Nikita Mishra
Jan 10, 2023

CNY campaigns: Getting brand messaging right when China is reeling under Covid

SOUNDING BOARD: Industry experts weigh in on the best strategies for brands to nail the cultural tone and empathetic approach to connect during uncertainty.

Clockwise from top left: Joanne Painter (Icon Agency), Olivia Plotnick (Wai Social), Antony Yiu (PHD Hong Kong), Martin Roll, Ria Parikh (Imergey), Huiwen Tow (Virtue APAC), Ian Whittaker (Liberty Sky Advisors), Bob Wang (TBWA/Shanghai), Dixi Chern (Media.Monks Shanghai), Charles Cheung (Carma Asia)
Clockwise from top left: Joanne Painter (Icon Agency), Olivia Plotnick (Wai Social), Antony Yiu (PHD Hong Kong), Martin Roll, Ria Parikh (Imergey), Huiwen Tow (Virtue APAC), Ian Whittaker (Liberty Sky Advisors), Bob Wang (TBWA/Shanghai), Dixi Chern (Media.Monks Shanghai), Charles Cheung (Carma Asia)

It’s going to be a Lunar New Year like none other: uncertain economic conditions coupled with China’s deluge of Covid cases, casualties, and enormous stress on the public health system. Usually, the Spring Festival, one of the biggest holidays in Asia is marked by a wave of commerce and robust marketing. But in 2023, as mainland continues to be crushed under the severity of the pandemic and families remain largely still in isolation—chosen not imposed, —it will be a subdued and tricky affair for brand activations. 

Navigating messaging at such delicate times is always a tight rope for brands—canned empathy won’t cut it, absenteeism can be shunned, loud marketing can backfire, yet engaging with audiences is integral—so, how can brands navigate this thorny situation to celebrate their relevance and authentically bond with the consumer?

Campaign Asia-Pacific turned to industry experts for some nuanced opinion.

Q: How to get Chinese New Year brand messaging right when China reels under Covid?

Ian Whittaker
Founder and managing partner, Liberty Sky Advisors
Co-founder, Bearstone Advisors

What consumers appreciate most in difficult situations is honesty. They do not want to be patronised nor for brands to try and feign compassion. So, for brands, probably the best approach is to recognise the situation but to emphasise that life must continue and that includes celebrating the Lunar New Year, even in difficult times. Use common sense - put yourself in the mind of a consumer and ask how you would feel if you saw that advert at this time. If it is not something that generates a negative feeling, then you are probably on the right track.

The other point to remember, and related, is that people still want to spend, even–or especially–when times are difficult. My view is that a large part of the increase in travel and entertainment demand in western economies is being driven by a desire to live life after the restrictions. Moreover, if historical comparisons hold, it is likely that at least some of this effect will be permanent in nature. There is no reason why China should be different."
 

Olivia Plotnick
Founder, Wai Social

The flamboyant ethos of chasing luxury and enjoyment that existed among Chinese consumers has unavoidably weakened. Post-pandemic Chinese consumers will be more determined not to waste time or money, becoming smarter in their consumption choices. This requires brands to provide products and services that are truly inspiring, high quality, and value driven. More and more people value the spiritual world, family values, and respect truly outstanding products and brands. This trend may intensify with the development of the economic situation, but currently, most people are generally hopeful for 2023.

Given the tumult of the last few years, the desire to be ‘healed’ is a major factor behind the Chinese consumer behaviour. Brands need to respond from an appropriate angle according to their own positioning.

In the short term, what Chinese consumers need most is to have a great CNY holiday with family and friends, letting go of the recent trauma. Therefore, limited products, red envelope benefits or collaborations—such as Tiffany and Fendi launching a special-edition joint bag—that bring excitement and contribute to the New Year's atmosphere will be welcomed. In the long run, brands can consider authentic conversation topics such as; "what is courage”, "what is real love for life”, "attitude in the face of uncertainty”, "turning adversity into strength”, "moving forward firmly for the family”, etc. to reflect on the powerful light of humanity and deepen the connection with consumers.


Bob Wang
Head of strategy, TBWA\ Shanghai

With China beginning to open, Chinese New Year is the first significant occasion for brands to look forward to positive change despite the ongoing uncertainty. Over the last three years, and more recent turbulent times, we’ve observed a change in both consumers and brands, from searching for the unexpected to searching for a sense of security.

While this CNY we’re are likely to see a very “safe” CNY campaign season: traditional Chinese culture-infused with the rabbit character toasting a better year to come. There is nothing wrong with this, but we also believe there are some distinct opportunities beyond this.

Take CNY beyond China: Just as Christmas is celebrated across many cultures around the world, there is an opportunity for CNY to be celebrated on a more global scale. There is an opportunity for global brands to inject a sincere sense of pride for Chinese consumers, and a sense of connection in a polarized world.

Make a web 3.0 CNY: There is a tendency to communicate traditional yet cliched real-life CNY themes on digital media, but digitalisation has already become the new norm with the pandemic. Why not create a new CNY tradition that extends from real life into the metaverse portraying a better future to leap into?
 

Antony Yiu
CEO, PHD Hong Kong

 

Instead of having generic branded CNY messages for mass audiences to celebrate CNY, marketers should be more cautious and make use of their own first party data or CPD (customer data platform), as well as second and third party data to have personalised brand messages to individual customers based on their profiles, consumer, and browsing behaviours. This will allow brands to deliver a message that speaks to the heart of each customer built for their current state of mind and health conditions. In short, brands should prepare multiple versions of creatives and leverage the latest adtech and martech to deliver personalised, dynamic ad messages to everyone during the CNY period. This is the perfect opportunity for marketers to build genuine one-on-one relationship with their customers.

 

Huiwen Tow,
Head of strategy APAC, Virtue

A fool-proof way for brands to navigate the complicated fluid environment of 2023 is to lead with humanity and sincerity. Instead of appealing to aspiration, brands need to embrace the vibe shift and ground themselves in authentic human emotion. An inspiring example of this is Bottega Veneta’s Lunar New Year campaign: Reunion In Motion. Instead of focusing their communications on any limited-edition zodiac collection, Bottega Veneta’s campaign captures the universal emotional journey of returning home for the holidays, reflecting a respect for culture and an understanding of its consumer, shot with a level of craft befitting that of the Italian luxury house.

Challenging and uncertain times often provoke introspection and remind us of the things that ultimately matter. Instead of embracing flashy festive frivolity or using generic hope tropes in ads, brands should prioritise enabling precious moments of intimate connection. An example of this is Chinese multi-brand store Labelhood offering family portrait shoots in their stores during this season, providing a platform for people to appreciate family and create their own personal memories.

Joanne Painter
Group MD, Icon Agency Australia


This years’ message is in part about removing the bad and the old, and welcoming the new and the good. It’s a time to reflect on the past, honour those who have come before, and reset for the year ahead.  This is the spirit in which brands should approach Lunar New Year 2023. Getting it right will depend on where brands are based – and the level of Covid, economic or other hardships currently being experienced. Here are a few ideas we’ve shared with our clients at Icon:

  1. Link celebrations with a fundraising or charity event, with funds going to assist people impacted by Covid, war or economic hardship.
  2. Make Covid safety the number one priority for all events (and where feasible avoid encouraging live events completely in areas of high infection rates).
  3. Encourage global or regional teams to rally behind their mainland China colleagues by focussing Lunar New Year celebrations around virtual events; send messages of support and hope.
  4. Avoid excessive displays of spending this year; in a global economic downturn nobody wants to be the brand that becomes synonymous with tone-deaf excess.
  5. Tailor communications to the country and prevailing mood: what works in Australia won’t suit all markets.

Martin Roll 
Global brand expert and leadership advisor
Author of “Asian Brand Strategy”

It will be critical to be genuine and empathetic. Brands should show, understand, and care about the challenges and concerns that customers and communities may be facing. Better be a little understated that being too much. Less is more at this time. It is important to be culturally sensitive and ensure that messaging and marketing efforts are respectful and appropriate for the occasion, and in line with what the brand stands for.

Brands should focus on values and consumer connection. Marketers should highlight the values that are most important to their brand and find ways to connect with audiences on a deeper level during Lunar New Year. The season is about family and celebrations, should brands can reflect that–but in a more caring and toned-down manner.

Overall, it's important to be mindful and considerate of the current situation, and to communicate in a way that is authentic, empathetic, and respectful to audiences. Brands should not avoid being present, but they need to clearly care, be respectful and play down the tone a bit.
 

Ria Parikh
Associate director, Brand Operations, Imergey


Today, you need more than just products or services to create a solid brand. The holistic experiences and the values you transcend are growing in importance. One needs to address the quantitative with qualitative to create a brand persona. Authentic brand building wins over consumers, and for that brands need to have an open dialogue with their community. With the Lunar New Year approaching, brands need to re-evaluate their purpose, messaging, and customer experience. CNY looks radically different in China this time around - people are riding through a tumultuous tide of emotions; and brands need to acknowledge this and put forth branding initiatives that are relatable and vulnerable - mirroring current consumer sentiment. It’s key to invest time and resources in building trust and connection with your audience. It’s easy for people to remember the bad times, but a brand that is with them throughout the way carves a long-term sense of purpose and resonance. In these times, loyalty seems to be at the pinnacle of significance. A brand that creates a loyal client base has more longevity and growth, as compared to brands that have simply large but fluid client bases.

Charles Cheung
General manager, Hong Kong, Carma Asia
 

Three questions brands must ask themselves: do I have a message worth sharing? Did the message land correctly on the intended target group? What kind of impact did it generate?

Choosing the right metric is critical because the value driven by PR campaigns also ties strongly to how PR is viewed in the company by senior stakeholders. That said, not every brand needs to run CNY campaigns, or not every brand does it well. Over the years, we have seen brands come under fire for missing the mark or being insensitive in their festive campaigns, despite having good intentions. It is critical to have a strong understanding of why it is relevant for their brand, and this is where research fills in the blanks. When given a choice, consumers tend to prefer fewer to more ads, so be relentlessly relevant where you can.

Dixi Chern
Client service director, Media.Monks Shanghai

Navigating this supposed tricky situation as a brand is a non-sequitur in the context of the actual cultural context. In fact, brands and marketers should consider how consumers are enthusiastically looking forward to resuming normal programming; being able to live, shop, and travel globally without restrictions for the first time in 3 years.

From a cultural perspective, Lunar New Year is about ushering in new beginnings, and this New Year is very much about rebooting lives that have been put on hold due to Covid. The Chinese are a resilient and forward-looking people. They have taken the previous Covid restrictions in stride and have now taken living with the unwinding of the previous restrictions and the outcomes in stride as well. So, if anything, brands should take the same cues and look forward, if they would like to demonstrate any sense of true empathy. Concentrating on a negative narrative of uncertain economic and post-COVID conditions to try and resonate with consumers is not going to be doing any brand any favours.

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Sounding Board: APAC experts speak on marketing and comms issues

 

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