Chinese New Year is the big date in the advertising calendar. While in the past this has been largely around the massively popular and highly rated Chinese New Year show on CCTV, it is now increasingly a time for brands to reaffirm their values by telling meaningful stories across many of the available channels.
Freed from the shackles of TV advertising slots, we see a great wave of creativity emerging, away from products and functional advertising to emotional story telling with distinctive Chinese characteristics.
As evidenced by a number of recent campaigns, far from simply emulating the most successful holiday ads from North America or Europe, advertisers are embracing a different kind of creativity. A distinctly Chinese sensibility is now emerging in brand storytelling, thanks to increased confidence on the part of marketers to make a statement and emotionally engage their target consumer in a way that might not necessarily translate to a global audience.
Take ‘Three Minutes’ by Apple, for example. While millions of Chinese consumers will come together to celebrate Chinese New Year, a great many will have to work through this holiday. Such personal sacrifice is the inspiration behind this short film; although shot entirely on an iPhone X, the product is not centered at all, allowing the story to focus on the rare and precious moments in which a busy working mother is able to see her young son.
Much like Christmas ads in the West, campaigns for Chinese New Year tap into the importance of family, but the stories they tell differ as they also acknowledge phenomena that are unique to Chinese culture, such as the trend towards working away from home. These ads are also more likely to recognize the hardships people go through, and celebrate small, quiet moments of joy that can be found in the midst of it all (in this case, a mother’s three minute reunion with her son after six days’ absence).
A different set of cultural attitudes also shapes how companies talk about themselves. Rather than making grand assertions about what their products or services can do, as might be expected from an Apple film, a much more humble approach is taken by honouring hard work and sacrifice. Through this lens, dedication and determination are portrayed as the most inspirational traits a person can have, and the brand is positioned as being right there with them through the adversity.
Determination and self-belief are also at the heart of KFC’s ‘Wild Brothers’, which depicts a famous film director travelling back in time on Chinese New Year to his own humble origins, back when he was on the verge of his first big break in the early Nineties. He offers his younger self some words of advice, and is in turn reminded how important it is to keep striving forward and taking chances in the present. (The main character in this film could even be perceived as an analogy for the KFC brand itself, which has been present in China since 1987.)
And of course, overcoming adversity is a highly appropriate theme for an Olympic ad campaign; Alibaba’s video spots for the Winter Games shine a spotlight on the discipline, perseverance and pure grit of the athletes who have striven to make it to PyeongChang 2018. ‘The Greatness of Small’ draws a parallel between the training of Olympians with the drive and ambition of the small businesses and young entrepreneurs who are empowered by Alibaba, once again centering uphill struggles as a worthy pursuit.
So why is this happening now? Agencies are working with creative leaders who are increasingly local, in touch with their communities and ingrained with the culture. They are working on new digital channels which are free of any creative or structural limitations, allowing them to tell stories at the length they need to be. And perhaps most crucially, these campaigns are crafted around foundational insights about what matters to Chinese consumers, ditching previous one-size-fits-all strategies that mimicked Western tropes.
These campaigns are a testament to the growing appreciation for creativity in this market; and they all share commonalities which should be noted by marketers working with brands in China. First, they all prefer to frame sacrifice and hardship as positive things and encourage the audience to never forget the roots and origins of where it all started. While China is developing and people’s livelihoods are improving one should remember the humble beginnings of China’s economic boom and appreciate traditional values. A theme that is very much in line with the political agenda in China.
Secondly, they value family and relationships; videos like ‘Three Minutes’ are a reminder of the importance of the human relationships that can often fall by the wayside in the pursuit of work (something a great many people in China can relate to).
And finally, each of these ads ends in a moment of triumph, which makes all of the hardship worth it. While ads which measured success via material or financial gains were prevalent in the early 2000s, this shift towards emotional victories is more reflective of what Chinese consumers value the most as they head forward into the new Year of the Dog.
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