Matthew Keegan
Jan 18, 2023

Why most CNY campaigns in China continued despite recent Covid surge

Despite being in the grips of its biggest Covid surge in China to date, most brands stuck to their long-term CNY marketing plans. Agencies and marketers explain why, and what impact the health crisis actually had on campaigns.

Courtesy: JKR
Courtesy: JKR

Chinese New Year campaigns would traditionally seek to reflect the spirit of the holidays with scenes of celebration and joyous family gatherings. Joy, fun and people celebrating are usually the core ingredients for winning campaigns that resonate.

But these aren’t normal times. In recent weeks, China has been battling an unprecedented Covid surge. Since ending its ‘Zero Covid’ pandemic restrictions, China’s government has recorded 60,000 Covid deaths, with hospitals severely overwhelmed.

According to a study by Peking University, as many as 900 million people in China, or 64% of the population, had contracted Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. Now, on the eve of the Lunar New Year, another Covid spike is expected as millions will travel for the holidays, a time for epic family reunions, in the biggest annual human migration on earth.

So, how are brands responding to China's biggest Covid surge to date? Have brands had to rethink their CNY advertising plans amid the ongoing health crisis? Were the traditional celebratory campaigns be swapped for something a bit more muted? After all, might it be considered insensitive and a bit tone deaf to run a campaign over CNY with scenes of joyous family gatherings given the current harsher reality?

Last week industry experts weighed-in on the best strategies for brands to nail the cultural tone and empathetic approach during this uncertain festive season.  This week we spoke to agencies and brands on how they've approached this year's CNY campaigns in terms of strategy, creative, tone and whether or not they went ahead as planned, or decided to make changes. Among those we heard from, most stuck to their guns.

Theresa Wu
General manager of JKR Shanghai, who has been overseeing their Budweiser CNY campaign work for seven years

We developed the visual identity work for Budweiser’s CNY campaign through the second half of the year. Considering the impacts of the pandemic in the last three years, we were approaching the campaign with a lot of optimism, and hoped that by the beginning of 2023 there would be a positive turnaround to the situation. The approach was to deliver a campaign of positive cheer and we kept to the plan.

There are still a significant number of CNY campaigns this year. In fact, quite a few are spotting animation work. While the traditional themes of family reunions continue to play in a number of campaigns, I see more of the use of humour and light-heartedness in their delivery.

Such deliveries could be a reflection on the brands’ desires to convey optimism and uplift everyone’s spirits coming out from a three-year period of gloom.

Ronald Wong
VP of brand, digital & social marketing for DFI loyalty brand Yuu

It is actually a great time to enhance CNY celebrations. Over the past few weeks, borders are reopening, families are reuniting, and traditional celebrations are returning. Which is why we went ahead with what we had planned on both digital channels and at our partner stores.

Yuu’s marketing activities are digital-focused and thus, less impacted by the pandemic. In fact, this CNY, with the gradual easing of social distancing measures, we are even venturing out with yuu’s first physical element – the limited-edition lai see packets – as an online to offline (O2O) marketing initiative. Created by a young local designer, the Lai See packets will transform into a lucky rabbit when opened, which has a hidden promotional code for yuu to me – our e-commerce and delivery platform – online shopping.

Traditionally, CNY is always about rewards and festivity. So we also wanted to encourage yuu members to have a bit of fun this CNY by introducing a cute digital bunny in our app, which is used across our CNY campaign. By tapping the bunny ears, members will receive bonus Yuu points. Members can also take part in a social game, inviting them to take a selfie with two products in our partner stores as bunny ears. A total of 15,000,000 Yuu points are up for grabs. 

These online-offline initiatives are all about double happiness over CNY! Last but not least, we are also introducing a new reward gifting feature and digital lai see to enable our members to send gifts and lai see at anytime, anywhere.

Awing Chen
Executive Creative Director of DDB China

This year we worked on the CNY campaign for Skittles. The association between this campaign and the pandemic was in our creative insight.

Given the fact that China has experienced three years of pandemic, whether it is the economic downturn, or the uncertainty about the present and the future, we are always longing for more good luck. It is because of this increasing uncertainty about life, and not knowing what will happen in the future, at such times, people tend to seek some metaphysical blessings.

For CNY 2023, we will enlarge this long-cherished wish, we want to show everyone that Skittles can bring you good luck in all the crazy and exaggerated ways. So, in our new TVCs, what you will see is that after eating Skittles, a lady's permed hair will be turned into a rainbow using the homophonic meaning of good luck; the guy holding and raising up his father with the hope that he can get rich quickly also by using homophonic meaning of making good fortune overnight. Nowadays more and more Chinese are into koi fish which are considered a sign of good luck. So this time, Skittles aimed to make a dream come true, as after taking Skittles candies, the guy literally becomes a koi fish.

In our 2023 CNY campaign, we want to give people a fantastic desire, to realise their wish for good luck. If there is a connection with the pandemic, this is it.

Elisa Harca
Co-founder & Asia CEO, Red Ant Asia

CNY is always a positive moment, a time for Chinese people to reunite with their families, and although Covid is rife in China, finally the country is open which means that for many people, they will be reunited with family and friends for the first time in three years – hence we don’t think it’s inappropriate for brands to celebrate and be positive.

People in China have PTSD from 2022, and just want to get on and think about other things. 2023, the year of the rabbit, is going to be a good year, and brands will resonate more by helping consumers get out of doom scrolling / humdrum life.

The difference we see in CNY campaigns this year is that they are more locally relevant. We seem to have moved away from brands being lazy and doing something very obvious and not locally relevant. This is a good change, and one we’ve been anticipating for years.

We have worked with a number of clients this year on their CNY activities. Overall, we have pretty much gone ahead as planned. CNY planning usually starts at least nine months out, hence we have had a decent amount of time to ensure the plans / strategies are mapped to the Covid situation. The good news is that all of our brands lead with digital for CNY (digital plus products), hence we haven’t had to pivot away from offline.

Among the brands we worked with was Carrière Frères on a branded WeChat article promoting a key collection and releasing CNY red packets to celebrate Chinese New Year.

To add a unique twist to the celebration, the brand focuses on delivering the story and visuals of Rose and Pepper (key collection theme) rather than Year of the Rabbit to fight the way out of competitive CNY marketing period – the red packet design is stylish and well-executed that impresses discerning Chinese customers well.

Yong Yuan
President, Ogilvy Advertising, China & President, Ogilvy Shanghai

China’s recent Covid policy change has obviously been a topic that has come up in conversations, but overwhelmingly, there is a palpable sense of optimism and renewal among our clients and society as a whole. The U-turn in pandemic management has in fact exacerbated the anticipation and excitement that naturally come with the start of a new year. This year people are not only looking forward to reuniting with loved ones for the holidays; they are filled with confidence about a future with fewer uncertainties. It’s almost like a double reset.

When it comes to campaigns, since 2020 we have been working with our clients to overcome disruptions, whether it’s in terms of production, logistics, positioning or messaging, and in comparison, I would actually say that the planning and execution of our 2023 creative campaigns has been smoother than in previous COVID-impacted years.

No matter what, Chinese New Year cannot be “cancelled”. Chinese people have proved how resilient they are, showing great fortitude since the start of the pandemic. People find new ways to celebrate, and in that sense, brands also need to step up to the ingenuity of consumers, thinking beyond the typical standalone CNY film to engage with their audience in more creative, interactive ways, innovating with digital experiences that foster connection and keep the festive spirit alive.

Now is not the time for overly sentimental scripts. It’s about reinforcing the current optimistic sentiment with a positive narrative and embracing the possibilities that await in the Year of the Rabbit.

Rogier Bikker
Managing Director, Media.Monks China

The cultural context of celebrating new beginnings this CNY hasn’t changed. To the contrary, this year more than ever is about looking forward without ignoring the past and current hardships.

We see this back in campaigns that focus on resilience and persistence. Apple has outdone themselves this year, beautifully capturing the nation's sentiment and the persistent spirit of its people in Through the Five Passes. We also see this in Nike’s campaign to keep up with your spirit, and keep dreaming big.

It’s those campaigns that are able to resonate on a deeper level, beyond the CNY family dinner cliches, that have little risk of appearing tone deaf, because they portray timeless and timely cultural nuances in a respectful way.

Unfortunately, beyond some outliers, so far I have mainly seen rabbit IP collaborations, from Roger Rabbit to White Rabbit, hardly inspiring because they’re not grounded in any deeper insight. Although these campaigns don’t pose any risk to appear tone deaf, they risk being instantly forgotten.

The Shanghai.Monks have worked with Polestar, Bottega Veneta, Celine and many others on their CNY campaigns this year. We didn’t have to rethink these campaigns due to the sudden shift in Covid policy, as they are grounded in insights and brand truths that resonate beyond these uncertain times. For example, for our sustainability-driven EV brand client Polestar we created a CNY campaign that played on the fact that the sheer volume of waste from Chinese New Year decorations could cover the capital city in its entirety. Hence we created a zero-waste campaign, including the world's first red envelope that literally disappears after use, inspiring consumers to celebrate a festival which is all about ‘more’ with ‘less’, without being any less festive.

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