that (remember what I said about Burberry above!). Your social media and UGC (user generated content) should revolve around those topics and reflect the joyous celebrations. That means that you need to adapt your digital strategy to reflect consumer behaviour at this time of year – this isn’t the time for clever intellectual advertising: you need to appeal to the emotions if you want to see the benefits of Chinese New Year marketing.
Ideally, you should encourage your consumers to participate on social media by using tools like digital hongbaos, zodiac filters, zodiac games etc.
Whilst there are definitely social commerce opportunities in terms of things like limited CNY offers or special packaging, your main focus should be on connecting with consumers by informing and entertaining them. You need to celebrate with them.
Marketing Tactics for Chinese New Year Adverts
- Research Specific Expectations
What are the preferences of your target audience around Chinese New Year? I’ve written this post with quite a lot of China examples, but of course there are also relevant marketing campaigns in all the other markets who also celebrate at this time of year. It definitely isn’t a “one size fits all” situation though so please don’t think you can go with a single pan-Asian ad campaign solution. As with any other kind of campaign, you need to localise for the specific expectations of your audience.
Check out the example above to see an ad prepared by Taylor’s university in Malaysia around the central premise of the importance of education but also family bonds.
- Involve relevant Team Members
If you have team members who have cultural connections to the market which you are looking to develop the campaign for, make sure that you include them in the ideation process. It’s important to get as in-depth an understanding of the cultural context as possible.
- Blend it up
Think carefully how you can mix the cultural elements that you would like to include with aspects of your brand strategy. Remember that the culture should be in the foreground rather than your brand and be empathetic in the way you blend them.
Asian cultures use a lot of subtle symbolism so think about how you can incorporate aspects of joyous family reunions into your content rather than simply relying on the zodiac animal.
- Mix up your marketing channels
I mentioned earlier that you need to blend both traditional and modern elements in your campaign and this applies to the marketing channels that you choose too. Using traditional offline channels can invoke nostalgia, which is a powerful emotion around family based festivals, whilst innovative digital activities bring in an element of fun, especially if you can make them interactive.
Don’t forget that your marketing channels also have to be localised – Malaysia isn’t looking at the same mix of social media as South Korea.
- Influencers and other Collaborations
This can be a great time of year to really leverage your partnerships, be they involving influencers or in the form of collaborations with other complementary brands. Watch the Carlsberg advert below to see how a beer brand is collaborating with a local Chinese artist to create special packaging for the Spring Festival celebration.
- Monitor and React Immediately to Problems
Asian consumers are extremely sensitive to any kind of social media or product issues. That means that especially over the holidays you need to closely monitor what is being said online. If there’s any kind of negative feedback, you need to react immediately and adapt promptly. You may also find it useful to read my post on dealing with media crises, that you can find here.
Benefits of Chinese New Year Marketing
If CNY campaigns are done well, then they evoke an emotional response in their target audience in the same way that a great Christmas ad will. However, you need to approach the topic with sensitivity.
Research is certainly key when you are planning to advertise and create content which is so closely connected with people’s cultural identity as you can alienate a whole market by getting things wrong. That means it’s a high stakes event for any brand where authenticity (yes, I know the word is overused but I do need it here) and empathy have to be at the forefront of your planning.
On the positive side though, if you get things right, you can not only bind your consumers to you but also possibly even gain cult status with your CNY ads. You can’t guarantee that will happen, but carefully researching your audience and the culture before producing an emotional branding campaign that has the cultural aspect at the forefront can be a great way to gain traction. Hopefully the tips in this article should also arm you with some strategies for successful CNY ad campaigns and you can also use them to analyse the ads you see over the Lunar New Year to gather inspiration for your activities in years to come.
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Other posts on my site covering topics to do with the Lunar New Year (or Chinese New Year) include: