How US brands can win Chinese New Year

The regional planning director of Geometry Global China gives tips on how brands can stand out in a sea of monkeys

Americans spent $50 billion nationwide during the Thanksgiving retail frenzy in 2014. Double that, and you begin to get an idea of what the Chinese spent on the two-week Lunar New Year festival in 2015. 

The single most important festival of the year in Asia, this holiday is all about family reunions, feasting and extensive travel. It is also the biggest retail opportunity in the region for marketers selling everything from clothes and food to alcohol. In the US, marketers have only just begun to leverage this festival despite the fact that there are close to 13 million ethnic Chinese in the country. As the Year of the Monkey sets in on Feb. 8, the potential returns for brands are huge, if they can get it right.

So far, brands have played it safe with lots of red-and-gold communications and traditional imagery. But the downside of this approach is that everything looks the same and brands can get lost in a sea of monkeys. It’s important to remember that China is made up of 23 provinces, each with their own traditions, signature food, attire and even TV shows. So marketers need to get the details right and avoid patronizing stereotypes. Nothing turns a Cantonese shopper off more than the sight of Sichuan food being advertised next to their favorite bottle of brandy.

Marketers must also recognize at the outset, that gifting, while an important part of the festival, does not, and will not, attain the kind of importance as it does during the holiday season in the west. In order to meaningfully integrate themselves into Chinese New Year, brands must understand the three key elements that drive purchase behavior during this time: family bonding, respect and the pursuit of prosperity.

Giving the right gift indicates both status and is a show of respect to the recipient. Showing respect plays an important role in Chinese societies, and remains intact even among Chinese Americans. Geometry Global conducted a study in 2015 to examine how culture influences buying behavior among the four main ethnic groups in America and found that Chinese Americans scored the highest on the dimension of "Power Distance," meaning that they have a very high regard for, and are comfortable with, hierarchy based on age, social influence and power.

So brands that identify the sub-context within the season and leverage it cleverly will stand out. For instance, in the US, premium chocolatier Godiva has used its unique package design and messaging — abundant giving is abundant living — to evoke the idea of prosperity. This also signals great potential for health, beauty, and wellness brands that could replicate the popularity of nutritional and medicinal supplements as a gift to elders in China.

Other brands (in China) are cleverly paying homage to the billions of travelers who go great distances to reunite with loved ones in the world’s biggest human migration. Chinese New Year represents a return of the diaspora with several generations under one roof.

It is not only a physical return, but a return to old traditions. Leveraging this idea brilliantly, a consumer electronics maker used the visual of the household door as a powerful trigger for evoking the feeling of going home, while Pepsi’s "Bring Family Home" travel promotion taps into the memories that you bring with you when you return home.

Millward Brown’s recent BrandZ report "Chinese New Year in Next Growth Cities" also insightfully argues that being useful to the shopper and thinking long-term will be powerful drivers for brands in this season. Given that Chinese New Year happens every year, brands must plan ahead and think about serializing programs so that they don’t reinvent the wheel each time.

And beyond the US, countries around the world would be smart to prepare for a travel boom, as the festival is increasingly becoming the new vacation season for many Chinese. Even the small camper rental store we visited in Queenstown, New Zealand during the holiday last year had a booth with Mandarin video content and guides for Chinese travelers.

A final thought: Know when not to play. Chinese New Year is not applicable to every brand and if an authentic fit does not exist, do not force a presence. Identify a clear role for your product in this season and bring it to life bearing in mind the deep cultural identity that the festival embodies.

Gareth Ellen is COO and Regional Planning Director, Geometry Global China.

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