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Opinion and Insight

What Does Lunar New Year Really Mean to Agencies Across Asia?

From Korea to Malaysia, industry experts give us the insight into the nuances across the region

What Does Lunar New Year Really Mean to Agencies Across Asia?

People in the West might know it best as Chinese New Year, but the Lunar New Year is a big deal across much of East and South-East Asia. Like many festivals around the world, it’s an occasion that advertisers pile resources into to associate themselves with the holiday. But what are the biggest concerns for these brands and their advertising agencies across the varying cultures that the festival spans?

LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to industry leaders in the region to get an overview of the unifying features and subtle differences between China, Singapore, Korea and Malaysia.


Gareth Ellen, APAC Planning Director and China COO of Geometry Global. 

LBB> Lunar New Year is more commonly referred to as Chinese New Year, and in the West people often associate the festival with China. When it comes to advertising what makes the CNY advertising in China particularly distinct?

GE> CNY communications are full of conventions. It is perhaps the most traditional of the festivals given its importance to the people of China so maybe this should not be a surprise. The challenge, however, is that we in the marketing agency community talk all year about differentiation and 'standing out from the clutter' yet at this time we all fall in line. From a consumer and shopper perspective all they see is a sea of red and gold adorned with the appropriate zodiac animal of the year. 

This time of year is one for sales, not branding. Most marketing sense goes out the window and we all march to the dragon's drum. For brands to stand out perhaps they need to help people get back to the true meaning of the festival and the benefits gained from small moments with the family. Of course, sales are crucial but without some balance one fears Chinese New Year will increasingly become a retail frenzy rather than a time of family joy and reflection. 

LBB> I wanted to ask about the tone and themes that you might expect to see popping up in the CNY ads - does it tend to be fairly emotional stuff around family and reunion, or is it a lot more diverse than that?

GE> From a shopper and retail communications point of view the family is the core theme we need to leverage. While there is a need for emotion our main objective must be to position the brands we support in a relevant and authentic way for the CNY festival and all its rituals.
A key point of discussion with many clients tends to be in making sure that the products they want to 'promote' from a sales perspective have an authentic place within the CNY period. Often this is not the case, especially when product bundles are conceived. There are however a variety of moments to leverage in trying to win consumers’ attention and precious Yuan during this period. In particular, these will revolve around the experiences of travel, family meal time occasions, and gifting. A good balance of emotion and festive benefit in these contexts can deliver success. 


Francis Wee, Executive Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather Singapore
LBB> How important is Chinese New Year to clients? And has the role of advertising during the festival changed?

FW> With 76.2% of the 5.61 million Singapore population made up of ethnic Chinese, Chinese New Year is undoubtedly one of the most important festivals in Singapore. Just like Christmas is to westerners.

CNY is also the time of year when Chinese consumers spend the most, which has propelled brands to pull out stops to attract those who are strong believers of ushering in good fortune during this season. Consumers want to have new outfits, shoes, furniture, jewellery and items preferably in red - the list goes on – to herald in the new lunar year. 

Over the last few years, more and more brands are investing their advertising budget into their CNY campaigns. Unfortunately, or fortunately, no one really owns this festive conversation yet. We haven’t seen a brand that does for Chinese New Year what John Lewis does for Christmas. John Lewis Christmas campaigns have become a highly anticipated festive treat for most Brits, young and old. And it has never failed to deliver a heart-warming story around giving gifts to someone special.

LBB> And how is the content changing?

FW> Most Chinese New Year campaigns in Asia are centred around the reunion dinner. And you can pretty much guess the ending of the campaign even before it starts. It’s high time we move away from clichés.

This year, the Chinese New Year campaign by Apple was a cut above the rest. It was highly relatable and deeply moving. One might argue that the ‘Three Minutes’ spot by Apple follows the traditional tropes of a reunion story. Yet, the touching reunion between a mother and son was definitely not the typical family dinner you would expect. 

So yes, the best way to cut through the clutter? Stop looking through the lens of tired clichés, and start imagining: what would John Lewis do, if they were to launch a Chinese New Year campaign in Singapore?


Mike Forster, Managing Director of Geometry Global Korea. 

LBB> We talk about ‘Chinese’ New Year, but how important is the festival in Korea?

MF> CNY is one of two major traditional holidays of the year in Korea where clients are able to focus on both internal employee welfare and business opportunities. Many clients that understand the tradition of paying respect to elders as a reaffirmation of family ties look to providing relevant employee welfare and creating stronger bonds. While most businesses are closed, clients with brands and channels that profit from on and offline seasonal activations can target gifting and the growing tourism demands. 

LBB> How has the role of advertising changed with regards to Chinese New Year? Is it becoming more prominent?

MF> Yes, absolutely more as the influx of international visitors shows increasing YoY growth since 2010. The latest 2016 data reveals Korea as one of the favourite destinations in Asia Pacific with a 34.8% annual increase of Chinese travellers vs. 2015 alone, recording over 8 million entrants. We believe the growing trends in Korean culture ranging from K-beauty to K-pop are major reasons for this. South Korea being reported as the most connected country in the world certainly helps get the word out. 

I'd also add that it’s interesting to see markets where celebration of CNY has been minimal are also changing in respect to the festival. In Indonesia for example, many malls and retail outlets will use the CNY celebration as an opportunity for a sale or to push premium and luxury goods. In Korea, it may be less brand-centric but the profile of the CNY has significantly increased within the retail environment over the last three or four years.


Shaun Tay, CEO of FCB Malaysia

LBB> How important is Chinese New Year to clients?

ST> During this time, people are on a spending spree to usher in the festivities. Besides special offers and promotions to lure consumers, it is also a great time for people to engage with the brand.

CNY gives brands a reason to share their stories. CNY also provides the perfect backdrop for brands to tell these stories.

LBB> Is advertising becoming more prominent during the festival?

ST> The role of advertising has always been very prominent during CNY. In fact there is so much going on, it’s hard to cut through the clutter. Advertisers have to find new and different ways to reach their audience.

LBB> What makes the CNY advertising in Malaysia particularly distinctive?

ST> As a multi-racial and multi-cultural country, the celebration itself is for all Malaysians. Hence, the message at the end of the spot should be for all Malaysians and not just for those that celebrate CNY.

LBB> Are there common themes throughout the advertising? I’d guess that family and reunion themes are fairly big? Or are things evolving?

ST> You’re right, most CNY advertising does veer towards the tried (or tired) and tested story arcs. Every year we’ll see a bunch of cliched ads on missed reunion dinners, elderly parents waiting for their children, flashbacks to happier times, family tragedies, lost love etc. Tons of emotion and honestly, somewhat depressing. That said, the biggest sin from most of these ads is a lack of connection to the brand itself, either with its values or its product / service. 
That’s why our RHB ad is first and foremost derived from the brand’s positioning of ‘Together We Progress’. That’s the story we wanted to tell from the get-go. The context and setting is CNY but the values and the challenger tone of voice is 100% RHB.