Why Nike Won Chinese New Year

For fashion brands, Chinese New Year can be a lucrative period; it is considered a lucky time for the Chinese to buy new clothing. The likes of Burberry and Marni regularly release capsules celebrating the new cycle of the Chinese zodiac. Red coloured fashions and accessories (the colour beckons luck) are everywhere in luxury stores and street markets, as are cute animations of the animal we’re celebrating that year.

But recent incidents have taught Western brands to be on tenterhooks when it comes to localized marketing to China. It’s seen as more necessary these days, but insensitive or lame attempts are often met with widespread online ridicule –often doing your brand more harm than good. 

That’s why it’s so beautiful to see a global brand nail it, as Nike has done this year. Nike’s release of a funny, quirky heartwarming localized video – their first for Chinese New Year – has gone completely viral. It’s not only being passed by sportswear fans – I’ve even had aunties and uncles in their 60s sending me the video over WeChat. 

The 1:30 min story takes on the annual gifting of red pockets or “hong bao” being handed to children by adults: taking us on a time-lapse over years of an adorable little girl who runs away yearly from a very insistent hong bao bearing auntie. The game of cat and mouse charts her coming of age into adulthood, aided by various pairs of Nikes over the years. The hilarious chase goes through cities and countryside over the years. And whilst it’s always polite to decline the cash, the gifting auntie nearly always wins – something those that grew up in China know all too well. 

Traditionally, hong bao are given from older generations to younger ones, and from married people to the rest (sometimes their elders) - with the last scene seeing roles reverse: the girl is finally married with her own family and holding out a hong bao to her auntie. The shot pans to her aunt’s feet, a new pair of Nikes on them, the challenge of a chase twinkling in the 60-something year old’s eyes. “Hold nothing back this year” motto comes up on the screen, followed with a simple Nike swoosh. 

Nike won gold with this genius branding - a mini-short worthy of awards, going the hearts and minds route, instead of a hard sell. What does this tell us about the vast, fast-changing China market? That localized content is best done by those that understand local culture and humour – and when it comes to fashion, sports and lifestyle; not everyone responds to white-washed glamour. The Nike casting is very local, as is the storyline. The scenes reflect a ‘normal’ China, rather than the shiny, bland aspirational route that most brands try to take. A nod to China’s modern lifestyle (a unique blend of tradition and technology) is worth acknowledging - there’s the reference in the video to China’s digital economy – and how family and friends (and even brands) now gift digital “hong bao” over WeChat. 

Years ago, I did my masters in Anthropology, studying Orientalism and Occidentalism in Chinese consumption. I know that cultural misunderstandings can go both ways. But it’s taken several cycles of trial and error for China-vested Western brands to realize that Chinese curiosities “through a Western-looking glass” are not appealing to the native Chinese. In reality, most brands still have little idea. 

The mass online backlash to the recent spate of fashion PR disasters has put brands on edge in China. Whether “lost in translation” moments or politically sensitive issues, wrong moves can deal severe blows to brands. Coach, Givenchy or Versace apologized for geographical-nation border mishaps on t-shirts. There’s, of course, Dolce & Gabbana’s infamous 2018 China debacle that spilt from digital to everywhere - all but closing off a once enthusiastic Chinese clientele. 

But the Nike example shows how to do it right, with style and soul. Humble, celebratory and funny, those 1:30 mins have done wonders for the sportswear giant. The brand has also followed up with commercial digital activations on WeChat – where typing in Gong Xi Fa Cai Nike will release hong bao Nike cash vouchers into your chat group- followed by a link to their online store. These brands might all be in the business of selling things. Still, it pays to realize that just like in European, UK or the US markets, trying to reach Chinese consumers through a gentler, humbler “us” “rather than “you” advertising narrative can be a winning approach.

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