Chinese New Year, the difficult balance for international brands

25 Feb 2018

The lunar new year (農曆新年, 农历新年, nónglì xīnnián) or Spring festival (春節, 春节, chūnjié), for us simply “Chinese new year”, is a traditional festivity that in China has a similar value to our Christmas. The celebration is extended to other Asian countries with a relevant Chinese community (Bhutan, Corea, Japan, Malesia, Mongolia, Nepal and Singapore, Vietnam). It repeats itself yearly within the 21st of January and the 20th of February according to the lunar calendar. In 2018 it fell on January 16th leaving the year of the roaster behind and welcoming the year of the dog.

The event regularly shows the necessity for international brands operating on the Chinese market to maintain a right balance: To what extent is it necessary to adapt brand image and products to meet Chinese consumers’ tastes and cultural differences? For guidance, we should generally take note of high end luxury brands are doing in China. They are often the most experienced, established and well-known and as such, know how to engage and delight their customer base through marketing and experiences.

Over the Chinese New Year period, WeChat official accounts and Weibo channels filled up with countless images of dogs, often linked to festive themed products. As the Chinese New Year zodiac animals only return once in a 12 year cycle, the new year can give themed products the feeling of collectable limited-edition items. This year, canine inspired bags and accessories (keychains and watches) were being pushed by brands as they’re great for gifting.

Compared with some other zodiac animals, the dog is more commonly featured in western fashion. This may be why brands have felt that they could be more daring in integrating the dog into their products and marketing for the CNY. Whilst most marketers relish the challenge of the Chinese new year, some have to face the consequences of their wrong choices.

It is not easy to find the right approach to the market challenges: on one hand there are the distinctive characteristics of the target, on the other hand the need for consistency with brand history and brand image. Of course, embracing the new year’s zodiac is a way of showing Chinese consumers commitment and relevance, but it is still essential to maintain a strong brand identity. Chinese consumers are becoming more and more brand aware and aren’t afraid of voicing what they consider to be good and bad taste.